Backpacking in Dolly Sods

Sunrise in Dolly Sods

Last October, in the pinnacle of my backpacking experience so far, H and I went on a three-day guided hiking trip in Monongahela National Forest with Andrew Skurka Adventures. We had been scheduled to go three weeks before our original wedding date in 2020 (truly a bold move) but the trip was postponed and we ended up going in October 2021. We spent two nights in the woods, wore the same outfit for three days in a row, hiked what felt like ten miles every day, and loved it! I checked off a ton of backcountry milestones and had a great time.

Guided backpacking trip in Dolly Sods

Getting There

We drove to West Virginia after work on Thursday with basically every piece of backpacking equipment we own and stayed the night in a motel. It’s funny now because I enjoyed the backpacking trip so much, but at the time I was nervous! I hadn’t camped more than one night before, and I was worried about being the weakest link in our group. I couldn’t help thinking about how comfortable the motel was compared to the tent where we would sleep the next night.

Friday

The next morning, I woke up early to shower, get some breakfast, and blow-dry my hair (I wanted to at least start the trip well-groomed) before we met the rest of the group in a parking lot. The early-morning mountain air was frigid, and I piled on every layer I had before I got out of the car. After everyone introduced themselves and one of the guides checked our gear to make sure we didn’t walk into the woods without a sleeping bag (or sneak in a clean shirt for every day), we drove to the trailhead in Dolly Sods Wilderness to start hiking.

The start of our backpacking trip in Dolly Sods

From the trailhead, we walked along the road for a while, then branched off into the wilderness. The leaves were already changing, which was a surprise since it was only the first weekend of October. Dolly Sods is already gorgeous, and with the fall colors it was absolutely stunning. The landscape was totally different from where H and I usually backpack—instead of nonstop forest, there were huge stretches of meadow studded with evergreens and crisscrossed by streams. One of our guides knew the area well, so he would stop the group to identify a cool tree or forage some berries. We made good time and by mid-afternoon we had found a great campsite in a spruce forest above the meadow.

We spent the rest of the afternoon learning about backpacking fundamentals like choosing a campsite and finding water sources. We paused when it was almost sunset and all scrambled to set up our shelters, refill our water bottles at a nearby stream, and start cooking dinner. Our breakfasts and dinners were included as part of the guided trip, so our guides had handed out the ingredients while we were loading our backpacks that morning. The first dinner was peanut noodles, which tasted much more delicious than I thought they would after being rehydrated like astronaut food. After dinner, we all got cozy around the campfire and listened to coyotes howl in the distance. I loved how soft the spruce needles were under our tent, even though I kept finding them clinging to my gear days later.

Saturday

Sunrise on our backpacking trip

We woke up early Saturday morning to a beautiful sunrise over the meadow, and the view when I went to refill our water bottles was breathtaking—the low-lying area near the stream was covered in fog, and the bushes were coated with glittering frost. We made instant coffee and cheesy potatoes, my favorite meal of the trip, for breakfast and planned our route for the morning. As we hiked, we saw way more people on the trail than we had on Friday, which made sense for a gorgeous Saturday in October. The group stopped for a compass navigation session, then put our skills to the test bushwhacking. H and I have only gone off-trail once before, so it was good experience, but it was way more tiring than hiking on the trail—I was constantly pushing branches out of the way, sloshing through mud, or getting tangled up in thorny vines. Between the heat and the exertion, I was ready for a break by the time we stopped for lunch at an out-of-the-way overlook with a scenic view. After lunch, we used a stream to navigate until we finally hit the trail towards one of the big creeks where we were hoping to camp that night.

Our campsite the second night was a series of little clearings near the creek with a canopy of deciduous trees high above us. Since it was getting dark fast, we set up our camp, clambered down to the creek to fill up our water bottles, and started cooking our dinner of beans and rice. After dinner and a recap of the day, we turned in early—all of us were exhausted.

Sunday

It was colder near the water, and even though I woke up almost an hour before we needed to start packing up, I still didn’t want to get out of my warm sleeping bag when my alarm went off. We took down our tent, ate breakfast, and got to the creek after a few minutes of walking. The view by the water was beautiful—I felt like I was in one of those nature documentaries where bear catch salmon with their mouths (thankfully there were zero bears). To ford the creek, we took off our shoes and walked across in just our socks. The water came up to mid-calf and it was freezing! I was relieved to change into dry socks on the far bank. 

After we forded the creek

Past the creek, we had a climb ahead of us to get back to the trailhead where we had started, but the prospect of a hot shower and a grilled cheese kept me moving. We hiked up a steep incline, then paused to check out the remnant of an old railroad track and talk through a few more backpacking topics that hadn’t come up on our three-day trip. Before noon, we were back in civilization! I’ve never been happier to see the car.

After our backpacking trip in Dolly Sods

Although of course there were some challenging moments, I enjoyed this trip even more than I had thought I would. I learned so much about backpacking, especially navigation skills, and I loved getting to know the other people on our trip. H and I are already planning our next backpacking trip, and we definitely want to come back to Dolly Sods.

Have you gone backpacking? Would you go on a guided trip, or are you horrified just thinking about it? Let me know in the comments!

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