A Monongahela National Forest Dream Hike (36 Years in the Making)
By Lauralee Bliss “Blissful”
At 23 years of age, Steve arrived in Virginia a transplanted New Yorker, anxious to extend his spirit of adventure birthed from various Youth Conservation Corps projects he had done, including leading tourists to exciting places within the state parks. Meeting up with Kim, a social worker and adventurer who helps youth in a program patterned after Outward Bound called Summer Odyssey, Steve and Kim formed a plan to take the kids on a 21-day adventure that included backpacking in the Monongahela National Forest of West Virginia. But the trip that began in the Otter Creek Wilderness was shortened by the twists and turns of kids who weren't yet ready for a long backpacking trip, and left Steve without the chance to fully explore the wilderness. Other trips over the years sparked an endearing love for the Dolly Sods Wilderness but left unfulfilled a dream of his—to hike the Monongahela National Forest from Otter Creek Wilderness, through Canaan Valley, and ending at his beloved Dolly Sods.
Now 36 years later, Steve’s dream of backpacking this route came to fruition. Together with his wife Lauralee, from June 18-21, 2021, they embarked on a backpacking trip that began at the boundary of Otter Creek Wilderness, near Alpena, and extended to the Red Creek Trailhead in the Dolly Sods, encapsulating the beauty, ruggedness and challenges inherent in the West Virginia wilderness.
Here is where this adventure begins!
Day One: Otter Creek Trailhead into the Wilderness
The adventure began at the Congdon Run Trailhead in the Otter Creek Wilderness at FS 303 with a friendly shuttle and equipped with the Purple Lizard Maps the shuttler recommended for navigation. The day was overcast, but no rain, as the duo plodded along the trail with Steve relating many memories of hiking with the youth group long ago. Otter Creek at this point wandered among green grasses in a tranquil manner, and the first river crossing could be negotiated with crocs. A connoisseur of maps, Steve diligently studied the Otter Creek version of the map, remarking on some of the whimsical quotes scattered within the map such as “Rivers know this: There is no hurry, we shall get there some day.” Winnie the Pooh. And a good thing as the next two river crossings bore the fury of Otter Creek rushing over rocks large and small, necessitating the use of trail runners with a better grip. After a good nine-mile wander along the trail that at times proved precarious with the way it hugged steep embankments, the adventurers set up in a nice wide camping area with easy access to the river for water and enjoyed a pleasant first evening in the West Virginia wilderness.
Otter Creek can vary between a quiet trickle and a raging watercourse.
Day Two: Otter Creek Wilderness to Railroad Grade Trail Shelter and Canaan Mountain
A four-mile hike remained to finish the Otter Creek Wilderness, passing beneath prominent cliff faces and up and over narrow trail with the sound of rushing water below. Seven miles of the Otter Creek Trail were new to Steve as he had not experienced it in his treks with the youth. All their married life Lauralee had heard stories of Otter Creek and now it was coming to pass. But arriving at the suspension bridge that crossed the creek for the final time, Steve found his curiosity fulfilled and eager now to see what the next part of hike entailed.
The hiker pedestrian bridge is a destination in itself.
Lauralee returns to the Allegheny Trail once again.
A swift trek of less than a mile along Rt 72 brought them to FS 244 and into the Canaan Mountain section of the national forest. This is a simple trek along a forest service road, not spectacular by any means, but one can always find value in any walk among wildflowers, butterflies, rocks, pine forests. With the pending weather issues, and seeing a shelter on the map they hadn’t expected to find along the Railroad Grade Trail, the couple make tracks for it. FS 244 emptied onto the Canaan Loop Road with a few vehicles traveling the gravel road. Meeting up with the Railroad Grade Trail, a short 1.5-mile trek led them to the idyllic shelter area, framed in spruce and beside a bubbling stream with easy water access. Steve found a pleasant spot to hammock while Lauralee set up a tent on a pine hill above the shelter. The area worked out well as multiple thunderstorms rolled through that night. Steve thought it apropos the quote on the map near where they endured the storms: “It always rains on tents. Rainstorms will travel thousands of miles against prevailing winds for the opportunity to rain on a tent.” – David Barry
A very appreciated shelter on the trail.
So many trails on the Purple Lizard Map...so little time!
Day Three: Railroad Grade Shelter to Canaan Valley State Park
Muddy bogs greeted the duo that made their way up the remainder of the Railroad Grade Trail to the Plantation Trail, reminding them of their hike in the swamplands of the Florida Trail. But in this they felt like seasoned hikers negotiating the tricky footpath, and yes, even the feel of soggy and muddy feet. Reaching the Canaan Loop Road once more, they take a welcome break in a pine forest at the intersection of the Allegheny Trail, and a wave of memories floods Lauralee. Back in 2015 she completed a wild thru hike of this 300+ mile trail—from the Pennsylvania border all the way to the Appalachian Trail. It felt great to be back on the trail and witnessing a much-improved trail and good blazing. After a little over a mile, the team scoots off the Allegheny and onto the Middle River Trail within Canaan Valley State Park. In the park hikers can resupply with food and find a bed or a campsite. The travelers bite the bullet for a room at the lodge with showers, washing out muddy socks and eating a big meal. Talking with the staff there, Steve secured a ride for them on the paved road section from the park to Freeland Road on the outskirts of the Dolly Sods for the next day.
This part of the country gets wet...very wet at times!
The long views of Canaan Valley are always stunning.
Day Four: Canaan Valley State Park to Dolly Sods and Red Creek Trailhead
After a ride with a worker to the White Grass Parking lot on Freeland Road, Steve and Lauralee hiked the near two-mile gravel road to the boundary of the Dolly Sods Wilderness. Another mile on the Wilderness Way brought them to a major intersection, which, after pondering the topography on the map, they decided to take the Big Stonecoal Trail to the Red Creek Trail. In no time the great beauty that makes the Dolly Sods famous unfolded before them.
Entering the Dolly Sods Wilderness from the western side above White Grass.
Dolly Sods is a favorite hike for so many people because of places like this.
At a trail junction within an established campsite, they ate the rest of their backpacking food while enjoying the stream flowing by, framed by tall spruce and blooming mountain laurel. The trail then turned steep as it descended a narrow gorge with the stream to the right in the bottom of the ravine. Now with the need to cross a rather robust and knee-deep Red Creek, Steve plodded ahead and assisted Lauralee with where to place feet in rushing water that obliterated the rocks within. After safely crossing, they hiked along Red Creek Trail and within about 1.6 miles arrived at their final destination—the Red Creek Trailhead.
Red Creek is a spectacular waterway to explore year round.
The exuberant feeling of a trip well accomplished on the trail they have now nicknamed The Bliss Trail is unmistakable, and rightly so. The bliss of nature found in the Monongahela National Forest will forever rest in their minds as will the realization that dreams can be accomplished, no matter how many years it might take.
Another successful hike completed - what's next?
Lauralee “Blissful” Bliss is a hiker, author and speaker, having logged over 10,000 miles on many trails, from multiple completions on the Appalachian Trail, to the Colorado Trail, Florida Trail, Long Trail, Foothills Trail, a thru hike of the Allegheny Trail, and just recently, the Benton MacKaye Trail. Lauralee is the founder of Appalachian Trail Section Hikers on Facebook and has spoken to over 50 organizations on hiking and backpacking. For more information and the Hiking Adventure Series, check out www.blissfulhiking.com
I held my breath with each up and down, stopping every so often to let out some tears. The creek was rushing and beautiful this morning. The sun was bright, the sky was clear, and the temperature was perfect. Approaching the finish, I couldn’t hold back the tears anymore. Before the last climb, I took one more glance at the water and smelled the pine that surrounded me. I will always belong out here. The forest took care of me this week, I will forever be thankful.