Hiking Dolly Sods/Lions Head

Dolly Sods Wilderness WV

Three days and two nights in the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area over spring break turned out to be a fantastic WV mini-vacation! The incredible thing about Dolly Sods is how varied the terrain becomes over the course of a 20 mile loop — meadows, forests, rock scrambles, crashing waterfalls, jungle-like greenery, marshy bogs. We walked through just about everything but desert in just 3 days.

HIKE INFO

hiked on 16-18 April 2017
Dolly Sods Wilderness Area
24ish  miles (with some back-tracking)
difficulty rating, access information, terrain map & more:  Hiking Upward Link

dolly sods map
522 > 521 > 524 > 513 > 554 > 514 > 511 > 509 > 526 > 521 > 522
WEATHER/CONDITIONS

Seneca Rocks, WV (predicted) 16-18 April 2017:

Actual:

Day 1: WIND! But otherwise, lovely.
Night 1: RAIN! (20% precipitation prediction became 100%)
Day 2: Rain in AM (played cards in tent until it passed), LOVELY in PM for continued hike
Night 2: Clear but very cold in the wee hours
Day 3: Gorgeous.

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Day 2: View into Canaan Valley — Look at that sky!
OUR GEAR

Fergus has a 70 liter REI pack. Henri has a 50 liter Kelty. We didn’t exactly plan to be “ultralight” overall, but we own several key lightweight pieces of gear (notably: tent, sleeping bags, sleeping mats). These items helped us stay comfy and easily divide our total pack weight so that neither of us carried more than 18% of our respective body weight. Henri’s pack came in at about 11.5 kg (25 lbs) with 3 liters of water in a Camelbak. Fergus’ pack, also with water and with tent strapped to it, weighed about 15.4 kg (34 lbs).

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“Things Organized Neatly”

We used just about everything we packed, given the changes in weather and temperature over the 3 days. Really, in reflecting, we couldn’t come up with much that we would have left behind if we did this trip again (except Fergus’ stupid Javadrip…but that didn’t really add weight). What we would add: One more pair of dry socks, each.

Stand-Out Pieces of Gear — Stuff We LOVED:

  • REI Half Dome 2 Plus tent — Super easy to put up/take down and kept us dry even in a major prolonged downpour the first night.
  • GravityWorks Platypus 2 liter water filter system — We each packed in 3 liters in our Camelbaks, but then relied on the Platypus to filter stream water for cooking and drinking after that was gone. This thing was FAST and effective. We can’t say enough good things about it. Literally life-sustaining, easy-to-use, and easy to pack in and out.
  • JetBoil Minimo Cooking System — This has been a favorite of ours for a long time. Light & fassssst.
  • Backpacker’s Pantry freeze-dried foods. Light to pack several meals, easy to rehydrate, packaging keeps food piping hot. Plenty of food: when they say “2 servings” in a package, they mean it. Flavors & consistency very good on all the meals we brought. No ill effects in terms of tummy/intestinal trouble. Fergus is particularly a fan of the crème brûlée (yes, you read that right).

OUR HIKE NOTES

We pretty  much followed the Hiking Upward 3-Day hike plan, with only minor deviations related to user error. We’ve re-published those hike directions here (somewhat abbreviated and with Henri’s punctuation editing). Our notes are added in GREEN, plus our photos.

DAY 1

From the parking area on FR75, pass the trailhead sign and start down the Bear Rocks Trail (TR522). Note that none of the trails in the Dolly Sods area are blazed, however they are well marked with signage.

“Well-marked” is half true. There’s a lot of trail markings up to mile 7 of this hike, and then again after mile 15. Between 7-15, the trail is only marked at intersections. There are no blazes to let you know you’re on the right trail. Most of the time, this is not a problem.

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The Adventure Begins…

Mile 1.0The Bear Rocks Trail becomes narrow, passing through a boggy section and over a wooden walkway before arriving at the crossing for Red Creek. The trail continues on the left and climbs steeply for 0.2 miles then makes a sharp turn right into a fern field. Walk over another wooden footpath, entering a wooded area where the trail climbs towards the first meadow. Exit the woods and pass over the first open meadow. The Bear Rocks Trail will descend through a hollow and climb over another rise, then end at the intersection of the Raven Ridge Trail (TR521).

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Crossing Red Creek

Mile 2.3Continue straight uphill on the Raven Ridge Trail (TR521) then, in 0.2 miles, reach the intersection of the Beaver View Trail (TR523).

Mile 2.5Continue straight on the Raven Ridge Trail (TR521) as it leaves the meadows, then makes a sharp left hand turn into a wooded area. Exit the wooded area and shortly arrive at the intersection of the Rocky Ridge Trail (TR524).

Mile 3.8Turn left on the Rocky Ridge Trail (TR524) then, in 0.3 miles, reach one of the best overlooks of the hike into Canaan Valley. The next 1.4 miles on the Rocky Ridge Trail passes the area where most of the windswept boulders are located.

SUPER crazy windy the first 4 miles, and — at mile 3.5 — some brief rain. We found the perfect little protected spot nestled in some trees to wait it out and have a snack, then continued on our way. The “windswept boulders” and view of Canaan Valley are spectacular!

Mile 5.5Reach the intersection of the Dobbin Grade Trail (TR526). Stay right on the Rocky Ridge Trail (TR524), climbing over Harman Mountain, then arrive at the intersection of the Harman Trail (TR525).

Mile 6.4Continue on the Rocky Ridge Trail (TR524) for another 0.5 miles to the intersection of the Blackbird Knob Trail (TR511).

Mile 6.9Continue downward for 0.2 miles to the 4 way intersection of the Breathed Mountain Trail (TR553), Big Stonecoal Trail (TR513), and Forestry Road that leads down to Canaan Valley.

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Throughout the hike, intersections are well marked.

Mile 7.1There are 2 information boards at this intersection with maps of the area. Take the narrower Big Stonecoal Trail (TR513) directly ahead as it descends into the woods. This section of Dolly Sods is more wooded, with heath and sphagnum bogs. Pass several good campsites as you descend gradually along Stonecoal Run.

OK. So. At about mile 8, we deviated from the Hiking Upward plan (unintentionally). We sort of missed the part about “pass several good campsites” and made camp at what we thought was mile 9.4 (where directions say “on the opposite bank is a small campsite in a sandy area”when Fergus saw a “campsite on the opposite bank” with a sort of sandy-ish area. [We were actually about a mile and a half north of where we thought we were. But we were tired and it looked so inviting!] No complaints, even though the early stop made Day 2 a bit confusing (see below). They really ARE good campsites! We turned in somewhere between 8:30-9 PM, and the rain started shortly after…came down hard throughout the night and didn’t let up until mid-day on Day 2.

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Our campsite on night #1. At about mile 8-ish.

DAY 2

We waited out the rain until late morning, then packed camp just as it was letting up. We were prepared to hike in the drizzle, but the timing was remarkable. By the time we set off, the sun was coming out and the day stayed beautiful.

Because we had camped earlier on the trail than we thought, there was some confusion at the start of Day 2. We had crossed a little stream, thinking it was Stonecoal Run (see mile 9.4 below), but it was really just some little tributary. Not knowing this, it took a mile or so of hiking and back-tracking before we figured out that we hadn’t been where we thought we were and got ourselves re-oriented.

“This section of Dolly Sods is more wooded, with heath and sphagnum bogs.”

Yeah, true. It is filled with those things. What it is NOT filled with is any kind of blaze or trail marking. Between the “several good campsites” we were supposed to pass at mile 8ish and the campsite noted at mile 9.4, there is a turn in the woods that isn’t marked and is difficult to see. If you continue straight on the most visibly obvious path, you’ll walk right into a bog. (The worn footpath through the bog leads us to believe we are not the only hikers to have made this mistake).

The only help we can offer is (A) note the turns on the map even if they aren’t marked on the trail, and (B) before you get to the bog you will see a really big, twisted, dead tree in the forest that looks sort of either magical or maybe even sinister…like it really doesn’t belong there. The trail turns left just past that weird dead tree and continues up a hill through the woods for about a mile and a half. Do not go straight into the bog, no matter how much clearer that trail seems than the one going uphill through the trees (trust us).

The other bit of helpful advice we can offer: You will be traveling south with Stonecoal Run on your left (you’re on its right bank). The Hiking Upward directions don’t mention that you must cross Stonecoal Run to its left bank at about mile 8.5 — an easy crossing, for the most part — to continue on TR513. It’s on the map, but not the written directions. When they say “cross Stonecoal Run” at mile 9.4…that’s a second and more significant crossing from the left bank back to the right bank.

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Mile 9.4 – Cross Stonecoal Run. On the opposite bank is a small campsite in a sandy area. Continue downstream on the Big Stonecoal Trail (TR513) [on the right bank!] and in 0.2 miles pass the intersection of the Dunkenbarger Trail (TR558).

When we hiked it, there was NO good place to “cross Stonecoal Run” from the left to the right bank where the campsite is located. And, Stonecoal Run turned out to be a couple of feet deep. Maybe the previous night’s rain had something to do with that, and perhaps other times it’s much easier to cross. There were some downed logs that Henri crossed with moderate success (read: only one foot got soaked). Fergus just forged the stream.

We will say this: We discovered that you really MUST cross Stonecoal Run to find the trail and move forward. It’s not optional. You can try to follow a trail on the left bank, but it will quickly dead-end into the brush. Unless you want to bushwhack (we suppose you could), you need to cross Stonecoal Run near that campsite and turn left to follow the right-bank trail (clear and easy) for about a quarter mile. 

Mile 9.6Continue on the Big Stonecoal Trail (TR513) for 0.6 miles crossing Stonecoal Run…

“Crossing Stonecoal Run” again to regain TR513 on the left bank is not as easy as just stepping across some rocks or downed limbs, and you should prepare to get wet feet. We looked up and down the bank, but found no way to cross without wading through the water. It’s not deep, but it’s not dry either. (Note that this is the third time you cross Stonecoal Run to stay on TR513. The crossings are R to L bank at about mile 8.5, L to R bank at about mile 9.5, R to L bank again just before mile 10).

then entering a section of dense Rhododendron, pass a waterfall, and arrive at the intersection of the Rocky Point Trail (TR554).

This section of the hike is just GORGEOUS. It feels as if you’re hiking through a dense jungle. The waterfall is breathtaking. The views are amazing. It’s a great section.

Mile 10.4Stay left on the Rocky Point Trail (TR554), arriving at a vista to the south. At the point where the trail heads back to the north, look closely for an unsigned trail with no blazes and marked with occasional rock cairns, that leads left uphill. This is a rock scramble that leads to the Lion’s Head rock formation. After exploring, return to the Rocky Point Trail (TR554) and continue north towards Red Creek.

It was easy to find the rock scramble to Lion’s Head. Previous hikers had marked it by tying orange flags to a couple of trees. We figured it was either a warning to stay away or a hint that this was the right place. Luckily, it turned out to be the latter.

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The view from Lion’s Head rock formation.

Rocky Point Trail is aptly named. It’s not so much a trail as…rocks. Just lots and lots of ankle-twisting, foot-pummeling rocks with no real soil to be seen. For about 2 miles, the views are gorgeous…but those rocks are punishing. The trail then becomes a mix of rocks and soil and tree roots, which provides some relief but you’ll want to stay alert to keep from tripping, stubbing a toe, or twisting an ankle too badly. Note: Good hiking shoes or boots are pretty much required unless you want super sore feet.

It was along this section that Fergus discovered lots of WV ramps growing in the wild. A crazed ramp-lover, he was thrilled! Ramps are a type of wild leek with an onion-y, peppery kick. He picked several for us to enjoy at camp – raw, cooked in the JetBoil, and roasted on the fire. Turns out, ramp festivals or ramp dinners are a huge thing in WV in April and May. We’ll do a separate blog post to tell you more about it! 

Mile 13.2The Rocky Point Trail (TR554) ends at the intersection with the Red Creek Trail (TR514). Continue straight on the Red Creek Trail (TR514)…

This part goes UP. Not the steepest up we’ve ever upped….but worth mentioning.

…for 1.4 miles to the intersection with the Breathed Mountain Trail (TR553). Continue straight on TR514 and shortly arrive at the Forks of Red CreekThere are numerous campsites at ‘The Forks.’

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Night #2 campsite at “The Forks.”

DAY 3

Mile 14.6Cross the Left Fork of Red Creek and stay to your left as the Red Creek Trail (TR514) passes through a camping area then re-enters the woods on the left.

This crossing is much easier than the Stonecoal Run crossings from the previous day. Depending on how high the water is, you should be able to step across rocks to get to the other side. On this day, one or two of the rocks were underwater. Waterproof boots help. Fergus just took off his shoes & socks and forged the water. Henri rock-hopped with little trouble.

From this point the Red Creek Trail (TR514) becomes steeper… 

This is probably the steepest sustained climbing you do during the entire loop. It’s also very rocky…but also very pretty!

…until it enters the first of two large meadows. After passing through the second meadow the trail re-enters the woods and ends at the intersection of the Blackbird Knob Trail (TR511).

Mile 15.5Turn right on the Blackbird Knob Trail (TR511) passing through several boggy sections, then enter a small meadow and arrive at the intersection of the Upper Red Creek Trail (TR509).

Mile 15.9Turn left on the Upper Red Creek Trail (TR509), passing through several large meadows and gently climb towards the north. The trail will cross another tributary of Red Creek then end at the intersection of the Dobbin Grade Trail (TR526).

Mile 17.2Turn right on the Dobbin Grade Trail (TR526) for 0.1 miles to the intersection with the Raven Ridge Trail (TR521).

We read the directions carefully, but got caught up in the moment and missed this little jag to the right on Dobbin Grade Trail. We had read the warning in the next directions (below) and knew to steer clear of the Dobbin Grade to Bear Rocks trail segment…and in our eagerness to avoid that, got a little ahead of ourselves and accidentally turned left on Dobbin Grade instead of going right on it for a minute before turning left on Raven Ridge like we were supposed to.

It turned out to be a mushy, swampy, boggy mistake…but one that we figured out within .25 mile thanks to some industrious beavers. About a quarter mile along the wrong route, the clear trail turned marshy until we ran right into a beaver-created pond in the middle of the Dobbin Grade Trail. We could see the trail continuing on the other side of the two dams some beavers had built, but there was no way to get to it without literally going through the pond they had created. This made us pause and reconsider where we had gone wrong.

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2 dams blocked the trail with a beaver-created pond

If we hadn’t made that brief error, we would’ve missed seeing this even more spectacular dam nearby:

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Beavers. Dam!

At any rate, we quickly realized that we had been premature in turning left, backtracked, and found Raven Ridge Trail. Had those stupid beavers not blocked Dobbins Grade Trail, we may have hiked quite a ways in the wrong direction before figuring it out.

Mile 17.3Turn left uphill on the Raven Ridge Trail (TR521). WARNING: People look at the map and notice that following the Dobbin Grade Trail back to the Bear Rocks Trail is a shorter route. Don’t do it! The Dobbin Grade Trail is a boggy mess anytime of the year, and offers little scenery. Taking the Raven Ridge Trail (TR521) has much nicer views and is completely dry. So, after turning left uphill onto he Raven Ridge Trail (TR521), pass through several nice meadows and wooded areas for 1.5 miles back to the intersection with the Bear Rocks Trail (TR522) terminus you passed earlier in the hike.

OK, well, “completely dry” is a lie. Because of the rain the night before, lots of sections of TR521 were a muddy, mushy, swampy mess. Having said that, we’re pretty sure it was still much better than the Dobbin Grade Trail after the rain!

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“Completely dry” …

Mile 18.8Turn right on the Bear Rocks Trail (TR522)…

This is a  nice spot for a little rest before completing the last 2 miles or so!

…retracing your earlier steps through the meadows, crossing Red Creek, passing the Dobbin Grade Trail terminus, and climbing back to the parking area.

Mile 21.1Arrive back at the Bear Rocks Trailhead and parking area.

For us, it was more like 24 miles because of the couple of user error issues that included not only the map- and direction-following snafus but also…ahem…Henri losing the map at the big waterfall and again on the rock scramble to Lion’s Head…both on Day 2…and having to go back to find it. But who wants a hike that goes 100% according to plan, has no rain, and poses no challenge? 

TBT: Sherando Lake

Amid the Blue Ridge Mountains in the George Washington National Forest, Sherando Lake is the lower and larger of two lakes in a 24-acre recreational area built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the 1930s (history buffs can learn more about that here).

Sherando Lake from Torry Ridge
Sherando Lake from Torry Ridge

It is home to a popular campground with all the amenities for family fun, as well as any number of hiking trails nearby, including Torry Ridge. Today’s Throwback Thursday post remembers a fun, relaxed week of car-camping and hiking we did at Sherando Lake in summer 2014. Click on any of the images below to embiggen it or switch to slideshow mode. (For more fun, refresh your browser tab & the photos will rearrange).

Hiking Duncan Knob

Sometimes hikes don’t go 100% according to plan. This was one of those times. Still, we recommend this hike to most of our outdoorsy friends who have enjoyed trails like Old Rag and are looking for similar experiences without the crowds. Despite the unplanned bits, this stands out as one of our favorite Virginia hikes and we’d like to pair it with Strickler Knob as an overnighter someday soon.

HIKE INFO

hiked on March 27, 2016
George Washington National Forest, near Luray, VA
14 miles-ish*
difficulty rating, access information, terrain map & more:  Hiking Upward Link

*Soooo…when you read our Hiking Notes below, you’ll discover that this is one of those hikes where we sort of deviated from the original plan. What started out in our mind as an 8-9 mile hike became closer to 14. So it goes, sometimes.

Henri stands atop Duncan Knob, checking out the view.
“Pensive Henri” stands atop Duncan Knob. That’s Fergus’ trusty North Face day pack (he’s had & used for something like 20 years).
GETTING THERE

It’s an easy 2 hour drive from our home in Fredericksburg, VA to Crisman Hollow Road between Luray and New Market, VA, which is the starting spot for several great Virginia Hikes in the George Washington Forest Park (a particularly easy drive for Henri, who almost always falls asleep on the way while Fergus drives).

PARKING NOTES: So, Crisman Hollow Road says it is “closed to vehicles from Feb. 1 to the Friday before Youth Spring Turkey Season in April.” Two things to note here: (1) We did not actually know these parameters before setting out to hike, we only vaguely knew that the road may or may not be fully open and simply hoped for the best as we started out, and (2) March 27 was actually earlier than “the Friday before Youth Spring Turkey Season” in Virginia — something neither of us even knew existed — which began April 9 in 2016 (meaning April 1 should have been the “Friday before.”) To be 100% honest, we had to figure out if “Youth Spring Turkey Season” referenced youth turkeys, youth hunters, or both. Turns out, it means youth hunters.

This is all to say that the road turned out to be closed when we got there, anyway. We had to park in the little parking area near Story Book Trail, then walk past the ‘no parking beyond this point’ cable and up the road a good three miles before reaching our trailhead at Scothorn Gap Trail. So, 8 miles became 14 right away with this added walking there and back.

The reward at the top of Duncan Knob is a great view!
The reward at the top of Duncan Knob is a great view! (including Fergus’ feet?)
WEATHER/CONDITIONS

Luray, VA on 27 March 2016
luray-weather

This was our Easter hike for 2016, the first time in many years that we decided to break our annual Old Rag tradition and opt to try new trails each year on this holiday. Easter hikes can vary when it comes to Virginia weather. We’ve had some where it was close to 70° F and some where it was south of 30° F. The temp on this day hovered around 55°, with some chilly wind at the top of the Knob.

This hike rated super high on our "SOLITUDE" scale.
This hike rated super high on our “SOLITUDE” scale.
OUR PREP/GEAR

This was planned as a day-hike coupled with 1 night of car-camping at a Luray campground called Outlanders. So the hike itself wasn’t much additional prep than we’d do for an Old Rag hike or any 8-10 mile day-hike — day pack with snacks, lunch, water, basic first-aid stuff, and layered clothing in case of weather changes along the way. We only took 1 pack (Fergus’ old North Face) and traded off with it throughout the day (typical for us on a day-hike, really).

The weekend prep, however, included planning for & packing our camping stuff (including what we call the Big Tent, camp stove, camp chairs, etc.) in the back of Fergus’ MINI Countryman and making sure we had all the fun food and drink for a luxurious one-nighter at a campground filled with amenities (read: picnic tables, tent pads, toilets and showers). The Big Tent is an inexpensive 4-person tent we bought years ago from Bass Pro Shops when the kids were still living at home. It’s great for car-camping even when it’s just the two of us because it’s easy to put up and yet has plenty of room if we need to pull in the gear (or the dogs) due to weather.

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We forgot cups, but necessity is the mother of invention (and we hadn’t forgotten Rex Goliath ‘juice boxes’).
OUR HIKE NOTES

Here is where we tell you that this hike was super fun and offered a lot of beauty, but didn’t go exactly as planned. The first half was fine. We knew that we might have to hoof it from the parking area to the trailhead if Crisman Hollow Road wasn’t open, so we were mentally prepared for the added 6 miles that tacked on when we found it closed. When the hike immediately changed from 8 to 14 miles, we didn’t blink too much. The first three were just walking up a road to the trailhead, and the last three would just be walking back down it to the car.

The hike to Duncan Knob went without a hitch, also. The Hiking Upward route directions are perfect, and the trail is varied and interesting — with some good steep hiking, and several good campsites along the way that we noted for future reference. We really enjoyed the Class 3 rock scramble to get to the top, pretty akin in terms of difficulty with Old Rag’s rock scramble, but not the same type of experience/feel because Duncan Knob’s is more a big pile of rocks to surmount rather than boulders to get over and through.

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Henri heading up the big pile o’ rocks to reach the top of Duncan Knob.

We enjoyed the views and lunch at the top of Duncan Knob, despite some pretty chilly wind, then headed back down. The “fun” began when we reached the junction with Scothorn Gap Trail once again. Henri felt that it might be best to just hike back out the way we came in (walk back down Crisman Hollow Road to the parking area); however, Fergus noted the sign to “Massanutten Trail Connector” and figured it wouldn’t add any extra miles to go that way instead. Henri deferred to Fergus, who turned out to be right…BUT.

The return hike along the Massanutten Trail was beautiful and the terrain was varied and interesting, and well worth the time and effort. It included lovely views as it wound pretty steeply down to the creek. It was when we had to hike back up to Crisman Hollow Road that Henri realized the folly of listening to Fergus. What goes down, it turns out, must come up.

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This stream is a pretty feature of the Massanutten Trail hike.

The climb up the Massanutten Connector Trail to Rte 211 is steep. Had it been the end of an 8-9 mile hike, Henri may have been a bit less whiney about it, but facing that Unrelenting Up at the tail-end of 14 miles was just plain hard work. She says it felt like doing 30 minutes of lunges after running a half-marathon. Let’s just say that it’s very good that the trail offered so much solitude because some of the words coming out of Henri’s mouth weren’t meant for family-friendly hiking.

By the time we got to the Outlanders campground for our overnight car-camping, Henri was thrilled with our spot (literally right next to the Shenandoah River), but somewhat less than excited to find that we were required to park on a hill above the river and hand-carry our gear down (and then back up the next day) rather than being able to pull right up, unload, and start relaxing.

These are the moments when you know your relationship is solid. No matter how tired and grimy we were (and we were), no matter that the sun had set already…we sucked it up and helped each other take the Big Tent and all our comfy-camping accoutrements down that hill and cooperated to set up camp without a single fight. That’s love, people.

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In the morning, rested, we were happy to have tromped down the hill with our stuff the night before. What a great spot.

As it turned out, being “off season,” the tent camping sites by the river were ALL vacant except for ours. Henri noted that she probably wouldn’t love camping here during busy season because the pads are very close to one another. Unless we decided to group camp, we might not enjoy having neighbors just a few feet away. As it turned out, though, we had the riverside to ourselves. We woke up early and enjoyed coffee in our make-shift wine-box coffee cups (even when car camping, we sometimes forget stuff) and enjoyed the views, breakfast, and each other’s company for a few hours before tearing down the Big Tent, hauling all our stuff back up the hill, and heading homeward.

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Relaxing next to the Shenandoah on a beautiful spring morning.

It should be noted that we have learned a lot about hiking and about this area, in particular, in the months following this hike. There are half a dozen things we would do differently if we were to hike Duncan Knob again. Having said that, we both had a really good time and remember this as a terrific Easter hike.

OUR FAVORITE BITS
  • Rock scramble: always a favorite on a hike
  • SOLITUDE: we saw only 2 other people on the trail all day long (a couple of mountain bikers who were even less pleased than Henri when they discovered the steep climb back to Rte. 211)
  • Views!
  • Camping by the riverside and making plans to backpack & camp along the trail soon