Dolly Sods – Rohrbaugh Plains to Red Creek
This 10 mile (round-trip) hike takes you past some of Dolly Sods most beautiful scenery. The dense rhododendron thickets, unblazed trails, and rugged terrain will have you feeling like you’re truly in the wild. Camping along Red Creek is popular and can be crowded with weekend backpackers, but it’s still one of West Virginia’s most spectacular places.
Back in early June, we were at happy hour with our friends Christy and Brian. Over beers, we cooked up a vague plan for a weekend backpacking trip in late July. In the weeks to come, we added our mutual friend, Kris, into the mix and settled on a route. The plan was to take two cars, and do a trans-navigation of Dolly Sods starting at the picnic area and ending at Bear Rocks. It was about a 16 mile route with tons of camping options along Red Creek.
As it turned out, a heat wave settled over the mid-Atlantic that weekend. It was the hottest, most humid weekend of the summer. We still thought we could make the full 16 miles, so we met at Bear Rocks and shuttled in our car to the start point at the Dolly Sods Picnic area. On the ride, we learned that you really can fit five adults, five big backpacks, and one German Shepherd in a Subaru Forester. It was like a clown car!
We parked at a small pullout near the picnic area, and picked up the Rohrbaugh Plains Trail on the opposite side of the road. The trail meandered through dense rhododendron forest. A lot of the rhododendron was Rosebay near the peak of its bloom. So pretty! The air was thick, still, and heavy with humidity. It felt like walking through the jungle. At one point, Kris said, “I feel like we might see monkeys!’
The trails in Dolly Sods are well-traveled but very lightly maintained. There are no blazes. The only wayfinding signs are at trail junctions. There are lots of rocks, blowdowns, and mud pits to navigate. Even though the area is complete wilderness, the high traffic through the area keeps the trails apparent and fairly easy to follow.
We walked the Rohrbaugh Plains trail for about 2.5 miles before reaching the spectacular viewpoint off Rohrbaugh Cliffs. The area is near and dear to my heart because it was one of the first places I ever camped in the backcountry. The cliffs offer great views across the valley to the Lions Head (another popular rocky outcropping in Dolly Sods) and down into the Red Creek basin. Just past the cliffs, there is a patch of open forest with space for many tents. It’s still one of the most beautiful campsites I’ve ever had the pleasure of staying at.
We decided to take a lunch break at the cliffs. At first, the breeze across the open terrain felt nice. Maybe the heat wasn’t so bad? But after a few minutes of sitting in the direct sun, we were all pretty hot. I could feel my shoulders starting to burn. After lunch, we packed up and continued another .6 mile down the Rohrbaugh Plains Trail. At 3.1 miles, we passed the junction with the Wildlife Trail. We stayed to the left, continuing on the Rohrbaugh Plains trail.
We passed a small (mostly dry) waterfall and crossed over some extremely rocky footing. At 3.5 miles the Rohrbaugh Trail meets the Fisher Spring Run Trail. We followed the Fisher Spring Trail to the left, beginning to descend for 1.2 miles. At first the descent is smooth a gradual, but it becomes steeper and follows a couple switchbacks down to a rocky crossing of Fisher Spring Run.
After the crossing , the trail follows the stream on high ground. There are several nice campsites at the bottom of extremely steep spur trails. A few sections of this trail are quite eroded, leaving the trail narrow and precipitous. Take your time and watch your footing, especially if you’re carrying a heavy pack.
At 4.7 miles the Fisher Spring Run Trail ends at the Red Creek Trail. We took a right, following the trail down toward Red Creek. In about three tenths of a mile, we passed the first of many stellar campsites. At the very first one, I thought to myself, “That’s a really sweet campsite. I wouldn’t mind sleeping here!’
Our group decided to take a break and discuss camping plans and how much of the route we wanted to cover on day one of our trip. We all agreed that we were pretty hot, the campsite was ideal, and Red Creek looked really inviting. We figured on day two, we could either hike 11 miles or hike out the way we came in and make our trip a short 10-mile out-and-back.
Adam and I explored several more campsites along the stream before agreeing that the very first site was the prettiest and most private. There was easily space for four tents. The ground was flat and clear. We had easy access to water. We even had a large fire pit with a stone couch someone had constructed. We all unpacked and set up camp. Maia, our friends’ German Shepherd, supervised the operations. She was on her first backpacking trip ever, and she took to it like a pro!
It was only around 2:30, so most of us spent the entire afternoon swimming and playing in Red Creek. The water was so cold and refreshing. The small rapids and waterfalls felt like hydrotherapy for our hot, tired muscles. Adam opted to restock everyone’s water and read a book at camp, but even he enjoyed splashing in the cold water near camp.
Around 5:00 we decided to get dinner started. Everyone brought their own dinner, but Christy and Brian brought a shared dessert – Rocky Road pudding. Kris contributed a two-bottle capacity bag of wine to the feast. After dinner we played cards and sat around our campfire. Even at 9:00 p.m., it was still 75 degrees. That’s unusually warm for Dolly Sods at night!
Around 10:00 we let the fire die down, and everyone started retreating to their tents. Adam and I opted to leave the rain fly off in hopes that it would keep us cooler. Honestly, it didn’t really cool off until sometime around 3:00 a.m. It was a steamy night and I was very glad to have left my sleeping bag home in favor of a light summer quilt. I enjoyed falling asleep to the sound of the running stream. Any time I woke up during the night, I took a moment to marvel at the brilliance and magnitude of the stars in the sky. It’s such a gift to be able to visit places like this and have good friends to share the experience. I felt so fortunate that night in my tent.
The next morning we awoke at daybreak. We thought Maia would have woken up the group, but she was a perfect camp companion and let us get up when we wanted. We enjoyed some of Christine’s homemade granola with Nido and then made our way back to the car. With a warm night and temperatures climbing quickly in the morning, we decided to get an early start to get back to our cars before the temperatures peaked in the afternoon. It is always uncomfortable when you feel like you never had a chance to cool down, so everyone felt hot within a few minutes back on the trail.
We climbed back up the steep Red Creek Trail and Fisher Spring Run trail very slowly as we were all quickly drenched with sweat. We got back to the junction with the Rohrbaugh Trail in about 1.5 miles and we knew our toughest work was behind us. In another .4 miles, we reached the junction with the Wildlife Trail and took a right to make our way to the Rohrbaugh Cliffs again. We paused for a snack and some more pictures from Rohrbaugh Cliffs, which is probably my favorite spot in Dolly Sods. Looking over the creek and seeing nothing but mountains around you is a scene that begs you to pause and appreciate nature.
With the strong sun beating down, we decided to press on and continue our journey back to the car. We made our way back fairly quickly, passing by a group of about 10 women that were enjoying the weekend as well. We got back to our car just a bit before lunch and carpooled Christy, Brian, and Maia back to their car. We had a great adventure together and we were really glad to share this amazing piece of wilderness. We parted ways with Christy and Brian, and Christine, Kris, and I headed to Lost River Brewing Company in Wardensville, WV for some celebratory beers and food. It was a great trip, but we vowed to return when it isn’t the hottest weekend of the year to do the traverse across Dolly Sods like we originally planned.
- Distance – 10 miles
(Check out the stats from Map My Hike [Day One] [Day Two])*
- Elevation Change – 1480 feet
- Difficulty – 3. The elevation gain/loss is moderate, but the rugged nature of the footing adds difficulty to this route.
- Trail Conditions – 2. Trails are unblazed. Be prepared for mud, blowdowns, and lots of rocks.
- Views – 5. The view from Rohrbaugh Cliffs is pretty spectacular!
- Waterfalls/streams – 5. You will want to spend all day enjoying the beautiful rapids and waterfalls along Red Creek. This is some of the best stream swimming in West Virginia.
- Wildlife – 2. We saw a white tail doe with two fawns on the drive in, but generally the woods were quiet and we didn’t feel like there was much wildlife in the camping area.
- Ease to Navigate – 2. There are no blazes, but junctions were marked, and the trail was generally easy to follow. Navigation gets trickier near Red Creek where you depend on cairns to mark stream crossings.
- Solitude – 3. This is tough to call! We saw almost nobody on the trail when we were hiking, but there were many people camped along Red Creek.
* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.
Directions to trailhead: GPS Coordinates for Parking are 38.962019, -79.355024. 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 Forest Road 75. Drive for about eight miles until you reach the Dolly Sods Picnic Area. The Rohrbaugh Plains Trailhead will be across the road from the picnic area.