Are you ready for a challenge? Do you want to see some spectacular views? Does the idea of scrambling up rocks excite you? Are you in the Shenandoah Area of Virginia? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then hiking Old Rag might just be your next day trip. I recently spent the day climbing this must-hike trail and let me just say, it was a little more than a walk in the “National” park.
The sun was just coming up over the hills of Syria, Virginia when my family and I drove to the Old Rag parking lot. I was excited and energized by the prospect of hiking Old Rag despite the lack of coffee in my system. Blue skies and warm weather promised a great day for a hike. We paid a small fee (that funds the upkeep of the trail) and made for the trailhead on the right of the little Ranger’s hut and bathrooms. As any cheesy family does, we took a picture before we started. Ah, we looked so innocent and excited to hike. One of my family members expected we would all fly through the 9.4-mile hike in about five hours or so. I knew for a fact that was a bold assumption. The All Trails app on my phone called Old Rag a “very strenuous” hike and the Shenandoah National Park estimated our walk would be closer to nine hours. I arrived at the trail optimistic, but also as a realist. I knew five hours for a 9.4-mile hike that several people called challenging, was a bit on the we-are-experienced-and-super-fit side of the spectrum. But, time and distance didn’t bother me. I was at Old Rag for a good time and whether it would be a long or short time was none of my concern.
When hiking Old Rag, give yourself the WHOLE day. I’m not saying the trek will take you from dawn till dusk, but however fast you finish, you will want the rest of the day to relax.
Old Rag did not give any time to settle into a hiking groove. Within the first half-mile, I was faced with an uphill battle. I carried a daypack with two pairs of socks, a spare shirt, three Body Armors, a beef stick, and three GoGo Squeezes. A little yellow walkie-talkie was clipped onto my left strap and all of it added to the burden I had to bear while heaving up a steep and fairly rocky trail.
Old Rag isn’t called strenuous for giggles. This hike is not for the faint of heart. However, this hike is truly worth the exertion. I just want to properly prepare you for the hike. It. Is. Steep. No matter which trailhead you choose to start on, you will begin with an uphill. Prepare to sweat a lot and FEEL THE BURN.
Allow me to paint a picture. Verdant trees, thriving undergrowth, some pretty nice rock formations (if I do say so myself), and plenty of shade. For the entirety of the hike, I was surrounded by the most gorgeous scenery. Even without the stunning views that come later on the trail, the forest itself was mesmerizing. What is it about trees and forests that capture the eye and beg you to stare deep within them? I mean it’s just a bunch of vertical poles of wood!
But, man, I could look out into a bunch of trees for HOURS. The beautiful environment definitely kept me going as I pressed my bended knees every time I had to push up another step.
The steep incline lasts for quite a bit so I needed the natural beauty around to distract my pounding heart. This hike REQUIRES hiking shoes. I did fine with Merrell’s Moab 2 Vent Hiking Shoe which doesn’t cover the ankle, but I would recommend ankle support if you have that kind of shoe on hand. Of course, you don’t need some crazy expensive hiking shoes, but DO NOT hike this trail with some average tennis shoes. Your feet will HATE you.
Dress the part. Check the weather. Check the weather. Check. The. Weather. Spring, summer, and fall are probably the best months to hike Old Rag. Spring has new leaves and blossoming flora. Summer has enchanting greenery. And I can only imagine how magical Old Rag is in Autumn when the leaves are all shades of red, orange, and yellow. Regardless of the season, however, you should always check the weather for the day and dress accordingly. The day I hiked, the temperature was to reach the mid-90s with some cloud cover. In the depths of summer, the trail is covered by a canopy of leaves which I thank the LORD for because without the support of shade, I probably would have quite literally melted. Still, I sweat A LOT. I wore athletic shorts and a semi-backless tank top to keep cool. Honestly, having the hole in the back of my shirt did WONDERS for keeping me cool and preventing crazy visible sweat stains. Overall, wear what makes you comfortable in the day’s weather and will keep you comfortable on a trail.
As my family and I made our ascent, someone kept asking what our elevation was, how far we had gone, how far the summit was, how far left we had to go, and kept a record of when we would stop for a break. For some people, this might have been helpful and/or interesting, but personally, I wanted to focus on enjoying the trail and powering through the exhausting incline.
Having someone talk about time and distance only made me want to go faster and channeled my thoughts onto how very far we had to go. Focusing on distance makes hiking VERY tedious. It’s like looking at a clock while working and every time you look only five minutes go by when that five minutes felt like an hour. Don’t focus on distance and time. You have the whole day to enjoy your hike and unless you have the specific goal to finish in a certain time, your climb is not a race. Enjoy the moment of hiking. Be grateful for the body that is carrying your sweaty self to the summit and then back down again. Take a minute to savor each look-out point. If you are hiking with someone and they insist on reporting the time and distance you have covered, try to ignore them. Don’t shut them down because they might just be coping with the strenuous climb, but focus on yourself and your body!
Another family member of mine was beginning to wear thin with the incline. The poor person was on the edge of snapping when each false summit was followed by another incline. As a result, I had to do my best to keep a positive attitude. If there is one thing that makes hiking miserable (especially long and challenging hikes) it’s a poor attitude. Of course, I don’t blame my family member for getting tired. The difficulty level was probably beyond what they should have been facing for their ability and age. But you know what? They made it! I was so proud of them when we finished despite their infectious negative attitude. Honestly, their completion of the hike was impressive and they deserve the MVP title of the day (but I couldn’t tell them that because they would have found it patronizing). What should you take from this? Patience. Patience with yourself, your hiking partners, and with the hike itself. Don’t rush yourself (unless you’re trying to meet a time goal of course) and don’t rush your group.
With that said, I hike a bit faster than other members of my group. My brother and I were pretty good and maintaining a decent speed and often found ourselves out of eyesight from the rest of the group. Eventually, we had to split our group in two to save our sanity. Fortunately, we had walkie-talkies to communicate our locations and whether or not my brother and I were too far ahead. I’ll be honest, the constant breaks were a bit tiresome. I don’t like taking breaks while hiking because it gives me fatigue time to catch up with my adrenaline. Then I start feeling tired. Then the sleepiness can potentially turn into irritableness. Whenever the group had to catch up, I stayed standing and focused on the environment around me. I wasn’t going to let exhaustion catch up to me. I finished the hike with relief, but with a positive and (albeit less than when I started) energized attitude.
Just because I don’t prefer fifteen-minute breaks during a hike, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take them. Listen to your body and respond appropriately. There were times on my hike when I had to stop and take a few breaths because the incline was getting to me. If you need to take five (or ten, fifteen, twenty, etc) and readjust or refuel, please do so. The last thing you’ll want while hiking is over-exerting yourself, getting hurt, becoming too tired, or (omnipotent being forbidding) passing out. Heat exhaustion, dehydration, hunger, and aches/pains are signals to you to take a break and check in. You’ll have a much more enjoyable hike if you take two breaths before continuing your hike. If you’re like me and are not fond of super long breaks, but rather short, efficient ones, might I suggest taking breaks at look-out points! Almost every break in the dense wood called me to gaze out at the beautiful views. At the same time, I could catch my breath AND enjoy the hike AND not focus on how far we have come.
After the intense incline, we came across the scrambling section. This is the MOST FUN part of the hike. Period. While not quite bouldering, the scrambling requires your FULL body. Get ready to push, pull, crawl, and jump your way through this next section. Be mindful of the blue trail blazes though! You could easily miss them and end up (literally) walking off a cliff. The number of times I quoted Donkey from Shrek was bordering on annoying when every time I saw a cool rock formation I complimented the boulder.
If I saw a rock, I most likely climbed on top of it. Maybe I wanted to feel like the Queen of the World. Maybe I liked the superiority I felt when I looked down on my family. Maybe I wanted to give my height-fearing mother an aneurysm (that’s a joke). Maybe I wanted to get the best view of all the land around me. Maybe I just like climbing (I climbed for almost all of these reasons)! You’ll be scrambling of rocks until you get to the summit so brace yourself! Please be careful though and take your time!
Then we reached the summit. Wow. 360 degrees of green tree-topped hills as far as the eye can see. I am so grateful the day was bright and clear. The cool elevation air, the stunning summit view, the adrenaline of standing on the top of the mountain were enough to make a permanent image in my mind. I want to formally apologize to the couple I
accidentally interrupted smooching on the summit. I promise I saw the tops of your heads and looked away (honestly, you guys are goals). In triumph, I pounded half a peach-mango body armor (the superior flavor) and took in the view. The number of panoramas I took was probably unnecessary and definitely sucked the life of my phone. Was it worth it? Yes.
One review of Old Rag called the trek “brutally awesome.” That is a perfect way to describe the hike. The climb is brutal. I sweat A LOT and I HATE sweating. My legs were really powering through some of those inclines. But, the sweat was worth the view. Whatever you believe, the sights of Old Rag are amazing and make you thank whatever created it. Part of me wishes I brought a picnic, but alas, I was not about to carry five sandwiches, chips, drinks, etc up the mountain. Instead, I just marveled.
Bring more fluids than you think you need. My group of five brought seven Body Armors and three full water bottles. Why on earth did we not bring more? The park recommends bringing a liter per person, but I would bring a bit extra. While I rationed my water, I had to give some to my family who powered through their drinks. Of course, I don’t regret sharing at all, but we were all a bit dehydrated by the end of the hike. Learn from our mistake and bring PLENTY of water. However much you think is enough, bring more.
After spending enough time looking out at the mountains of Virginia, we began our descent. The person who was on the brink of insanity magically changed their mood as the incline became a decline. With gravity and momentum on our side, the way down was much faster (but the distance is longer mind you). Personally, I prefer going down to going up. I was surprised to hear one person in my family state how they liked going up far better than going down. In my head, I wondered how on earth they could have that opinion, but I understood (a little) when the decline forced my legs to land heavy on the path and my hips to (as my family member said) move as if I were dancing the merengue. Still, I liked going down. There was less sweating, less effort, and I could just let gravity and momentum quicken my pace.
Throughout the trail, but especially on my way down, I was scouring the dense forest for animals. Oh, how I wanted to see a bear (at a safe distance). Unfortunately (or fortunately), I didn’t spot one. Someone in my family did and I was only slightly jealous. For my part, I saw a deer really close up, a few turkeys, a swallowtail butterfly eating horse poo, and way too many gnats, flies, and daddy long leg spiders. There was also a crow chilling on the summit ledge and strangely, that was the only bird I saw (I did hear a lot of woodpeckers though).
Pack out your trash and maintain the trail. If you carelessly leave your litter on ANY National Park (or anywhere for that matter) I hope guilt follows you. Sorry if that is blunt, but that is how I feel about people who just leave their trash everywhere. Old Rag is bear country but is home to a plethora of different animals. Your trash can make them very sick. Not only does it harm the fauna, but it also dirties the experience for your fellow humans. I cam to Old Rag to see nature, not your nasty tissue or your empty water bottle. Here is to the Rangers and volunteers who pick up after those who refuse to pack out.
As I said, Old Rag is bear country, but it is also tick country. If you come across a bear, don’t engage. If it is too close for comfort, make yourself as big as possible and strike up the band! Loud noises usually deter the bears. In regards to ticks, put on bug spray. After your hike, check yourself thoroughly. Thankfully, I emerged from the trail tick-free, but I also doused myself in DEET.
I loved hiking Old Rag. I loved the exertion, the challenge, the environment, the views, all of it. Okay, maybe not all of it, but the only thing I really disliked was the sweating. If I could hike without sweating, life would be nearly perfect. Alas, I am human and I came off the trail sweating like a pig. But, the sweat was almost a reward. It symbolized that my body was working hard. I had done something difficult and my body was strong enough to carry me all the way. Shout out to my deodorant for keeping me smelling relatively decent too. I can’t say the same for someone else in my family though…
When I reached the end of the hike I was joyous. Not only because the finish meant the promise of food and water and a place to sit, but because, again, I had done something people claimed was difficult.
The hike was difficult, but that is part of what made the climb fun! I felt accomplished, satisfied, relieved, and a bit bittersweet. Finishing the hike meant leaving the beautiful views and invigorating environment behind. Luckily, I took enough pictures for the entirety of my group.
After Old Rag, I look forward to hiking more in the future. I hope you all have a chance to experience the immense beauty of Old Rag. It was really a fun trip. I can’t wait to share my future adventures and travels with you!
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