What you are going to like on this hike is solitude, a roaring creek, and a beautiful hike across a high Allegheny plateau cleaved by the stunning, tumbling Red Creek with its cascades, falls, and steep narrow canyon walls. The hike through the forest across the top of the plateau resembles the pine forests far to the north due to the altitude. You will hike through open heath bogs, cut through red spruce forests, and enjoy thickets of rhododendron. All this will get you to get Red Creek at one of its most spectacular locations, where the canyon narrows, the gradient steepens, and the falls and cascades abound.
In the winter, this is a hard hike that requires snowshoes with cleats for deep snow and ice. In the summer, it is a moderate hike. This hike is roughly 7.4 miles out and back with the winter route described below. In the winter there are many cautions to heed, including deep snow, potential whiteout conditions, frigid temperatures, and a difficult trail with no blazes on the trees. Near Red Creek, there is also the potential for freezing immersion in a rushing river if you slip in. Good map and compass skills and electronic navigation with GPS and downloadable maps that can be used offline are essential. The trail really isn’t blazed, so it is difficult to to follow when it is covered by deep fresh snow. Blowing whiteouts can be common. They are real, and they can cover your tracks. In summer, at normal water levels, just use the standard hiking precautions: Use care, be prepared for bad weather, and if Red Creek is high, don’t wade or cross it.
So why should you do this hike? Dolly Sods Wilderness is overrun in the summer due to its rugged beauty and easy summer access from the east side. In summer this in-out hike is moderate and can be easily extended into several different loops. The best map of the area is Purple Lizard’s “Dolly Sods and Seneca Rocks,” and it will show several options for longer summertime loops. Winter is different once you penetrate the wilderness boundary and move inward toward Dolly Sod’s spectacular interior. Few get there in winter. Virgin snow is routine. Look online for winter pictures of Red Creek and you'll find few photos showing snow; summer pictures are another story, however. The low crowds and snow-covered beauty of Red Ceek make this trek a treat for skilled snowshoers.
In the trailhead description below makes winter snowshoe trips easier. It provides an alternative route to Red Creek that is less used compared to the eastern access from FS75. It has fewer hikers to the falls around Red Creek. There is no direct driving access to the trailhead, summer or winter, (39.02359, -79.36988, Elevation 3,950 feet), so you need to work to reach it. The secret in winter is to park at the Timeberline Ski area parking lot (39.043093, -79.399326) and buy a “Nordic Single Trip” ticket to the top, giving you access to the slopes and the ski lift to the top of the Salamander Run. This saves over 600 vertical feet of climbing. Otherwise you will have to park at the bottom of FS 80 (39.026915, -79.419726) at the end of Freeland Rd (County Road 37) and do a long an boring 3-mile slog up FS 80 to get to the Breathed Mountain Trailhead, which adds 6 miles to the total round trip distance.
In summer, drive up FS 80 to where it is permanently blocked by large boulders, and then hike a relatively level half mile to the trailhead.
The distances described in this hike description include the hike from the top of the ski lift to the trailhead, out to Red Creek, and back to the bottom of the ski slopes. In the summer, access to the deep interior of Dolly Sods Wilderness is less crowded from the west side, compared to the east side access off of FS75.
Getting on or off a ski lift with a large daypack and snowshoes isn’t as easy as it is with skis. Swallow your pride and feel free to ask for the lift operator to slow it down. At the top of the lift, follow the Salamander Run by going straight. Continue on it as it curves to the left following the east running ridge down Cabin Mountain. Stay on the edge of the ski area boundary. After about two-thirds of a mile, the Salamander Run makes a sharp turn to the left (39.00784, -79.376190) where you leave the ski area by cutting through the woods on the right. Usually Timberline has a sign there to mark the trail to FS 80. Follow it east (hikers right) to FS80. If the snow is fresh, just break a trail heading east about 100 yards until you intercept the abandoned road. Look left and you will see the trailhead signs and a description of Dolly Sods Wilderness. Facing the signs, Big Stonecoal Trail is off to the right heading southeast. Breathed Mountain is on the left side of the signs and heads east. The rocky Cabin Mountain and its numerous views overlooking Canaan Valley are accessible via Rocky Ridge Trail to the north (hard left) from here. Cabin Mountain is the western boundary of the Dolly Sods Wilderness.
If fresh snow is covering the trail, navigation can get tricky following the un-blazed Breathed Mountain Trail. Off-trail travel is possible, but it can be challenging due to thickness of the forest. A GPS or smartphone with an offline map, a full battery charge, and the GPX route laid out makes it much easier to stay on the trail. In fresh snow, carefully look for clues, like mild depressions in the snow over the trail tread, or breaks through the trees. If you get off trail, the electronic navigation will help guide you back on track.
From the trailhead, follow Breathed Mountain Trail though a mixed forest of pine and deciduous tress interspersed with numerous rhododendron thickets. After about a mile, the forest opens and skirts one of the numerous open sods Dolly Sods is famous for. After re-entering the forest, the trail passes around the left side (north) of a stunning red spruce grove and passes through another heath bog. At about 2 miles from the signed trailhead, the trail begins its final, steep 150-foot descent to Red Creek. In wet periods with higher temperatures you can literally hear the water gurgling beneath the talus as it drops and seeps through the ground and rocks on its way to Red Creek. Snowshoes with good cleats make the descent (and subsequent climb out) relatively easy, especially compared to back country skis. Soon you will pick up the faint rumble of Red Creek, which, as you continue your descent, becomes a roar.
At mile 2.6 from the trailhead signs you will intercept Red Creek Trail. Go left for several hundred yards. Just before the junction of the Left Fork and the main Red Creek you will see some potential campsites. This is the easiest access to the river.
To see the cascades and falls, you need to follow the river downstream from the confluence and scramble along the hillside and river for at least several hundred yards. In summer it isn’t hard since you can usually stay along the river and wade when needed. In winter, on snowshoes, with ice along the shore, dense thickets of rhododendron on the steep hillsides, it isn’t easy to get beyond the first set of cascades where the canyon walls close in and the river begins its steep descent into a trail-less section of Red Creek Canyon. This is where the falls begin. In summer, the crowds thin quickly the deeper you go, even though it isn’t too hard. In winter, extreme care is required to get to them. Don’t be afraid, especially if it is getting late, to consider turning around here in the winter. With a long snowshoe out, play it safe and if needed, turn around to avoid a short but scary snow-covered scramble to the first set of falls.
Retrace your steps out of the canyon, cross the plateau, and continue back to the trailhead and the Salamander Run at Timberline. Once you intercept the Salamander Ski Run, don’t go left back to the top; rather, go right and follow the ski run to the bottom of the ski slope and back to your car. You will be tried at the end, especially if you've been blessed with fresh snow.
Winter backcountry adventures can be dangerous outdoor activities that pose significant risks as conditions affecting safety (i.e. weather, snowpack stability, avalanche hazard) are constantly changing. Prior to engaging in these activities each individual should get the proper training to make safe decisions and be equipped to use avalanche safety resources and tools. Please visit our Backcountry Skiing and Avalanche Safety post to learn more.