Every summer I start itching to go backpacking, only to be dissuaded by too many occupied weekends and too much mercury in the thermometers (and too little cash to go somewhere cooler). Right now it doesn’t look like I’m going to be able to take a trip until September at the earliest – sigh. So I figured I’d share some photos of my last trip, which was in April in one of my absolute favorite places to visit – West Virginia’s Dolly Sods Wilderness. This was also the last time I used my D70 extensively, as I got my D300 shortly after this expedition and have barely touched the D70 since (though I’m keeping it as a backup and for use if and when I do more photojournalism).
Our group of four left DC late on a Friday morning to make the 3+ hour drive to the Sods. When we got close, we quickly realized that this hike was not destined to start smoothly. Forest Road 70, the main access road to the wilderness, was still closed for the winter (this was early April), forcing us to drive to a different starting location and make an 8-mile detour hike up FR70 to our originally intended starting point. Still, Dolly Sods being what it is, this was a more scenic road hike than most any other I can imagine in the eastern United States. FR70 is almost freakishly straight, and between the clean line of the road, the dramatically cloudy sky, and the peculiar flora of the area, I managed to take some interesting photos. As a bonus, since the entire Dolly Sods area lies atop a plateau, it was pleasantly flat and an easy hike – even if it doesn’t really look so flat in this photo:
We did the eight miles in just over two hours, if I recall, not bad time considering we had a couple relatively novice backpackers in our little group of four. The weather looked threatening, but it never rained and stayed pleasant cool the entire time. It was a good thing we made decent time, because we were already getting a late start – by the time we got to our intended starting point for the day, it was already 6pm. We still took a few minutes to enjoy the view from Bear Rocks – a huge rock outcrop that enjoys sweeping 360-degree views, including the Dobbin Slashings bog to the west and, on a clear day, unimpeded sight lines all the way to the Shenandoah National Park ridgeline to the east. It was crazy windy at Bear Rocks though, and we were already starting to lose some daylight, so we didn’t stay for too long.
After descending from Bear Rocks, we hiked just about a mile in on Bear Rocks Trail, where we then made camp immediately after crossing Red Creek, where the water level was low enough to make crossing easy. It was completely dark by the time we had dinner ready, and we retired to bed shortly thereafter. Sometime in the night, the rain came, but not too heavy, and by the time we awoke it had cleared up completely, leaving in its wake a damp, cool morning. We made a quick breakfast, broke camp, hiked up the hill, and before too long emerged on the wide-open expanses of Raven Ridge, completely obscured by a thick, clinging fog. It was beautiful. I hung back behind the group and took many, many photos, none of which could do the scene justice. Imagine walking atop a clear plateau, with nothing obscuring views in all directions except for a pea-soup fog. It’s an epic feeling. Too epic for a mere photograph, really.
Gradually the fog lifted as we moved west towards Rocky Ridge. The terrain changed once again, the trails got a little boggy, the weather remained damp and a little chilly, and the photo opportunities kept coming faster than I could keep up. I fell completely behind my companions for half an hour or so, enjoying the solitude and using the chance to take some photos like this one:
Rocky Ridge is, in practice, the western boundary of Dolly Sods, as the plateau drops off steeply to the west. The hike south along the ridge is one of the many highlights of the area, as on a clear day there are amazing views of the Monongahela National Forest. It is also a windy hike, since you’re basically hiking in the middle of the jetstream, with no protection from any wind or weather coming from the west (Dolly Sods lies atop the Allegheny Front, which is part of the Eastern Continental Divide). But the high winds just add to the feeling of adventure, along with the fact that the trail inexplicably peters out for a while on the ridge. Picking our way through the rocks, looking for the trail proper, bundling up against the weather, following pink USFS boundary markers (see the headlnie photo), enjoying the view – this is what happens every time I’m up here and this time was no different.
Amazingly, the weather cleared up for us as we walked along the ridge; the fog lifted, the sun came out, and we were presented with expansive views and a gorgeous late morning/early afternoon. We ate a leisurely lunch at a big rock outcrop, and continued our way south, eventually turning back east at Harman Trail to head towards our eventual goal of a campsite far to the south, along Red Creek and in the shadow of Rocky Point.
The hike down to the campsite was long but easy – all gently downhill with just a couple minor stream crossings to make things interesting. There was still a decent amount of daylight left as we set up camp by the river and ate dinner on the rocks. As we ate dinner we saw the only other hikers we would see all weekend, camping across the river from us, gathering wood for a fire. After dinner, pretty much straight to bed.
I realized that I have no good photos of our campsite from either this night or the previous one – usually I’m good about taking photos of campsites and gear and stuff because afterwards I find them interesting to revisit, even if they are totally devoid of artistic value. Perhaps I was spending a little too much energy trying to be artistic with my photos, and overlooking some of the basic memory-jogging snapshots I also like to have. A good thing to keep in mind on future trips.
It rained again that night, but once again it was clear by morning. Unfortunately, we had a vestibule collapse in the middle of the night, leaving one person with soaked shoes – ultimately this was not a big deal because we were starting the day off with a major stream crossing (and because none of us were using waterproof boots, which would have been disastrous in this case), but it certainly was inconvenient around camp before we got going. Said stream crossing was a bit of an ordeal, but we were prepared, each of us with one or two heavy downed branches to help us balance. I went first and quickly found myself waist-deep in ice-cold, fast-moving water, but my pack liner (and my DSLR in a trash bag) kept everything from getting wet other than my legs and feet.
I posted a better pic of the crossing in an earlier post to this blog; here’s another, less dramatic view:
After this rather exciting beginning, the rest of our final day was marked by lots of twists and turns heading up from the Red Creek valley, on trails I had never traversed before. We got lost once or twice, only finding the trail again after extensive bushwhacking, but otherwise this was a very pleasant and mostly uneventful walk, in an environment that felt completely different from the previous day’s open spaces and grand vistas. This day was like a jungle trek, through dense vegetation and over rocky streams that disappeared into small (and not so small) waterfalls only shortly downstream from many of our crossings.
But slowly, as we climbed out of the valley, the terrain changed again. We went from dubiously maintained backcountry trails to wide, smooth roads – most likely old railroad grades or ATV trails. These were perhaps the easiest trails we walked all weekend (not counting those first eight miles on FR70), a refreshing change of pace after worrying about losing the trail every 5-10 minutes earlier in the day. But most dramatically, the trail led us into the heart of a cloud.
We literally climbed up into a fogbank, one that would prove to be pea-soup thick by the time we got back up to Forest Road 70. I love fog when it comes to photographs – something about it just adds a sense of mystery to what would otherwise be mundane, everyday snapshots. Fog also helps isolate subjects, keeping lots of extraneous clutter out of a shot – in that sense it’s almost like working with an extremely shallow depth of field. However you choose to think about it, it’s certainly a fun photographic tool, as it were. The photo below was taken on a particularly open spot on FR70, but it’s not as if you can tell:
And thus ended our hike – my last outdoor expedition until September, and the last full weekend I spent with my D70. As I’ve said before, I’ll follow this up with some posts about the logistics of carrying camera gear into the backcountry – we did so very successfully on this trip, even following lightweight backpacking principles. Between myself and one of my companions, we had a D70, a D40, and four lenses: 12-24/4, 18-70/3.5-4.5, 18-55/3.5-5.6, and 28-300/3.5-6.3. No pro lenses or pro cameras, but I would say we got some great shots indeed. And had a great time!