A Family Affair: Backpacking West Virginia’s Dolly Sods Wilderness

I love the outdoors and back in the early Spring, I had a mild freakout when I looked at my calendar and saw that most of our summer weekends were already booked with dance competitions, swim meets, and birthday parties. That just wouldn’t do. Luckily, the first weekend of June was miraculously blank so I immediately announced to the fam that we should go backpacking then.

My wife and I are big backpackers. Before kids, we’d done Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Glacier, and even hiked the Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier (which, at 11 days, still holds my personal record for consecutive number of days without a shower.) We’ve taken our two kids (ages 8 and 11) on a couple of short trips – one night “out and backs” to get them out into the woods. But this year, I wanted to kick it up a notch.Backpacking with children is both inspiring and terrorizing. It’s intense family time – being together 24 hours a day and sharing a single tent for the night. Repeatedly being asked “are we there yet?” is annoying in the car, but it’s exponentially worse on a trail in the middle of nowhere. Nonetheless, watching our kids explore, overcome obstacles (or fears) and discover new things is pure family gold.

For our destination, I chose Dolly Sods Wilderness Area in West Virginia because it’s about the most amazing place within 3 hours of Washington, DC. It’s a rugged, primitive area in Monongahela National Forest with no cell signal and no trail markings, other than signs at trail intersections. The US Forest Service has a great map here.Knowing the Sods pretty well, I concentrated on mapping out a good route that would maximize the family fun. We were going for a three-day weekend, so I opted for a nice “lollipop” loop – a hike in and then a circuit loop.

Work, kids’ dance practice and various other commitments leading up to getaway day made packing a frantic last-minute stressfest. We forgot eating utensils and some of our toothbrushes, but each kid managed to bring a stuffed animal. We got a late start but several hours later we pulled off of Forest Road 75 in a cloud of dust at the Fisher Spring Run trailhead, ready to rock.After a group selfie at the trailhead, we cheerfully headed into a lush, green wilderness. The first lesson we learned was to keep a deliberate single file hiking order of kid, parent, kid, parent. This prevents the two siblings from fighting and makes sure that a parent is always last (to make sure nobody falls behind and to watch for dropped items, etc.). I haven’t the slightest idea what to do if you have more than two kids – good luck!

Fisher Spring Run trail is 2.5 miles almost entirely downhill, and includes a few stream crossings. After the final (and most challenging) crossing, a series of switchbacks carried us down toward Red Creek. I had planned to make camp here and we were in luck – a nice, spacious campsite right on the banks of the creek was waiting for us.We set to work pitching the tent, stringing a hammock, filtering water, and gathering firewood. A series of rapids that ended in a four-foot cascade provided great ambient noise, which would drown out any bumps in the night that might scare the kids. Literally the perfect spot for our basecamp.

Our daughter, the family fire-making expert, diligently consolidated piles of different sizes of kindling for the fire. My wife set up the sleeping bags and pads and generally made our tent organized and livable, while I got our dinner ready. Our son hung out in the hammock. Everyone was assuming their normal family roles.We had a big day of hiking ahead of us the next day, so after a dinner of hot dogs and s’mores, we ushered the kids into the tent, hung the food (there are black bears in the Sods) and settled down to bed.A crisp, beautiful morning greeted us the next day. We ate bagels and oatmeal for breakfast, then packed lunch, snacks, and water into two small daypacks and stowed the rest of our gear in the tent for the day. We set off on our six-mile circuit hike, heading south and following the creek downstream.

A half mile later, the Fisher Spring Run trail ended at an intersection with the Red Creek trail. The trail descended to the banks of the creek, where several nice campsites were located. Needing to cross the creek, we scouted for the best place. I approached a young couple who had camped the night there and asked where the best place to cross was. They shrugged. “You’re probably going to get your feet wet no matter what.”The last thing I wanted was two kids starting off the day with wet shoes. I was wearing trail running shoes with wool socks and silk liners, so I wasn’t worried about wet feet. I announced that I was opening the Daddy ferry service, and carried each kid (one at a time) across the shin-deep water to the other side. There’s something inherently paternal about sacrificing yourself for your family – I was happy to do it.

Once across, the trail headed north along an old uphill railroad grade. After about half a mile, we reached the intersection of the aptly named Rocky Point trail. This would take us to a favorite spot in the Sods – Lions Head. Lions Head is a rock outcropping that looks strikingly like its namesake. There is some mystique around it because it’s hard to find. In fact, I’d been here before looking for it and come away empty-handed.This time I was determined. We stopped for lunch near a small cairn of rocks where the trail bends around Breathed Mountain – I suspected the cairn marked the area to climb up to Lions Head. We scrambled up a rock face, our son fighting to overcome his fear of heights. We were rewarded with a stunning view of the valley.

Following several more cairns we picked up a faint trail through a stand of trees, then emerged to an open area with large rocky bluffs. We stared at each bluff to determine whether it looked enough like a lion to be what we were searching for. Finally, after working our way around to the right, we saw it. Well worth the side trip – it was majestic on a beautiful, sunny day!

We scampered back down to the trail with a triumphant feeling and some sweet pictures. Feeling proud of ourselves, we gave directions to several other hikers we met on the trail, who were looking for the elusive Lions Head themselves.At the end of the Rocky Point trail, the Big Stonecoal trail led us a mile downhill back to Red Creek. We took a break at a beautiful spot on a small peninsula between Stonecoal Run and Red Creek. It was early afternoon and pretty warm, so the kids took off their shoes and waded around in the creek. I scouted a place where we could rock-hop to cross the creek so everyone put their shoes back on and we set off. Of course, the boy fell in.

Once we got across, we passed several nice campsites and headed northeast along Red Creek trail towards our camp, which was still about a mile and a half away. Along the way, we passed picturesque waterfalls on two separate streams flowing into Red Creek. I felt a little like we were on the Forest Moon of Endor from Return of the Jedi. The landscape was incredibly lush and green.We were just starting to run out of steam when we made it back to our campsite. Our son assumed his spot in the hammock and the rest of us started getting camp set up again. Before dinner, the kids and I hiked up the creek a bit and discovered a new waterfall, complete with a sweet swimming hole. Not able to resist the temptation, we jumped in – even though it was starting to cool off.

We boiled water for our camp meal of pad thai and soup. Since we had forgotten utensils, we fashioned some twigs into chopsticks and did our best to make a spoon, too. You have to be resourceful in the wilderness.The next morning we were all a bit stiff and sore. The hike out was slower than the hike in, but we made it back to the trailhead in one piece. An hour later we stopped for a late lunch at Star Mercantile, an old-timey general store in Wardensville. We headed home with full stomachs and full hearts, already plotting our next adventure.

Places to Go, Things to See: