Back in September, Wife of Mine (WoM) and I headed to Old Rag Mountain near Shenandoah National Park for a day hike. While I had been there several times, it was WoM’s first time. She is a solid hiker – including a NOLS trip to the Yukon several years ago – but she is not a fan of heights.
With the amount of exposure on Old Rag, we wanted to make sure the hike would be enjoyable. WoM watched a safety video put out by the NPS, which gave her a clearer idea of the hike.
We went on a Friday since we both had the day off. The parking lot was relatively empty, a nice change from my last trip there on a Saturday with it’s wall-to-wall people.
We started up, carrying daypacks with water, lunch, snacks, lights, etc. The day was warm and sunny with a good bit of humidity.
The first section of the up-and-over hike is along a switch-backed trail in the forest. Overall we would be hiking about 9 miles with an elevation gain of 2,510 feet. [Here is a link to a trail map.] We kept a good pace and finally started hitting the section where trees and dirt turn to boulders.
As the going became more exposed, we stopped and ate some food to get our energy back. We kept moving forward and tackled some tricky sections with committing moves. In those spots I would generally move forward and WoM would watch where I placed my feet. We made good progress working together this way.
The toughest section was a boulder climb near the top. The move arched you into a C-shape where you couldn’t see your feet and then forced you into a strong move up and forward – the problem was there was a gap you have stepped over to get into this move, so you know you have no easy down move.
When we got to this section there was a small bottleneck of people. I climbed up to check it out while WoM paused for a moment to consider the moves. A couple decided to keep going. The guy moved up but the woman struggled with the move and stopped midway. The two then started going back and forth on what to do — his comments were not helping her very much though. I climbed down another way and headed back to WoM. Listening to the two of them started psyching us out. We waited for them to move forward. Finally she made it over the problem. WoM wasted no time. She tackled it and cruised to the top without a hitch.
Soon after, we reached the top. We were tired but happy. The view was great, and we spent some time catching our breath. The return trip down the “back side” is a much more traditional trail. It was steep going down and offered few switchbacks. You could hike “up” this way, but you would miss the fun of the rock scrambling to the top.
Tips for hiking Old Rag
• For a first timer’s hike – or when going with someone who might be concerned about the exposure – try to go on a weekday. Hiking without folks pressing behind us – or loping down the trail toward us – made the tricky sections much more manageable.
• Try and go when the trail and rocks are dry. This is not a hike you want to be in the middle of during a rainstorm – much less a thunderstorm. I hiked it in the rain when I was teenager and, while an adventure, it was miserable and slick.
• Food. This is one place that I fell down on the hike. I did not pack enough food and snacks. We didn’t have a real “food crash” but it was something that was on my mind.
• Water. We packed heavy on water, which was good. The day was warmer and more humid than predicted and we need the extra hydration.
• Shoes. I wore a pair of trail runners. WoM wore her hiking boots. We both thought we made the right choice. The runners gave me good grip and smear on the rocks. But, WoM’s boots protected her feet and ankles from the rocky trail and allowed her to edge in some spots where my feet became wedged into a crack.