Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Old Rag Mountain

Being stuck at home for several days thanks to Hurricane Sandy makes us especially appreciative of the power of nature... not just the destructive power, but also its awe-inspiring beauty and therapeutic effects on the soul.  Washington, DC isn't just a city of power and culture, it is also an area surrounded by natural wonders worth exploring.  And since we've been cooped up on telework for the last few days, we thought it would be nice to create a miniseries of posts dedicated to fresh air and stretching your legs in the great outdoors.

Any discussion of hiking in the Mid-Atlantic region should begin with Old Rag Mountain.  Located within a 2 hour drive of DC on the eastern side of Shenandoah National Park, this approximately 9 mile loop tops most nature lovers' to-do lists.  And rightfully so.  The trail is an enjoyable, yet challenging, combination of well-groomed paths, strenuous switch-backs, rocky scrambles, and unparalleled views.  The only downside is the crowds.  Disneyland-sized crowds.

Everything we read about the trail said to arrive no later than 7 am.  Being the overachievers that we are, we arrived at 5 am.  Yeah, you read that right.  5 am.

We were going to do Old Rag on a weekend at the peak of the fall colors.  That meant going down to Culpeper the night before, staying in a motel, and arriving at the trail before the crowds showed up.  On the drive down, however, we learned that there would be a spectacular meteor shower (Orionids).  This altered our plans.  Now the goal was to be on the trail early enough to see the stars and a meteor or two.  In other words, 5 am.

Mission accomplished.  Stumbling out of bed at exactly 3:59 am, we got to the Old Rag parking lot a little after 5, hit the trail (almost a mile from the lot) by headlamp by 5:30, and arrived at the first overlook for sunrise.  Was it worth it?  Oh yeah!  And yes, we saw a few meteors.

We can't tell you much about the loop's 2 miles of switchbacks to get to the overlook (it was dark) but we can tell you that the next 1.5 miles of scrambling was lots of fun.  If you go, be prepared to squeeze and contort your body in yoga-esque ways to get up, over, and through the rocky terrain.  It isn't rock climbing, but you will need to use your hands and knees in many areas.

This is where you'll most appreciate your efforts to arrive early.  The benefits of solitude while in the wilderness are obvious.  Less obvious is the fact that those who sleep in will be in stop and go traffic throughout their climb.  I can't imagine coming all that way to escape the city just to find the frustrations of rush hour traffic on the Beltway.

After you scramble to the summit, the rest of the way is mostly wide open trail and fire road, which is an alternate out and back route for those who want to summit without the scramble.

By the time we were back at our car it was 11:20 am.  There, we were met by hoards of hikers of various ages and physical abilities just arriving at the trail.  After seeing no more than a dozen or so people on our hike, we encountered several hundred on the road between the parking lot and the trailhead.  I think I'd rather endure another few hurricanes than be stuck on a trail with half the Delmarva population in front of me.

J Says

Like B said, Old Rag is a fantastic combination of rock scramble, hiking, and scenic views.  If you want the scenic view to be of the mountain and not the butt of the hiker in front of you, go early.  Did we emphasize this enough?  OK good.

I highly recommend driving out the night before and staying in a cheap motel in Culpeper (the Best Western was clean and comfortable and only $90). Not only does it make the wake-up time more manageable, you can also grab a relaxing dinner in town (for us that meant Taco Bell and Cold Stone Creamery), tour the local Walmart, and go to bed early.

I'll leave you with a wardrobe tip: wear durable pants.  Due to all the scrambling, you're going to be sliding on your behind a lot.  Nobody wants to do the second half of the hike with scraped up legs (from wearing shorts) or a hole in their pants.  A pair of hiking pants or thicker workout pants should do the trick.

Happy hiking!

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