The west side of Dolly Sods is a bit harder to get to. It is less well known, but it is nearly as stunning as the eastern side, and it has significantly smaller crowds. This long loop hike offers rushing creeks, cascades and waterfalls, and high rocky peaks with expansive views of the canyon that Red Creek has carved. It takes you past the Big Stonecoal Falls as Big Stonecoal Creek makes its descent off the Allegheny Plateau into the depths of Red Creek. The route continues to a remote cliff top, Lion’s Head, which provides a 360-degree view of the Allegheny Plateau to the west and the deep remote canyon of Red Creek to the east. After that, you'll walk to the bottom of the canyon by descending only about 300 feet. This is because you'll be heading upstream, and Red Creek rises up to meet the trail near the fork. The Fork is where the Left Fork of Red Creek and Right fork of Red Creek meet. Here, deep in the Dolly Sods Wilderness, is a series of quaint cascades and falls in low water that can be roaring and angry in high water. The area around Forks is beautiful, popular, and on warm summer weekends it can be overrun with hikers and backpackers. From here, the route climbs away from Red Creek to regain the flat Allegheny Plateau along the rocky western edge of the wilderness, affording views into the high pastoral Canaan Valley. The route turns south, following the rocky ridge top of Cabin Mountain, and it returns you to the trailhead where you started. Water and backcountry campsites are plentiful along the route, making this loop a very pleasurable overnight backpack trip.
This is a hard 12.5-mile loop day hike with rough trail tread, some easy to moderate stream crossings depending on water levels, some wet and muddy trail treads even in dry weather, and very wet and muddy trail tread in wet weather. There are only a few short steep climbs, and fortunately, no long steep slogs since the trail remains at a nearly constant altitude.
An option exists to shorten the loop by about 1.5 miles by taking Breathed Mountain Trail back from the Forks area. This still allows you to explore the concentration of waterfalls and cascades in the vicinity of the Fork. You will only miss the rocky ridge of Cabin Mountain with its views into Canaan Valley.
The hike starts at the top of FS80 at a small parking area (39.02425, -79.39841). From the parking lot, continue walking up FS80 past the signs closing it to vehicles. In about 0.4 miles you will come to the relatively new trailhead sign where there is general information about the area. In this area, FS 80 roughly forms the boarder between the wilderness boundary and the wildlife refuge. There is no camping allowed in the refuge or along FS80. In about a mile from the start, you will come to the old trailhead sign at the start of Big Stonecoal, Breathed Mountain and Rocky Ridge trails (39.03361, -79.38453). Depending on which loop you take, you will be returning via either Breathed Mountain or Rocky Ridge Trails.
Take Big Stonecoal, the rightmost of the trails, toward the southeast as it slowly descends into the shallow valley that forms the Big Stonecoal. You will cross numerous little unnamed side creeks that coalesce into the main Big Stonecoal Creek. By the time you reach the Dunkenbarger Trail junction (39.00510, -79.37675), 2.4-miles from the old trailhead, Big Stonecoal is a nice meandering creek with beaver dams. There are several backcountry campsites along the trail. The character of the creek changes here as it approaches its plunge into the deaths of Red Creek Canyon. The current speeds up, and if the water is high, soon you will begin to hear the roar of the Big Stonecoal Falls just below the right side of the trail. Be careful dropping the few steep yards down to the falls base.
After the spectacular Big Stonecoal Falls (39.00106, -79.37497), it’s about a quarter of a mile to the Rocky Point Trail (38.99808, -79.37166). Go left. In 0.4 miles look for a cairn and a faint, unofficial trail. Take it left (38.99272, -79.36824). This takes you to the top of the rocky viewpoint of Lion's Head without having to do any scrambling. The trail is faint and steep for several hundred yards, but it flattens out at the top and is easy to follow. There are several dry campsites at the top. After enjoying the view, retrace your steps to Rocky Point Trail, turn left, and begin the gradual descent to Red Creek. In 1.5 miles Rocky Point Trail ends and Red Creek Trail merges from the right (39.00040, -79.36042). Continue straight, now on Red Creek Trail. In another 1.4 miles Breathed Mountain enters from left (39.01762, -79.35392). Even if you are going to do the shorter loop, continue straight for several hundred yards. There will be many small backcountry campsites along Red Creek. This is the easiest access to the river in the Fork area, and it provides the best access to the numerous cascades and falls that are along this portion of the trailess Red Creek Canyon. Scramble and wade downstream to enjoy them. At low water it is easy. In high water the creek can go edge to edge and require scrambling along the river's edge. Be careful in high water because the current can be swift. This is an excellent area for an overnight stop, but it can be crowded with backpackers.
To do the shorter loop, backtrack to Breathed Mountain and take it west. For the longer loop, continue north along Red Creek. Cross the Left Fork (39.01991, -79.35288), and start the long gradual climb up the Left Fork. You will pass through open meadows and beautiful mature second-growth forest. In about a mile, you will intersect Blackbird Knob Trail (39.03120, -79.34888). Go left. The trail will level out. Continue for 2.3 miles past Harmon Trail taking off from the hiker's right (39.03692, -79.36216). Near Rocky Ridge, the view will open up and provide numerous views into the pastoral Canaan Valley. Turn left onto Rocky Ridge Trail (39.03696, -79.38357), and start a gradual 0.8-mile descent back to the trailhead of Big Stonecoal. Retrace your steps back to the parking lot.