Blackbird Knob – Dolly Sods
This 5.8 mile out-and-back hike along the Blackbird Knob trail gives you a sampling of many of the beauties offered by the Dolly Sods Wilderness area. While you don’t get any high-up, panoramic vistas, you still get amazing views across the high plateau.
Fall is here! At least it has arrived in Dolly Sods. For those that haven’t been to visit out this wilderness area on the eastern side of West Virginia, you will be impressed by the terrain. I have read many times that the terrain and climate up here is more similar to Canada than the surrounding areas of West Virginia and Virginia. You will quickly notice that the vegetation is just different here – you’ll see spruce and conifers in one direction and blueberry bushes and boggy areas in another.
After hyper-extending my knee on our last backpacking trip, I was thinking another trip the next weekend would be a little too much of a re-injury risk. But, we wanted to do something fun since it was Christine’s birthday, so I suggested that we spend the weekend in Canaan Valley to enjoy some of the early fall color. The last weekend of September is usually the Leaf Peepers Festival in Canaan Valley, but we were hoping for some fall color the week before and we weren’t disappointed.
I feel it is necessary to put out a few warnings about Dolly Sods. First, the trails are not well-marked. They typically will have some trails marked at intersections, but there are no blazes on the trails and if you wander off on something that looks like a trail, you could become lost. Second, the road to get to and through Dolly Sods is very rough. You won’t see many Toyota Prius-like cars on this road. We approached it from Canaan Valley and there are some scary roads to drive up. You are on a road barely able to fit two cars with a large drop-off on the side. We were almost hit by some locals barreling down a blind curve on the road and they only missed hitting us by a couple of inches. The road through Dolly Sods is also extremely rough and filled with potholes. We’ve gotten a flat tire up here before and hope to never experience that again. You’ll need to drive very slowly and steer away from any potholes or sharp rocks sticking up. Four-wheel drive is not completely necessary, but it may give you ease of mind. Third, good maps are hard to find. As I mentioned on our Rohrbaugh Plains post, probably the best maps are available online. If you are looking for printed maps, we’ve bought quadrant maps of the Dolly Sods area from the nearby Seneca Rocks Discovery Center, but I’ve found some flaws with these marking trails properly (the quad for Blackbird Knob showed the knob on the wrong side of the trail). The online maps area also from 2006 and the quads are mostly from 1995.
For the hike to Blackbird Knob, we parked on the eastern side of the road just north of the Red Creek Campground area. You should see the large trailhead sign on the western side of the road just past the campground area. You quickly cross a boardwalk over a boggy area and then you will pass a large open area of pine forest to the right. In .3 miles, you will come to a grey sign that shows the trail goes to the left deeper into the woods. You may not see a trail to the left, but follow the sign and you will begin to see cairns that will lead you back to where the trail is more apparent. At .5 miles, the trail opens up to a larger field with nice views around you. The trail begins to descend at this point, but you will still see some views as you are walking through an open field. At mile 1.1, you reach Alder Run, which requires a small rock-hop to get across. You will then go slightly uphill through the forest again, but it will soon open up to more views. The trail then goes back into the woods and you will arrive at Red Creek at 1.6 miles. You will need to do more substantial rock-hopping to get across, but we didn’t have any trouble. The trail goes steeply uphill at this point. At 1.8 miles, the trail again opens up to spectacular views. You will shortly come across a junction with the Upper Red Creek Trail at 1.9 miles. Stay straight on the trail and you’ll duck back into forest. At 2.1 miles, you’ll reach another junction with the Red Creek Trail, which leads back to the campground. Stay straight again and it will finally open up to spectacular views. You are then making your way along the circumference of Blackbird Knob. Gorgeous fields with ridge views to the left give you many options to take in the sites. There are boulders on the hillside that seem to be placed by nature as auditorium seats to enjoy this area of wilderness. We continued along the trail until about 2.9 miles, when the trail was going to continue back into the woods. We turned back and returned the way we came.
Time for a few confessions. We had packed our bags fairly quickly to head out for our hike. I forgot to pack the lunch that we were going to eat on the hike. All that I brought with us was a small bag of nut-heavy trail mix. Christine has a mild nut allergy, so we were a little concerned about food. I remembered that I left some Combos in the car, so we were saved with that. But, I need to learn to be a little better prepared when going into this area. As I mentioned before, maps of Dolly Sods are hard to find and trails are not marked very well. We were surprised how many people just came out here and were hiking without maps. We ran into a few guys that were unsure of where they were going. I showed them where we were on our map and they said they would just go on ahead and hope they can catch a trail that will eventually loop them back to where they were. Not the smartest strategy.
We really enjoyed our trip to Dolly Sods to explore this area. Since we hadn’t received much fall color yet in Virginia, it felt like we had a private advanced screening of the color that we’ll experience here in a few weeks.
Dolly Sods is somewhat of a phoenix that has risen from the ashes. Its rugged beauty is actually a mask that belies years of abuse and damage. Until 1930, Dolly Sods was heavily logged. Entire mountainsides were stripped bare of their pristine, old-growth forest. The largest tree ever harvested in West Virginia came from this area – a magnificent white oak – about 1000 years old and nearly as big as a Giant Sequoia. Once the hillsides were barren, woodchips, fallen pine needles and small trees dried in the sun and became perfect fodder for catastrophic fires. Flames consumed more than 24,000 acres, scorching the earth down to bare rock. After the logging industry closed up, the government purchased the land. In the 1940s, Dolly Sods was used as a training range for the military. As recently as 2006, a significant amount of unexploded ordnance was still being found along trails.
Despite all the damage the land has endured, it is still one of the most breathtaking places in the entire mid-Atlantic. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that there is nothing else like it. We were lucky enough to visit this fall on one of those perfect, technicolor, early fall days. The sunshine was sparkling, the sky was crystal clear and deep blue. Already, maples were turning to flame-color and entire hillsides of fern were glowing and golden. While Dolly Sods is rugged as a whole, the Blackbird Knob Trail is gentle and without much change in elevation. Because it was an easy hike, we decided to bring Wookie along. He was so excited to finally be on a hike!
We started out along a clear path through the woods, but at the first trail sign, we became a little confused. The obvious, worn path led in the opposite direction of the directional marker on the trail sign. We sat and pondered for a moment. We consulted a map. We didn’t see any sign at all of a trail leading in the arrow’s direction, so we assumed a prankster had turned the sign. We took the trail a short way uphill before it dead-ended in a thicket of laurels. We backtracked and followed the arrow’s direction. For a short while, we were just walking through the woods, but eventually we spotted the cairn and then finally we were back on worn trail. This is very typical of Dolly Sods!
The first open view came shortly after our brief detour. From a pile of rocks, we could see all across the high plateau. Distant hillsides were already covered with red foliage. The open meadows were covered with crimson berry bushes and tall, tawny grass. We all stopped to enjoy the perfect fall day – I snapped photos and Wookie stretched out on a warm rock. After a brief stop, we continued along. A few minutes later, we passed a pair of backpackers. Then we passed three more. Then we passed five more. Passing backpackers became pretty much the ‘norm’ for the rest of the hike. All in all, I’m sure we saw thirty or more people out for the weekend. Typically, I think of Dolly Sods as being rather remote and isolated. On this particular weekend, it was not the case. People were everywhere!
Throughout the hike, the trail passed in and out of trees and open spaces. We crossed Alder Creek and Red Creek. Both were running, but on the low side. I’ve heard that streams are often uncrossable in Dolly Sods in the spring. It’s hard to imagine that when you see them running so meagerly in the early fall. Red Creek was especially lovely. Tannins give the water a rich, reddish color. I suppose the name ‘Red Creek’ is very well-suited for this body of water!
When we reached the end-point of the hike, we stopped for a snack. As Adam mentioned, he forgot our lunches. So, he ate peanuts and cashews, while I picked all of the remaining M&Ms out of the trail mix. It was enough to tide me over for the walk back to the car. Honestly, it was such an easy hike that it really didn’t require that much energy. It also left me nice and hungry for an early dinner at Hellbender Burritos. For a tiny town, Davis, WV has two very good restaurants (the other is Sirianni’s Pizza Cafe). At Hellbender, I got my favorite Gendarme burrito. It’s basically a steak and cheese in a bowl – medium rare chunks of steak, smothered with grilled onions and peppers and then doused with queso. Yum! And even better (or worse… depends on how I look at it), I discovered Harpoon Pumpkin Cider. I’m a very picky beer person, but I really like most hard cider, and this seasonal pumpkin cider might be the best thing I’ve ever had to drink! Sadly, it’s very, very hard to find in our area. Even the local beverage shop can’t special order it and it’s nowhere to be found in stores.
Sometimes the tail says it all. What I mean by that is that on this hike for most of the way, my tail stayed nice and curled. When I get tired, it tends to start drooping like a flag slowly being brought down the pole. But I really enjoyed myself in Dolly Sods Wilderness. This was my first trip out there. Christine and Adam often call me, “Wilderness Wookie”, but this was the first time I have been in true designated wilderness area.
My highlights of the trip were when first reached the open field around .5 miles. I spread out on a nice rock, sniffed the brisk, fall air and enjoyed the views. I also really enjoyed eating a few cashews from the base of Blackbird Knob. Christine poured a little rock in a natural bowl in the rock and Adam gave me some nuts to help me re-energize for the return trip.
My lowlights of the trip were crossing Red Creek and the initial boardwalk. The boardwalk made me a little uncomfortable since there were spaces where my paws could have slipped through. Crossing Red Creek was a little more troublesome. I really don’t like getting my feet wet. But, I took a wrong step and got my front paws wet. I jumped back away from the water and then made a successful second pass. My tail immediately went down to let Adam and Christine know that I didn’t like getting wet. I don’t mind mud as much and my feet did get quite muddy along the trail. But by the time that we got back to the car, most of the mud had come off.
Going almost six miles is a little taxing for a pug. For some reason, I don’t see a lot of other hiking pugs out there. When we got to the car, I immediately fell asleep and was snoring loudly by the time that we got moving. Of course, when we got back home I had to strut my stuff and tell my brothers, Yoda and Mojo, that I went on a great hike. I’m glad it’s finally getting a little cooler again so I can get back on the trails. Wilderness Wookie is ready to do some more fall hiking!
- Distance – 5.8 miles.
(Check out the stats from MapMyHike)*
- Elevation Change – 440 feet
- Difficulty – 1.5. The trail is not that steep at all, so most people should be able to handle it.
- Trail Conditions – 3. The trail was in decent condition and was not overly rocky or muddy today. I do think mud could be a problem after larger rainfalls though.
- Views – 3. While you don’t get views from a big overlook, the scenery along the way is quite gorgeous. Open fields and views of mountain ridges in the distance give you a lot to see.
- Waterfalls/streams – 4. Red Creek gives you a reliable water source and picturesque stream views. There are plenty of backcountry campsites near the stream if you are planning an overnight backpack trip.
- Wildlife – 3. While we didn’t see any large wildlife on this trip, the area has plenty of wildlife.
- Ease to Navigate –2.5. As we’ve mentioned, trails are not blazed and only some junctions are marked with signage.
- Solitude –2. We saw over 30 people on the trail. Most of these were backpacking groups. If you go on a nice weekend from Spring-Fall, expect to see others.
Directions to trailhead: From Seneca Rocks, go North on WV 28 for 12 miles. Take a left on Jordan Run Road. Go one mile up Jordan Run Road and take a left on to Forest Road 19. In 6 miles, Forest Road 19 comes to a T on to Forest Road 75. Take a right, heading north on the gravel Forest Road 75. Drive for five miles until you pass the Red Creek Campground parking on the left. Park on the opposite side of the road where the grey trailhead marker is located.
* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.