Philpott Lake – Bassett, VA

For those that are interested in canoe camping, Philpott Lake in southwest Virginia just may be the best place to learn. This massive 3000 acre reservoir spans across three counties (Henry, Franklin and Patrick counties) and was constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (from 1948-1952)  in order to help control flooding from the Smith River as well as generate hydroelectric energy and serve as a place for recreational activities.

We took to the road on a Thursday morning with clear, blue skies. It was an easy, and flat 3.5 hour drive from Richmond to the town of Bassett, Virginia. Upon arrival to the lake, we were impressed with how clean and organized the park seemed to be. We stopped by the visitor’s center to ask for some maps and it reminded of very much of a welcoming center you would see at an Ontario Provincial Park. There were stuffed animals on display, with fish species charts that covered the walls. From the visitor center, we were at a great vantage point and had a beautiful view of the Philpott Dam and Lake, sparkling blue in the sunlight. We were eager to paddle these waters.

We would be camping on Deer Island, a spot where visitors can visit if they wished to do some primitive camping. In order to get there, we got back in the car and drove to the Salthouse Branch Launch Point. Here we met a friendly ranger and paid our $20 per night camping fee. We reassured us, that if we would need anything at all throughout the night, that there would be a ranger on call 24/7. We parked the car right next to the beach and launch site and began unloading our gear. Once again, this is a very well kept lake, and the launch site had every facility we could have asked for, clean bathrooms and showers, picnic tables, and water fountains. We loaded our gear off a small dock next to the public beach and set out for the quick paddle to Deer Island (less than 0.5 miles). There wasn’t a single soul camping on Deer Island so we took our time circling the land until we found a suitable campsite…..#20. The campsite was immaculate without any signs of garbage. Once our camp was set up and the firewood had been cut, I went in for a refreshing dip.

While we were camping in Virginia, my brother Brian had been on a week long road trip up north in Manitoba, Canada. He was driving home to Virginia and would be joining us at Philpott Lake before we all head back to Richmond together. He was exhausted from spending days on the road. At midnight, we paddled back out under a full moon and cut through the fog on the water back to the Salt House Branch Landing. We helped him load his gear and we brought him back to the campsite. The orange glow of our campfire guiding us home.

He was tired and covered in camping scars, after run ins with poison ivy, black flies and mosquitos. He was certainly happy to be back in Virginia, where they were literally no mosquitoes at our campsite. We were not complaining but we were wondering why there were no bugs. I wonder if this is due to the fact that Philpott is a man-made lake. The elements that make a natural ecosystem where mosquitoes would thrive are not there. I have no idea, but we are not complaining. No need for a bug shelter or even bug spray for that matter.As we cooked him some dinner, he shared tales of his adventures up north, we listened intently by the fire and our group once again reunited. The last time the three of us were together was one year ago, when we paddled our way through La Verendrye Wilderness Reserve, in Quebec.

Brian solo camping at Kwasitchewan falls, Manitoba.

In the morning, we paddled out to the access point for a luxury shower at the Salt House Branch beach. This was truly glamping. The washrooms at Philpott Lake, just like everything else was very clean. This was something I could get use to on canoe camping trips. It turned out to be a very lazy day for us. Brian was exhausted from his road trip, so we took it easy and explored the surrounding forest. We made fires from pine sap, cooked and relaxed. No ambitious goals, just us and the lake. Before we knew it, the sun was coming down, and the forest was cooling off. We went on more night canoe paddles and explored the other launch sites. We met a friendly ranger and a police officer and spent some time talking to them. The ranger was clearly interested in our canoe camping ensemble and asked where we were from. Turns, out that he had been to Ontario…. many times. He hunted and fished in the backwoods of Ontario near and was very familiar with Algonquin Park. Small world.

In summary, Philpott Lake is a clean, beautiful, and fun place for anyone interested in primitive canoe camping. It is the perfect place to learn all of the motions involved in canoe camping. The short paddles to the campsites make it very feasible for all ages, and the access to clean facilities make it seem like clamping. There are rangers and campers around so there is also plenty of support. The rangers patrol throughout the night at the access points to keep everyone safe. On a scale of intensity, this experience fits in between car camping, and canoe back country camping… although much closer to car camping. I would love to come back to try our hand at fishing the famous Walleye populations in this lake, perhaps in the spring time.

*As always, for all visitors and campers, please remember to pack out whatever you bring in. Please keep this beautiful lake clean for all to enjoy and for future generations to come.

Marmot Limelight 3P Tent – Review after 4 years, 24 nights

Once in a while, you come across camping gear that is so good, you can’t imagine tripping without it. This has been my experience with the Marmot Limelight 3 person tent. I bought this tent at REI for a trip out to the Grayson Highlands (southwest virginia) in the spring of 2013. Over the past 4 years, it has been with me on several canoe and backcountry trips; from torrential downpour in the boreal forests of Ontario, to the frosty snows of West Virginia, this tent has held up to the elements and more.

Design: For the amount of space and durability that this tent provides, the limelight is fairly light, weighing in at a packed weight of 6lbs, 11 oz.  There are certainly lighter tents out there for backpacking, but the ruggedness of this tent makes it ideal for canoe tripping. It is designed as a three person tent, although I would say it comfortable fits two adults. It provides 42.6 square feet of space with dual doors for easy access. The vestibules on the rainfly add another 10 square feet of covered space at both entrance points. Mesh panels, allow for good air circulation to prevent condensation. A footprint is included to protect the tent against, rocks, sticks, etc.  The aluminum poles are light and durable and snap together with no fuss. Over the years, they have taken on a slightly different shape, but this does not hinder its performance.

Setup: One of my main draws to this tent was the set up. It can be set up in less than 5 minutes. Enough said.

Maintenance: As with any piece of camp gear, taking care of your equipment will allow it to last for much longer and serve you when you need it most. As with most synthetics, your main enemies are moisture and UV light. Airing out your tent to completely dry before storing it back into its bag will add years to its life by preventing mold which can rapidly break down the tent’s fibers. Many campers will actually keep their tents and sleeping bags outside of their storage bags when they are not using it in order to prevent moisture accumulation.

SPECS

Best Use Backpacking, Camping
Average Min Weight 5 lbs 15 oz; 2692 g
Average Packed Weight 6 lbs 11 oz; 3032 g
Warranty Lifetime
Vestibule Area 10 sq ft
Sleeping Capacity 3
Seasons 3
Seam Sealed Taped Seams
Pole Type DAC Press-Fit
Packed Size 22″ x 8″
Number of Poles 3
Other Stuff Sack, Gear Loft and Footprint Included
Material Walls: 68D 100% Polyester Ripstop
Floor:70D 100% Nylon PU 3000mm
Fly:68D 100% Polyester Ripstop 1800mm
Interior Storage Gear Loft and Interior Pockets
Interior Height 46″ (at highest point)
Freestanding Yes
Floor Dimension 93″ x 66″
Floor Area 42.6 sq ft
Doors 2
Clips or Sleeves Clips

Excursions with the limelight.

Algonquin Park (2014) – 6 nights

The limelight on an island in Big Trout Lake, Algonquin Park 2014

 

Killarney Provincial Park, Ontario, Canada. (2015) – 2 nights

Setting up camp, on an island in O.S.A Lake, in Killarney Provincial Park, Ontario (2015)

 

Temagami, Ontario 2015 (2015) – 3 nights

We encountered lots of rain on our trip to the Temagami wilderness area in Ontario. The limelight kept us dry during 3 days of rain.

 

La Verendrye – Quebec, Canada (2016) – 4 nights

Our camp, atop La Verendrye wilderness area in Quebec, Canada (2016)

 

Dolly Sods Wilderness Area, West Virginia –  (2015) – 2 nights

The unpredictable weather at high altitudes brought us snow in the Spring time in Dolly Sods, West Virginia.

 

Lake Moomaw – George Washington National Forest, Virginia (2014, 2015, 2016) – 3 nights

Morning autumn mist at lake moomaw

 

Grayson Highlands, Virginia (2013) – 1 night

The maiden voyage with the limelight in 2013

Dan River, North Carolina (2014) – 1 night

Beach camping on the Dan River in North Carolina

 

Switzer Lake, George Washington National Forest – Virginia (2017) – 1 night

The morning after the rain on switzer lake, george washington national forest

 

St. Mary’s Wilderness Area, George Washington National Forest – Virginia (2016) – 1 night

Drying the dishes after dinner in St. Mary’s Wilderness Area, George Washington National Forest.

CONCLUSION: Overall, this tent simply works. It has survived rough, canoe trips in Ontario, the scorching heat of Virginia summers and snow in West Virginia. It does what a tent is suppose to do – allow you to spend as much time outdoors without worrying about your gear. It provides me with reliable shelter and a place to sleep so that I can focus my energy elsewhere.  It is light, sturdy, rainproof, and easy to assemble. Over the past four years, the limelight 3p has undergone some updates but until this one fails me, I’ll be tripping with it for years to come.

Return to Switzer Lake – George Washington National Forest, VA

Switzer (Skidmore) lake is one of my favorite places in Virginia. This sparkling, blue lake is located high up in the Virginia mountains of George Washington National Forest at over 2000 ft. The reservoir serves as the water supply for the city of Harrisonburg and is also stocked with brook trout. It is the perfect place to paddle in some of the clearest waters in Virginia.

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My friend Min and I have not canoe camped since Quebec in the summer of 2016 and we were itching to get out there. We planned a simple overnighter, despite the impending rain that was forecast to hit hard on our second day. No matter. Rain does little to keep us indoors these days. My brother and I have survived torrential downpours in the backcountry of Ontario in Temagami and Algonquin Park. From these experiences, I’ve learned that the rain can actually bring many positives experiences to a camping trip. For one, there is always an awesome cloud display in the mountains afterwards.  You are also presented with the opportunity to test the quality of your tarp setup in a situation that counts. Ray Mears once said if you wait for good weather to camp, you end up missing half the opportunities to get outside.

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Our last trip to Switzer Lake was in the fall of 2015, where we spent a day exploring the lake and surrounding areas by foot and canoe. Two years later, I can say that the region has changed very little. The roads have received a marked upgrade. They have been flattened and well paved, even now very suitable for a sedan to navigate comfortably.

We head out on a weekday morning when we knew the campsites would be empty. This lake can be particularly busy during the weekend, so don’t expect peace and quiet. The area is frequented by numerous outdoor enthusiasts, mostly students from the nearby James Madison University campus.

Upon our arrival, we spent some time searching for a place to camp and settled in after an hour of searching. We got to work collecting dry, dead wood, setting up the tarp for impending rain, and fishing and exploring the area. One of the most useful pieces of cooking gear up north is the simple grill grate which can be easily rested between rocks so you can have steaks anywhere you go. Once our fires were hot enough and we created a large enough ember pile, we put on some steaks and corn and listened to the sounds of the forest as we ate. Perfect. The rain eventually did come at around 8:30pm, however it came in intermittent showers and we were more than prepared with our tarp and tent. The rain scared away the last kayaker on the lake so we had the whole area to ourselves.

While you might not get the true, backcountry canoe camping experience in Virginia, Switzer Lake comes pretty darn close. There are also many advantages to camping here versus the Canadian backcountry. First and foremost, the bug situation is infinitely better at this time of year. May and June are peak black fly and mosquito seasons in Ontario and make canoe camping pretty much unbearable without bug jackets. High up in these mountains, the bugs were scarce and we came out with hardly a scratch. We saw numerous frogs, butterflies, caterpillars and hawks. I also sleep a little easier in the Virginia woods knowing that the black bears are generally much smaller. Overall, this place offers a canoe camping experience that can certainly hold it’s own.

*A word of caution, to those interested in camping, I have heard of several who have received fines for camping immediately next to the lake. Apparently it is not allowed, however there are numerous campsites just a short walk deeper into the woods away from the lake. I would call the local forest office before planning a trip here to find out which camping sites are open to use. 

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*As always, for all visitors and campers, please remember to pack out whatever you bring in. Please keep this beautiful lake clean for all to enjoy and for future generations to come.

Camping in St Mary’s Wilderness – Raphine, VA

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St Mary’s Road is very well maintained, with a parking area before the trail head.

Virginia offers a truly diverse landscape to camp. From the sandy beaches of the eastern shore and Chesapeake bay to the blue ridge mountains and highlands to the west. Without a doubt, one of favorite places to camp, is next to a gently flowing stream in the mountains. I was recently on my one week vacation and I knew that at least one of these days would be reserved for some camping. My friend Min and I originally planned on camping at Ramsey’s Draft in the George Washington National Forest however we were unable to find any suitable campsites near the entrance. Ramsey’s Draft is a beautiful wilderness area I have explored previously, where giant hemlock trees once towered by a wild trout stream. The only problem was the hike to Hiner Spring and the campsites was several miles. We planned this trip as a relaxed camping trip, with minimal hiking and mostly focused on just cooking and fishing. So, we cut our losses and booked it for St. Mary’s Wilderness, a place where I knew there would be excellent camp sites along a river bed. We left the canoe at home this time and trekked in the old fashioned way – on foot. The first day was perfect, warm, sunny and dry. It took us only about a half hour to hike in to the first campsite. It was a perfect site situated at the river’s bend and allowed us easy access to clean mountain waters.

This grill, used on canoe trips served as a handy tool to cook steak.

One of the most exciting parts of camping in my opinion is setting up basecamp. There are numerous factors that go in to creating a comfy home in the woods, albeit just a temporary one. The heart of the campsite, the fire pit is the most important part. Building a structurally sound pit that allows for cooking and efficient heat dispersion is a skill that I still build upon. Always remember to take in account, the wind direction, the location of your tent in respect to the fire pit as well as position of your seats around the fire so you are not downwind of the smoke. Finding a suitable location of your tent is also important. Flat ground can be difficult to find in the forest. It is never a pleasant way to sleep when you are sliding down an incline in your tent. Sometimes, you’ll also have to clear a suitable grid, void of sharp rocks, sticks that may damage your tent. Also keep it out of the way of any standing, dead trees that could potential topple in a heavy storm. The pathway to water is one that has to be safely mapped so it can be accessed at all hours. Access to firewood is also important and Min loves collecting and processing firewood, it is something he takes great pride in. A folding saw, and axe are two crucial camp tools that allow a members to live comfortably. It gives you the ability to topple dead standing trees, and also quickly prepare a stack of firewood to last days.

After developing a strong base of embers from the fire, we stabilized the portable grill into the fire pit and cooked up some delicious steaks. It cooked perfectly, and we served it with some baked potatoes. As the darkness set it, we threw more wood on the fire and spent the night chilling and catching up about our jobs, families and friends. In the middle of fall, I was surprised to say it felt comfortable in St. Mary’s Wilderness. We were in short sleeve shirts in the middle of the night. Camping in the valley provided us with protection from the wind and we were sitting in low 60s F weather.

We slept well that night, however awoke to rain starting at 6:00am. It continued as an autumn shower without any signs of stopping. We packed up our gear and decided to head home. It had been a long time since i had been caught out in the rain, camping in Virginia and although it can be a pain, there is certainly a beauty to it. All around us, we could hear the drops, beating on trees and plants, as leaves drifted in the forest all around. The river beds were fast to fill, especially since we were in the valley. The water was teeming with wildlife, brook trout, frogs, and countless crawfish made their appearance. The rain seemed to awaken the forest. Just goes to show you that if you only camp when the weather is nice, you’re missing half of what’s out there.

Lake Moomaw in the Fall – George Washington National Forest, VA

A solid 3.5 hour drive from Richmond, Lake Moomaw is high in the mountains near the West Virginia border.

The leaves drifting from the trees in the Virginia mountains, signal the end to another canoe camping season. Min and I decided to go for one final run. It was unusually warm at Lake Moomaw up in the George Washington National Forest with temperatures in the 70s F during the day. It  was a quiet couple of days with very little activity on the lake, and as usual we were the only paddlers on the lake. We had our pick of many campsites and enjoyed the peace and quiet. The only the sounds were from of shedding foliage, owls and birds of all types.

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Start of the paddle out to our campsite

After setting up camp, we set out to gather firewood. One of the things I like most about Virginia camping is the abundance of firewood in these deciduous forests. There were countless fallen frees in the area that were nice and dry. The area also appears to be lightly camped and as such we did not have to look far to find what we needed. The Wetterlings Hunter’s axe with it’s wider wedge, made for light work of splitting in combination with my Ray Bears bucksaw. It was also a great opportunity to put my Finnish blade the “Enzo trapper” to use. It is a full tang work horse and can easily baton through wood to make kindling and is sharp enough to produce fine feathersticks.

We enjoyed some Japanese whiskey and took in the autumn beauty, Min even had some luck fishing off the coast. Of all the wildlife we heard, I was most surprised to hear the distinct cry of a couple of loons. Initially I thought my ears had deceived me – I didn’t think loons were this far south? However upon further research, it appears that many of them migrate south during this time of the year along the east coast and through Virginia.

Min was nice enough to prepare all of the meals for the trip. We ate some delicious chicken breasts with rice and beans for dinner. Min actually pre-cooked the chicken so all we had to do was heat it with the rice in the cooking pot. There’s nothing quite like a warm meal on a chilly night by the campfire. We ate under the stars with breathtaking visibility. The photos I took on this trip are from a sony a6000 that I’m still learning to use. In the morning for breakfast, we had egg white omelettes with green peppers and onions. Cooking with the Trangia alcohol stove is incredibly easy and has reduced preparation time drastically.

The stove weighs practically nothing and the fuel burns efficiently. We used to cook by campfire however soon learned that cleaning the soot off pots and pans took way too much time, not to mention the constant tending to the fire to assure a steady heat. The Svante Freden reflector oven from Sweden is also a must on canoe camping trips. It has been a trusty companion and we used it to to prepare some hot cornbread using a recipe courtesy of Ralph in Ottawa, Canada (much appreciated!).

To me, Lake Moomaw holds the title of a true Virginia gem. While there are several campsites in Virginia with lakes, only here can you get the backcountry experience of paddling to your site and setting up camp, far away from others. I can now say that I’ve camped here in 3 of the 4 seasons, spring, summer and now fall. Fall just might be my favorite. Great way to end the season.

Switzer Lake – George Washington National Forest, VA

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A closer drive than Lake Moomaw, but less secluded

On the border of Virginia and West Virginia, at 2362 ft above sea level, lies the beautiful, Switzer Lake (aka Skidmore Dam, Skidmore Lake). The 118 acre lake serves as a water supply reservoir to the town of Harrisonburg, Virginia and watershed for the George Washington National Forest. When I heard that the lake did not allow gas motorboats, I wanted to go to check it out. We had actually planned for an overnighter but decided against it when the temperatures dropped.

It was significantly cooler in the mountains at approx 45F. We also forgot to load our food cooler in the car….. a small detail. Nevertheless we made the most of the situation. We met some nice folks from Louisiana who gave us their stack of fire wood after exchanging camping stories and canoe trips. We made a huge fire and heated some naan on the stones. It was a windy but beautiful day with the leaves at near-peak colors and the clear lake, sparkled in the sun.

For those who plan to camp here, Switzer Dam appears to be a much more popular camping location than Lake Moomaw (located in Bath County) due to the ease of access to the campsites, most of which are drive-in camp spots. The lake is also only 30 minutes away from James Madison University, and is a popular place to hang out. The lake is stocked with brook trout and the surrounding rivers and streams in the area also have healthy populations to fish.

I have heard conflicting stories about whether camping is allowed immediately next to the lake. I think the best way to find out is to call ahead and ask which areas are permitted. There are several campsites situated in the forest, just a tad farther from the lake that appear to be safe spots to camp.

Since this is not an official camp ground, Lake Switzer doesn’t have the benefits of regular site maintenance. So it’s up to us to keep this place clean. It kills me when I find beer cans, tin foil, fishing line etc at campsites. Remember to pack out whatever you bring in!

campsite

 

The Return to Lake Moomaw

On June 13, 2015, the temperature in Richmond was 92 degrees F. We needed a place to escape the heat. This was our chance to make the return to Lake Moomaw out in the mountains of Virginia, where it was 15 degrees cooler with lows in the 60s at night. Brian worked the night previously so we left late that Saturday afternoon. For this trip, I rented an Old Town Discovery canoe 15’8″ from Riverside Outfitters in Richmond. We typically get our canoes from the VCU Outdoor Adventure center however all of theirs were taken. This trip pretty much convinced us that we need our own canoe to avoid the hassle of rental and returns.

 After a quick lunch at the Galley, we hit the road. The drive into the mountains was peaceful. We were hit with intermittent mountain rain showers as the clouds came and left.  We could already feel the cooler air as we approached the boundaries of the national forest. We passed through gorgeous passes with streams that looked perfect for Tenkara.

IMG_1288There’s always an upside to rainfall, for we were treated to an awesome display of misty mountains as we paddled to the campsite. The sun was making it’s way through the clouds and the sky was clearing before sunset. We spotted deer as they approached the lakeside to drink the cool water. I had forgotten how beautiful the lake was.

One of the advantages to paddling in Virginia is the lack of mosquitoes. NO horseflies/deerflies either! Sitting comfortably out in the open without a bug shelter in June is something we did not take for granted. We parked the canoe and enjoyed  some Woodford whiskey by the lake.

The water was especially clear that day. We saw numerous motor boats, but no other canoeists. It seems like Lake Moomaw is used mostly as a fishing and motorboating spot for the locals. All of the canoes that were available for rent were still on the racks at the marina. None of the back country campsites were occupied so we had our pick. Pretty amazing for just a $5 parking fee. We camped at a new site this time which was very clean and secluded.

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The Trangia alcohol stove, produced in Sweden it was designed primarily for backpackers. I found it works well with the Emberlit stove.

The following night was a perfect opportunity for me to try out my new Trangia alcohol stove. I must say this little stove is perfect for canoe trips. There certainly is beauty in simplicity. It is built like a tank and has no moving parts to break. All you have to do is fill it with fuel (alcohol of any type) and set a spark to it. I find it makes the perfect companion to the Emberlit stove, a stick stove that I’ve used for a couple of years now. The alcohol stove burns cleanly with no soot to clean from your pots and pans. Win. With the simmer plate, we were able to grill spicy sausages to perfection.

I also had a chance to play with camera settings on the DSLR to try and capture the thousands of stars. I think it turned out pretty well for the first attempt. It was difficult without a tripod but this trip opened my eyes to the world of night landscape photography.

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Lake Moomaw star show

We took the canoe out for a midnight paddle on the lake under the blanket of countless stars. It reminded me of paddling Big Trout Lake in Algonquin park at 3:00am in September 2014. With the assistance of a small amount of hand sanitizer (awesome trick) to catch a flame to the soaking wood, we were able to get a rip roaring camp fire going.

We woke the next morning and prepared some breakfast once again with the Trangia. A simple meal of scrambled eggs, brie cheese, salami, toasted bread and yogurt with blueberries and raspberries. One of the perks of lakeside camping is packing a cooler. With no portages to haul heavy gear, we could bring what we wanted. The cooler is a definitely a luxury item on canoe trips.

Overall, the return to Lake Moomaw was a very relaxing trip. No heavy portages, no rushing and no real destination. Despite the spectular views, I do not suspect that we will be back any time soon. There are numerous waterways in Virginia that I have yet to paddle and I have compiled a list of rivers and lakes that I want to explore including the Cowpasture River (claimed to be one of the most pristine rivers in Virginia). I also picked up a copy of “Virginia Whitewater” by H. Roger Corbett off of ebay. Apparently it is a must for canoeists in Virginia.

We learned a great deal on this trip and left Lake Moomaw that evening with one revelation…..we must now buy a canoe. Leading choices at this point: Nova craft prospector 16 foot in royalex or the Old Town Camper 16 foot in royalex. Both beauties.

Dolly Sods North – Mongahela National Forest, West Virginia

In the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia, lies the Monongahela National Forest. The Dolly Sods (open mountain top meadow) Wilderness occupies a small portion of this area. It is one of the highest points in West Virginia and as a result the vistas are unlike any other on the East Coast. The rocky landscape, spruce forests, and sphagnum bogs is a scene normally found in Canada. Needless to say, when I heard about this place, I knew I had to experience it. I finally got the opportunity on March 22, 2015. I set aside the first three days of my vacation to explore Dolly Sods. I went with Min, an old college friend and the one who actually introduced me to the Old Rag Mountain hike in Virginia. I have been on numerous camping trips in all forms: drive in sites, canoe portages and off-road but never a backpacking camping trip where I would have to carry everything in. I knew that this one was also particularly going to be challenging with temperatures in the 19-22F range requiring bulkier clothing and heavier packs. We averaged just over 45lbs per pack.

The forecast predicted three days of clear skies however we took this with a grain of salt; the mountains were prone to abrupt changes. We started our trek that Sunday morning on the Bear Rock Trail. Walking away from our car and into the howling wind, we knew we were in for a tough trek. We were the only ones in the whole area, not another human in sight, and no other cars parked. Our progress was slow as we marched through boggy meadows and icy rocks. The spruce forests were like little oases, a place where clear streams ran and the cold wind broke. We met our first stream and took a short break to appreciate the pristine camp site.

We knew it was too early to set up camp, so we pushed on through the meadows and bogs. By 4:00pm, we decided it was time to start setting up camp in one of the spruce forests. The creek in these forests had unfortunately frozen over and we were too far away from the next flowing water source to make it in time before nightfall. We decided to set up camp and melt the snow and filter out the sediment as our water source. This was made possible with an axe and folding bucksaw. In such a dense forest, these tools went hand and hand, allowing us to process the numerous downed spruce trees. It appeared that wind and the elements caused several to snap at the base, we quickly limbed the trees and got a large fire going to warm our wet socks and prepare dinner. To clarify, we DID NOT chop any down. This is a pristine wilderness area and we hope that everyone who visits pays the same respect to the Dolly Sods.

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With all of the streams frozen in the forest, we melted our snow and filtered out the sediment to get clean drinking water.

We woke up early the next morning to make up for lost ground the previous day. We found that in some parts, the trail was surprisingly difficult to find. The presence of rock cairns made the job easier left by previous hikers. We traveled across beautiful vistas and proceeded through a rock scramble where we rested our backs.

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Sheets of ice layered over the clear springs

It was a good thing we decided to camp where we had the previous night because the next water source was miles away. We navigated our way up a creek with fresh flowing clear spring water. It was certainly a welcome sight.

One of the highlights of the trip was crossing Stone Coal Run, the largest body we encountered since crossing Red Creek at the beginnning of our journey. We took a break and drank as much as we could and filled up our water bottles. As a method of filtration, I prefer my Platypus. The bag holds 2L and is able to filter all of it within minutes. It has served us well in the past and is particularly useful at a campsite with abundance of water. We filtered about 60L while in Algonquin Park without any issues.

Around this area, were some prime camping spots, all unused. We pushed on to head towards the red creek crossing. It was here where we decided to camp for the night. Completely secluded with tons of fallen spruce trees to process. We washed up and set up our camp.

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While the forest axe was certainly heavy with a 2lb head, Min was determined to bring it. I’m glad because it allowed us to split wood and have a fire hot enough to bake bannock. No trees were felled during this trip.

At this point, we were both pretty much spent. We decided it was time to go to town on our food. We cooked and ate several meals, including: curry and rice, Min’s korean noodles, bannock, and a lot of snacks. We were grateful for the running stream to provide us with ample drinking and cooking water. It was truly an oasis.

Learning from our previous cold night, we took no risks and layered on all clothing before climbing into our sleeping bags. We slept straight through the night without any disturbances. The next morning however, we awoke to 2 inches of snow.

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We woke to 2 inches of powdery snow

Our next leg involved crossing the stream and continuing on home. This was surprisingly difficult with the snow covering most of the trail in the dense forest. There were several occasions when we had to set down our packs and scout in different directions until one of us found the trail. At the sight of the main road, we breathed a sigh of relief, our feet were wet, cold and sore and our backs ached. On the walk down the main road, we ran into the only person we saw during this entire trip. He was a young guy who carried very little gear. To our surprise he told us that he was hiking across the country. He had made his way through Delaware and DC already. He decided to take 9 months off and make a solo trip on foot. Forest Gump style I guess.

At the arrival of the Bear Rock Trail sign, we knew we made it. The trip was a hard one and our bodies were pretty much done. The views and scenery were  simply amazing. I must give credit to the people of West Virginia and the forest rangers, this was one of the best kept wilderness areas I have ever been to. The camp sites were immaculate and I did not see signs of garbage or debris anywhere, this made the experience so much better. Overall, our trip to the Dolly Sods was everything I hoped it would be and much more. I’ve read about the area and seen photos and videos of the Dolly Sods but nothing compares to seeing it with your own eyes. I would go back in a heart beat, preferably when it gets a little warmer.

Grayson Highlands – Mouth of Wilson, Virginia

Jefferson National Forest lies in the Southwest corner of Virginia and home to the Grayson Highlands State Park and Mount Rogers Recreational Area. It is also home to the highest mountain in Virginia. It is one of the five locations in the United States where you can find the spruce-fir forests. One of the few remaining habitats of the Fraser Fir, found only at high elevations (above 5000 ft).