Saturday and Sunday, Shenandoah National Park Ranger Steve Bair and I headed up to Dolly Sods in the hopes of catching the fleeting Fall in the West Virginia Highlands. This weekend was supposed to be "peak color" for the Sods, and I was hopeful the colors would be "electric" as they were last year. As some of you may remember, our trip last year was very wet, and the rivers were running at flood stage. But the colors were some of the best I had seen in ten years. It looked like this year's trip was going to be a repeat of last year's trip, weather-wise. Cloudy conditions were predicted for Saturday, and rain/snow showers for Sunday. We packed for winter conditions, and the potential for some wet snow.
But things turned out better - and worse - than expected. The weather turned out to be very good - in fact, classic Fall weather. A large cold front moved into the region on Friday, and the temperatures dove. On Saturday when we arrived at the trailhead in the valley, the temperatures were around 42 degrees with only partly cloudy conditions - and very breezy. That evening, as dark clouds interspersed with blue sky blew over the high plains, the temperatures dropped to 27. And Sunday was a repeat performance, though colder. The temperatures didn't rise above 37, even though it was around 50 down in the valley in Petersburg.
So we didn't see a drop of rain. That was the good thing. The bad thing was that 75-80% of the leaves were already off the trees, which was a great disappointment to me. I believe the very cool summer we had this year, linked to the very breezy conditions, resulted in premature leaf loss on the trees. Some color was still there, but most of the branches were bare.
A trip to the Sods via the trailhead at Laneville is always a study in "sensations". You can follow the circuit as we did taking in the classic river valley experience, the high plains, and the tremendous valley views available in select locations in the Wilderness. What better way to experience the best of what the Sods has to offer.
Steve Bair looks down Red Creek at the beginning of the trip. From here, we shortly started the steep climb up Little Stonecoal Trail to connect to the Dunkenbarger Trail on the Dolly Sods plateau.
At the foot of the Little Stonecoal Trail, we literally flipped a coin to decide whether we'd head up the Little Stonecoal watershed, or the Big Stonecoal watershed. Following the Little Stonecoal would be slightly longer, but would also taken in more of the plateau region of the Sods. Big Stonecoal was also a beautiful route, allowing us to take in more of the river. But Abe Lincoln made an appearance on the flip, and that meant Little Stonecoal, so off we headed across Red Creek, using my Reef Walker wading shoes to navigate the chilly calf-deep water.
As we climbed Little Stonecoal, it became obvious that we had missed peak color. Many of the leaves were off the trees, either due to the long period of cool weather we had during the summer, or the brisk wind that was blowing over the Wilderness. As we reached the intersection with Dunkenbarger Run trail, it was clear the color was gone. Around 75-80% of the leaves were already off the trees. Still, some color was there, so we didn't completely miss Fall.
The weather was brisk, with temperatures hovering around the mid-40s as we traversed Dunkenbarger stopping at Dunkenbarger Run for a late lunch. A steady breeze was blowing, adding to the chill in the air. Threatening clouds occasionally filled the sky, only to disperse in broken puffs with blue sky showing through - classic Fall weather.
Hitting the Big Stonecoal, we turned left heading upstream. Just before the trail crossed Big Stonecoal, we bore left through the open field and made our way through the trees to the edge of the open plains. Just before stepping out onto the plains, I turned to Steve and said, "Let the trumpets sound". And suddenly there before us was the beautiful expanse of the open plains of the Big Stonecoal.
We bushwacked up the river following deer tracks through the plains. My goal was a small campsite on the edge of the plains that I had used in the past. Sadly, we discovered the site was already occupied by two young men huddled under a plastic tarp to keep warm from the ever-present wind blowing across the open expanse. They were startled to see us, considering this particular site is well off the trail, and now apparently known to more people than I hoped. So we continued to the old designated campsite nestled in a grove of Red Pines, setting up camp in advance of one large group that appeared out of the woods. Our early arrival at camp allowed us time to wander some of the open plains and take pictures of the few remaining trees that had color.
Part of the old railroad grade through the plains took us to this beautiful spot in the upper Stonecoal.
Along the old railroad grade, Steve looks back towards camp located in the right of the picture in the Red Pine grove.
After snapping off a number of pictures in the plains, the late afternoon was progressing into evening. We went back to camp and prepared for dinner. And a special dinner this was to be, for Steve had brought along some venison and vegetables that would soon become a one pot gourmet dinner. As darkness started to settle over the Sods, we were seranaded in camp by the sizzling sound of fresh venison bubbling in olive oil.
Chef Bair works with care on the venison. Andy added a dash of Merlot to provide additional flavor. Soon onions, green peppers, and garlic salt were added to complete the dish. We wondered what the po' folks were eating that night.....
Darkness set in as we savored the tender chunks of venison and vegetables cooked to a turn. A 3/4 moon appeared in the sky as we lit the candle lantern, and Steve started to tell me about his NPS trip to Russia. (Thanks to a competitive human baking session in a sauna, Steve has apparently become an unofficial Russian...). By 10pm, the medicinal properties of the Merlot were starting to work their magic, and the wind was picking up, so we decided to call it a day and turn in for a night of blissful sleep seranaded by the wind blowing through the Red Pines.
Sunday, we broke camp and headed down Big Stonecoal and followed the Rocky Point Trail to the tremendous vistas afforded by rock table at the end of the ridge. The wind had picked up at this point, and given the temperatures and the exposed nature of the rocks, Steve estimated the wind-chill at around 13 degrees. Yes, it certainly felt that cold too.
Andy bundles up in the Gore-tex in this view looking south out of the Red Creek watershed.
Looking west into the upper drainage and plateau of the Big Stonecoal. Cabin Mountain, the western edge of the Wilderness, appears in the distance.
Looking east with the ever-present spruce clinging to the rocks of Rocky Point.
Another view looking south into the Red Creek drainage.
From the rocks, we bushwacked through the woods behind the rocks down to the Rocky Point trail, and before long were awash in people. I seem to remember we passed or counted around twenty, usually in groups of more than three. After two miles, we hit the steep trail down to Red Creek and threw down for lunch on the western river bank. It was certainly a lot warmer in the valley than it was on the rocks. After a foot-wetting crossing of Red Creek, we picked up the trail heading downstream and before long, arrived at the lower intersection of the Big Stonecoal Trail.
Looking upstream from the trail intersection. A little color was still hanging around the lower elevations, though we saw quite a few green leaves that had apparently been blown off by the wind before they had a chance to change color. The hemlocks are still healthy - unaffected by the wolly adelgid. We both wondered how long it would be before the pests appeared.
And now we started the sad walk back to the truck following the nearly level railroad grade out to Laneville. The trip was almost over. At the intersection with the Little Stonecoal Trail, we decided to stop and sample some small apples that were growing on a tree next to the trail. I pulled one off the tree and tossed it to Steve. His eyes widened as he bit into the apple. "Are they good?", I asked. "You wouldn't believe how sweet they are. They taste like Johnathons to me". And good they were - surprisingly good considering their compact size.
And so we arrived back at the truck and tossed the gear in the back. While driving out, I decided to take a detour to the overlook on FS 75 for a view of Great North Mountain.
Looking east from the edge of Dolly Sods Wilderness with the long ridge of Great North Mountain.
So another fine trip in the Sods came to a conclusion. The weather was tremendous, but the color was a distinct disappointment. Steve reports that the color in Shenandoah National Park should be spectacular this year, so in another week, I'll be headed up there to see if I can catch the color I missed in the Sods.Andy