The Dolly Sods Wilderness

I’m not sure why, but I’ve wanted to check out the Dolly Sods in WV for quite some time. Part of it is definitely that I love the name. I was also intrigued by a place that was for hiking only, so I couldn’t drive down there with my bike.

Earlier this year, one of our local adventurers sent me the maps (as well as tips for all of my other trips this year, as it seems like I’m copying his vacations… I’m ok with it). I’ve had a pretty busy summer and I also didn’t want to go by myself. I wanted to split the cost of a car rental (if needed) and gas, but I also didn’t want my first overnight backpacking trip to be by myself.

After I got back from Colorado, I did a search to see when the peak fall foliage would be in the area and – almost to my dismay – it was pretty much already happening. So I put up messages on social media and shot a text to a few potentially interested parties. Luckily Emma (who I have bike camped with in the past) excitedly replied. She invited another backpacking friend and we were set.

Our original goal was to make it down Friday night and hike about a mile in, even in the dark, just so we could get an early start on Saturday. This didn’t happen. We ended up camping in Deep Creek, MD. Still set up after dark, and I got to see how “freestanding” my tent is because the ground was pretty much solid (doable but not awesome).

The next morning we chose to have breakfast at a diner and refigure our options. We had already shortened our total hike after the forecast for Sunday turned into rain & thunderstorms. Oh, and the sunrise was incredible – we watched it over some pharmacy, I’m not even sure which one (Walgreens?) but it was only a little bit of a bummer that we weren’t in the woods to see it.

Driving into the Dolly Sods Wilderness was already pretty, although pretty typical for Appalachian woods in the fall. Then we got to the Bear Rocks parking area and we all kind of lost our cool little bit. It was a whole different kind of beautiful.

We did Bear Rocks > Raven Ridge > Rocky Ridge > Harmon > Blackbird Knob (only a short ways in) on day 1. It was very open and sunny so we all were struggling a bit with hydration. Someone told us that the streams had all dried up so there was a little bit of panic. Luckily the first campsite we hit was right on a creek. We ended up staying there even though our goal was to go a few more miles, mostly because I was starting to bonk but we were also closing in on our evening.

The campsite was neat, beneath a bunch of spruce trees. There were a ton of people packed pretty close together, but not a lot of noise. I dug my first cathole! (Crazy?) we chilled at someone else’s campfire and looked at the Milky Way for a while.

We woke up the next day to a light drizzle. Somehow it seemed to make all of the colors even more vibrant. Our plan was just to finish Blackbird Knob and then take the fire road back to the car. We ran into a few other groups doing the same and had company for part of our hike.

Note for next time: the Blackbird Knob trail has a bunch of easily accessible camping spots not insanely far from the parking area. It also wasn’t rocky and there weren’t any trail splits. We had been glad that we didn’t show up after dark because Bear Rocks had a few spots that would be really confusing without being able to see everything clearly (also it was one of the more beautiful seas of red). However, starting where we ended would have been super easy.

Doing this update on my phone so the photos aren’t integrated into the post. Any that include me were taken by Emma.

 

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Colorado Road Trip

Stop 1: Rocky Mountain National Park

Did this as a day trip from my friend’s house in Denver. We took the long way there and caught some of the early fall foliage. In doing this, we got there way later than anticipated and drove up and down the park a few times looking for parking. Ultimately we ended up taking the shuttle up. We hiked to Emerald Lake, then to Lake Hiayaha. When we were done, we did the little lap around Bear Lake.

This was my first hike above 5,000′ (and we got to about 10,000′). I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel it somewhat, but was also kind of surprised at how mild it was.

 

Stop 2: Maroon Bells

We left late on Friday (both of us had things to do) with a very loose idea of where we’d be sleeping that night. I had chosen a place that I could get to in my tiny rental car, but we ended up driving my friend’s truck which opened up our possibilities. The campsite I had chosen was beautiful… but we decided it wasn’t close enough to the trailhead so we drove over Independence Pass. Being on the passenger side during this drive, and during sunset, was a lot for someone who’s apparently afraid of heights.

We ended up camping at one of the free sites at Lincoln Creek. The stars were extremely clear and beautiful. We had a few camp neighbors that night, but I fell asleep pretty early. The next morning we were up by 4:30, let the rain die down before tearing down the tent, and then headed to Maroon Bells. We were aiming to get there before sunrise, but it was extremely overcast so didn’t really matter. In fact, the massive crowd gathered for sunrise had all dissipated by the time we were back from our hike.

 

Stop 3: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Immediately after finishing our hike at Maroon Bells, we left for the North Rim of the Black Canyon. We did end up making a stop for drive through tacos in Hotchkiss.

The canyon was incredible. Photos don’t even do it justice. The North Rim is also less touristy so we didn’t run into many people. That night we drove around to the South Rim to camp, and then the next morning drove & hiked the lookout points. It was neat, but we both had pretty much agreed that we liked the North Rim better.

 

Stop 4: Great Sand Dunes National Park

The next night, we stayed at the closest free campsite we could find to the Sand Dunes. It ended up being a dirt road alongside a pasture full of cow shit. Peaceful and uneventful night, woke up plenty early and ended up climbing the dunes during the sunrise. We had the park to ourselves until we actually got to the top of High Dune, then there were three other people starting the ascent. Some of the hike was difficult, there was a lot of sliding backwards in the sand. We saw someone’s sand castle and picked it up (unfortunately I lost it later). Coming back down, Joel walked to find socks that he had lost and I took the sled down… this was a bucket list item I didn’t know I had. I then spent an hour or so just laying in the sand while Joel tried climbing back up and sledding back down.

 

 

Reykjavík, Iceland & the Golden Circle

So when I got off the bus in Reykjavík on the first day, I basically headed straight for Harpa Concert Hall to catch my next bus… no exploring at all. It was also really early in the morning, there weren’t many people out and none of the businesses were open.

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When I got back for the end of my trip, I set up camp (grateful that the bus stop was right there). The campsite was huge, lots of bathrooms and closed in spaces. A full kitchen area with several stoves, laundry, etc. It was also the most expensive at 2200 ISK per night. After setting up, I grabbed my free map and headed out for a walk. My only real goals were to see the shore walk (you know, Sun Voyager, Harpa Concert Hall…) and then find the neat churches. I’m not a religious person, but I want to make a calendar for my grandparents (in case you didn’t notice that every post had churches, pretty much). Hilariously enough, while I was sitting at the Sun Voyager, I turn around and there’s Patrick (from Hofn) walking down the street. We catch up a bit. Then later, after passing the big iconic church, I’m staring down at my map on a little one way street with no people and… there’s Anna (from Myvatn). It felt a lot like Pittsburgh, where you run into people you know everywhere.

The next day, I booked my only guided tour – the Golden Circle Tour. I booked through Guide to Iceland because they mentioned a small bus experience and got good reviews. I thought the tour went to Kerid Crater but was mistaken – so was initially a little bummed, but the tour itself was really good. The guide was informative and funny… he also only had negative things to say about the sheep (well, that they were smart but also destroyed everything). Our first stop was just above a town, to get the view from high up… and I recognized the weird pillow looking object. We were looking down at Hveragerði. We also stopped at the Faxi Waterfall, Gullfoss Waterfall, Geysir, and Thingvellir National Park. Thingvellir was neat because it’s where the European and North American continental plates were separated. It’s also where the early settlers held the Allthing. On the way back he was having trouble with the sound on the bus so stopped at a farm where we could buy ice cream and check out the horses (I chose horses over ice cream). Then he detoured later to show us a power plant and give us some traditional Icelandic food (smoked lamb on buttered flatbread and Malt Extrakt). He also gave us crowberries and blueberries that he had picked at the last top.

I got back to camp and didn’t really have a plan for what to do, but remembered that there was a park near the campsite so I walked in that direction. It was nice and relaxing.

At this point, it was safe to say that I had really lucked out with the weather. I had read (and been told) that Iceland is typically overcast and rainy… and out of the two weeks, I think I had less than 2 full rainy days, lots of sunshine, and some wind but really nothing crazy. Even the tour guide told us that he took the detours because it was beautiful and not very windy, and none of that is typical.

If I go back to Iceland, there are a few things that I had hoped to see that I didn’t (the wrecked DC-3 bomber, the Westfjords) and a few places I’d like to explore with more time (Landmannalaugar). Definitely worth the trip, and I’m glad I impulsively bought the nonrefundable plane tickets several months ago.

Landmannalaugar, Iceland

Since I had one day to kill after leaving Skaftafell early, I needed to find something to fill up that day. I had initially thought I might try hitchhiking to see the wrecked DC-3 bomber, but it was described as pretty hard to find and I didn’t want to put myself in the position of describing to some stranger how to get to a random parking lot in the middle of nowhere. On the flip side, I had several people at Skaftafell tell me that I needed to see Landmannalaugar. I checked it out, and there was a bus from Sterna that caught in Hveragerði, and I would have a little over 6 hours to explore before it came back. The bus wasn’t cheap… Landmannalaugar is in the highlands and can’t be gone to in a regular vehicle. I sat on the decision overnight but ended up booking the next morning.

The tour guide was pretty entertaining. He talked to us about how the sheep are partially responsible for the vast expanse of nothingness in areas… at least combined with the wind. He also told us we’d get a complimentary massage, and by that he meant that the road would get really rough. It definitely did. If you’re wondering why car companies don’t want you taking normal cars into the highlands, it becomes pretty apparent once you go. Steep, loose gravel roads (with some big hunks of gravel) and unbridged river crossings.

Once we got there, it was obviously different from any of the places I had been to. I paid 300ISK for a map and 500ISK for the facilities (they have a bathroom guard) – but part of these fees also go towards maintaining everything. This is also a popular start for one of the multi-day hiking trails.

I set off with my map & immediately couldn’t see where the trail went. A tour group passed me and I followed them until I saw the trail. At first it was pretty, then at some point I rounded a corner and this multi-colored mountain came into view. I had read about them but didn’t search hard enough to find good photos (apparently) so wasn’t really expecting what I saw. Then I got further and started to enter a field of lava covered in moss. The trail actually cut through this, and it was one of the most surreal things I have ever experienced. I actually lost the trail at some point and only realized it when I started having to navigate big gaps and my feet started sinking.

When I got back to the main area, I looked at the map and ate a sandwich. I realized I couldn’t make another loop in time (in reality, I should have done one of the extensions on the loop I had done… but I didn’t have time to do it again). I saw all of these people walking down a path in swimsuits and remembered that there was a hot spring in the area… I didn’t expect it to be right in plain sight. I sat in there for a while until it was time to catch the bus.

Hveragerði, Iceland

The bus stopped for photos at two of the waterfalls along Route 1 in the south: Skógar and Seljalandsfoss. I was glad I didn’t end up camping in either of these spots because they were pretty busy with tour buses and other non-campers. Seljalandsfoss was neat because there was a trail behind the waterfall.

The final overnight stop on my trip before returning to the capital was Hveragerði. I chose this stop specifically to check out the Reykjadalur valley, which has a hot spring river. When I showed up, the campsite attendant gave me a map, told me to avoid the peak times and said it would be a 7km walk. I would be lying if I didn’t admit to thinking he meant round trip (which was in-line with what I had found online). Turns out, I had only mapped to the beginning of the trail iteself and it was about 14km round trip. Luckily I didn’t waste any time in leaving camp, because I made it there just in time to dip for maybe 20 minutes, then head back. The last part of my trip was after sunset.

The first part of my walk was through a pretty active geothermal area, with lots of steam coming up from the ground. There were also greenhouses, which I had read about – this town uses geothermal energy to heat greenhouses and grow vegetables. It was a neat walk, and I didn’t see many people.

When I got to the bottom of the hot springs trail, there were tons of people – mostly coming back to their cars. The trail is 3km and mostly uphill, and steep & loose in some sections (isn’t everything in Iceland?) Every time I thought I might be near the top, it was a false peak, winding around a corner or dipping down, then climbing back up again. At some point I could finally see more steam coming up from the ground, and then worked my way through areas where the water was boiling. There was a nice walkway built beside the river, and little changing areas. It wasn’t overly crowded, although I think showing up around 8:30-9pm (if you’re not limited on daylight) would definitely be better.

On the walk back, I finally got close to some horses. They saw me and ran right up to me, which  is exactly what I wanted.

I ended up staying two nights here so that I could take a day trip to Landmannalaugar (will post separately). The second morning, I walked to Olverk Pizza & Brewery. Two women who I met in Vík were actually there, and another couple from the United States. I think that was likely the most Americans I had been around at one time during my whole trip. The pizza was great. I also ordered a beer flight, knowing full well (based on my table neighbor’s order) that the beers were a little larger than I really wanted. When I was done, the server – Maria (I’m sure that’s not how it’s spelled) talked to me about different liquors. I asked about the whiskey, and she said nobody in Iceland drank it and that it was kind of a gimmick for tourists (which is why I could only find it at the airport).

In general, this town wasn’t very pretty or exciting and the campsite wasn’t all that easy on the eyes either, but it wasn’t expensive (1500 ISK per night) and had free showers, and a power strip in the office for folks to charge their electronics. Cars weren’t allowed in the same area as the tents, and they had quite a few picnic tables.

Vík, Iceland

My next stop was Vík, known for its black sand beach. I hopped off the bus, made some food, ran to the grocery store for snacks, and walked up Reynisfjall pretty much immediately. The view from the top was neat, but my goal was to get to the beach at Reynisfjara. At the bottom of the other side, I hit a barbed wire fence, so I turned around and followed some sheep path, then gave up and started back over the hill. A woman coming the opposite direction told me I was supposed to just open the gate, but at that point it was sprinkling a little bit and I was tired, so I just headed back to camp.

On the main side (with the village) I briefly checked out the beach as well as the shops, then hung out at camp for a while. This campsite was really nice, with a few tiers for tents right under cliffs. Cars were separate. I think it was 1500 or 1700 ISK, I don’t remember. It had a big eat in area with lots of power strips for charging electronics (and socializing, obviously).

I had looked up the forecast for northern lights and it was pretty good for that evening, so I went to bed somewhat early and set an alarm to wake up after midnight. It went off, I turned it off and fell back asleep but woke up to my camp neighbor saying “oh look!” so I crawled out of my tent. At first it looked like a gray cloud stretching across the sky, but after some time it became a lot brighter. I wasn’t expecting to see them at all so didn’t have a tripod or anything (so the photos are pretty poor). At any rate, this pretty much made my trip complete – and also made me less likely to take a mid-winter trip to someplace cold in the future.

The next day I pretty much just sat on the beach and wandered around the shops some more. Very relaxing.

 

Höfn & Skaftafell, Iceland

The bus ride from  Reyðarfjörður to Höfn was long. We got to pass through all of the small towns in the east that I had debated on staying in. One quick stop in each one, and I was pretty sure I made the right decision. They did have a few neat views, though.

I only stayed in Höfn because it was where the bus transferred. Basically everything from this point on was very touristy, must-see type stuff. I met a guy on the bus, Patrick, and we parted ways when the bus stopped then met back up after both of us had eaten and I had done my grocery shopping. (Since I’m keeping track, this campsite was 1500 ISK, and I think I spent 3500 ISK on groceries… roughly). When walking to the grocery store, I noticed that you could see the glacier peaking between mountains across the water. It was a pretty awesome sight. Patrick and I ended up walking the path along the water for a better look, and saw a pretty spectacular sunset… for as long as we could without getting blown over. Then we grabbed some coffee and used free internet at Olís.

The next morning, Patrick & I caught the bus to Skaftafell. We made a pit stop at Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon for an hour. This is where Patrick & I parted ways (for the time being). The bus got there early enough that we got to see everything without too many people, but they started pouring in throughout the hour.

My final stop for the evening was Skaftafell, which is a national park located at the foot of the Vatnajökull glacier. (campsite was 1700 ISK) I had originally planned on being there for two days, but I hiked to see Svartifoss as well as Sjónarnípa (the viewpoint overlooking the glacier). For whatever reason, I wasn’t completely enjoying this park. The lack of trees made hiking feel… incredibly public and exposed. I did think the plant life in the area was interesting, I just wasn’t really feeling the pseudo-social aspect of the park. I ended up leaving the next morning and planning something else for my spare day (and I’m really glad I did, now).

 

 

Reyðarfjörður, Iceland

I had a lot of trouble deciding on where to stay between Mývatn and Höfn. Sterna’s website gave small descriptions of all of the towns, and then I did a lot of google searches but it was hard to really tell which hikes and attractions were truly doable on foot from each location. I ended up using Google street view to make my decision.

As we drove up to Reyðarfjörður, the scenery was just getting better and better. Tall cliffs with waterfalls flowing over the edges. As we got to the height of all of this, the bus stops – and it’s my next overnight. I walk to the campsite and it’s adorable. For one, there’s only one tent and one RV at the point of my getting there. It’s directly on a duck pond with a bunch of fat, happy ducks; every time I car pulled over on the road they all ran to it. There was a small closed in kitchen area for cooking and eating, several sinks outside, two bathrooms, and two showers (with toilets as well) – all free. There was also a washer & dryer in the kitchen area (800 ISK each) and I was told the next stop would be really busy, so I did my laundry. The campsite itself was 1,200 ISK so it was the least expensive that I had gone to the entire trip.

It was pretty drizzly all day. I set up my tent but left my backpack and everything else in the kitchen area. I sat and read for a while, then decided to go out and wander. I found the hiking path along Búðará, then went up behind the Icelandic Wartime Museum to see the waterfall. There weren’t any people at all for any of this.

After this little hike, I pretty much just hung out in the kitchen area, ate, read, did my laundry, and talked to a couple from England.  The campsite did fill up throughout the evening and was pretty busy. Luckily the rain also let up.

 

Mývatn, Iceland

My next stop was Mývatn. On the way there, the bus stopped for a photo stop at Goðafoss.

My main reason for stopping at Mývatn was to check out the nature baths, but I also wanted to see Namafjall Hverir and Grjótagjá cave.

Immediately, I liked this camp more than the previous two. Cars were separate from tents, and it sat right on the lake.

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In true Kitaira fashion, I started off in the wrong direction for the nature baths. There was a building in the distance that I kept convincing myself was my destination, but finally turned data on my phone and checked out a map. I was 4-5km away and moving in the wrong direction. This allowed me to walk through some neat lava fields and by the village’s church though, so I wasn’t too mad. However the sun was extremely bright, and there aren’t really trees anywhere so there was no reprieve. Right at the turn for the nature baths, there was a smaller bright blue pool of water (not for swimming) and power plants centered in smoking earth. It was pretty neat to see. I made it most of the way to the nature baths before a car full of guys picked me up and took me the rest of the way.

The nature baths themselves were pretty cool. They were split up into four different sections based on temperature, but there were smaller areas within those sections that were hotter. There were also two little manmade waterfalls that came down pretty hard and felt fantastic on the back of my neck.

While swimming, I met a woman from Switzerland (Anna) who was driving around Iceland and sleeping in her car. I told her what the rest of my plans were for the day and she was interested in all of it, so I ended up jumping in her car and directing her (using my paper directions that I had printed a week earlier). Our first stop was Namafjall Hverir, which was just over the hill on Route 1. There were a lot of people in the main parking area, but we saw a path heading up over the hill (well, there were three peaks overlooking the area). I think we did this in reverse though, because we went up the wider & less steep path and the way down was steep, narrow, and off camber… and there were a few groups coming up. At any rate, the views were well worth it.

Our last stop was the Grjótagjá cave, which I think was in Game of Thrones? I’ve never watched the series, so I actually don’t know but that’s what I’ve heard or read online or something. Either way, the cave was pretty cool. A short scramble down some rocks revealed extremely blue, clear water. It didn’t really look blue until the sunlight hit, and the time of the day wasn’t perfect for that – I’d probably recommend checking it out early in the day. We also took one of the short paths above the cave and there was a large split in the earth. Neither of us were expecting it, but it looked pretty neat.

For those of you planning to camp, this campsite had free showers (they smelled pretty bad) and was 1,800 ISK. They provided a discount for the nature baths if booked when registering though, so that was 4,000 ISK. Also, and if you do any research about swimming in Iceland you’ll know this, you have to take communal completely nude showers before entering the nature baths. I didn’t really think it was a big deal but apparently some people do. BUT this is also something to keep in mind if you really need a shower and are at a campsite with paid showers – just go to the pool, pay the entry fee, and shower going into and out of the pool. I didn’t end up doing this (lots of free showers along my route) but it was my original plan.

Akureyri, Iceland

The bus transfers in Akureyri, so it was kind of a mandatory stop. I was originally just going to get there in the evening and leave the next morning, but a couple from the ferry was headed there so they gave me a ride (actual hitchhiking is very real, and a very successful means of transportation in Iceland… I just didn’t know that so bought a bus passport). I thought about crashing that evening and leaving the next morning, giving myself an extra day to use elsewhere but ended up deciding that a full day of R&R was completely OK. I walked around the little city and enjoyed their shops. I also stopped at AKureyri Backpackers for internet, and had their potatoes covered in cheese & bacon. Delicious. Drank two beers and had a piece of cake, all really good. AND they charged my phone behind the bar. I also went to the botanical gardens and grocery shopped at Bónus, and found a used bookstore so that I could have reading material for the next few small towns.

I think I spent about 4,000 ISK on food and the campsite was 1,500 ISK per night. There was an attendant there for all but a few hours in the middle of the night, and a power strip for charging electronics (plus outlets in the kitchen and bathroom areas). This campsite had showers and laundry for an additional fee. It was also up a pretty big hill, and all of the shops (and my particular bus stop) were at the bottom. The bus to Rekjavik actually does stop at the campsite, though… I think.