It has been a goal of mine to accomplish a day long hike. I’ve always liked to hike, but usually only go in 2-3 hour increments while at my vacation home in the Smokey Mountains. Inspired by a book I had just read called A Walk in the Woods, I decided I wanted to get outside and accomplish a challenging hike.
On Labor Day, my boyfriend and I decided to take on Old Rag. This mountain is located in the Shenandoah National Park about an hour and a half south of Washington, D.C. Old Rag reaches a staggering 3,300 feet at its summit and includes 9 miles of trail with an intense rock scramble. This 7- hour long hike was definitely going to be a challenge, but I was excited to test out my rock climbing skills and take in some magnificent views.
Our journey began at the start of the Ridge Trail. There was an information sign where I saw a notice about bears and that this hike was labeled as VERY STRENUOUS. I kind of just laughed it off. I mean, how hard could this hike really be considering its popularity?
It turns out – pretty hard. Two minutes into the hike and I was already drenched head to toe in sweat and panting like a dog. I remember thinking, “Oh lord help me. What am I getting into? Am I really going to be able to survive this for 7 hours?” I also couldn’t help but feel a little annoyed at the number of people on the trail.
It’s not that I didn’t mind sharing the trail with others, but the crowds were so overwhelming that it felt like I was at some hot tourist attraction. I like peace and solitude while in the forest.
However, my annoyances were eased as I started getting into the groove of the hike. I was marching up the hill, feeling more confident than I had just 30 minutes before when I suddenly tripped.
It was not a light fall. I completely ate shit – so to speak. Both my knees had plunged into two, small pointy rocks and they began to swell immediately. My right knee was in a lot of pain. After much debate and trying to just ”walk it off”, we had to make the defeating decision to turn back. There was just no way I could scale rocks and walk all day with my knee in this condition.
Thankfully, my knee healed within a few days. We decided that we would take on the mountain again when it cooled down, which just so happened to be the following Sunday. It was a perfect 70 degrees and I had no responsibilities. My boyfriend and I loaded up our packs and headed down to the mountains, yet again.
This time around, everything seemed to move at a faster pace. We swiftly walked up the mile long stretch from the parking lot to the trail, blew past the information sign about bears, and effortlessly marched up the first 2 miles of the trail with sheer determination. We were making it to the top of this dang hill.
There were 3 amazing circumstances that made this hike better than last week. The first was that I wasn’t immediately drenched in sweat since the weather was cool. The second was that I hardly noticed any bees dangerously swooping past my face (last week there was way too many for comfort). The last fact, and the one that made me the happiest was that the crowds were only a fraction of what they were on Labor Day.
We glided up the trail as if we were professionals and flew past other hikers. We made it to the climbing portion of the trail within an hour. This is where the real fun began. Instead of a trail bed with rocks jutting out at every possible angle and shape, we stood in front of pure, looming boulders.
This climb was seriously no joke, and I quickly understood why the trail was labeled as VERY STRENUOUS. You had to shimmy in between gigantic boulders as the disturbing image of them crashing down on you flashed in your head. You had to make sure your balance was even so you didn’t plummet down the hill and crack open your skull. You had to stop and analyze rocks before you made a decision on how to try and get over them. You had to look for little blue trail markers to make sure you didn’t get lost in the stone jungle. It was pure insanity. I loved every bit of it.
After climbing for what felt like forever and a half, we were finally at the summit. On the way up there were plenty of fantastic views we stopped at to sip on some water, but nothing compared to the summit. It was 360 degrees of pure Virginia landscape. There were hundreds of rolling mountains with vast valleys of meadows and farmland. We stopped and had our lunches with a single serving of cheap wine from the gas station and soaked it all in. Once the weather got a little too chilly for us, we began our descent down.
Luckily, the second half of the trail wasn’t nearly as grueling as the first. In fact, it was more like a pleasant stroll. I was relieved that I didn’t have to stare down at my feet to ensure the safety of my knees.
When we were about 2 miles to the finish, I saw the last thing I wanted to see on the trail- a black bear. Now I know black bears are typically skittish and docile, but you still can’t help to be kind of frightened at the chance of having your flesh torn apart at the expense of another animals’ dinner.
When we saw it, it was about 15ft away, rummaging through the bushes for food. Although it wasn’t paying any mind to us, we sure were paying mind to it. I froze. Although I was semi-enchanted by finally seeing a bear in-person, I was still calculating my escape in case things took a turn for the worse. After about a minute I realized that standing here watching it look for food was probably the worst idea in the world, so we quickly moved forward. Phew.
We finished the hike with exciting talks about what we just saw and our dinner plans. It was about 5 when we reached the car. We started the hike at 12:30 p.m. and were pretty proud we finished in less than 5 hours. We had such an incredible day and agreed that we need to get outdoors like this more often.
I fully endorse taking a trek up Old Rag. If you are in good shape, the rock scramble presents a euphoric challenge that will make you feel like you are a pro adventurer. If risking your life on rocks sounds like a nightmare from hell, then you can reach the summit from the Fire Road Trail (the one we came down). Either way you decide to travel, you will be glad you did when you see those majestic views. I believe that being out in nature is one of the best medicines for the soul, and challenging yourself to reach new heights changes your perspective of the world around you – literally and metaphorically.