“Did you see those bears back there??”
I had just started out for the summit of Old Rag when I came upon this father/son hiking tandem looking back down the trail.
“Yes, really. Just down there trail over there,” the father points about 200 yards downtrail exactly where I had been walking all of two minutes before. “It was two little bears and a mama bear. I can’t believe you didn’t see them, they literally just crossed the trail.”
I just shook my head…truth is I was in full-on hustle-hike mode. I’ve been to Old Rag several times, but today was on assignment for work and I didn’t have a lot of time to make it to the summit and back down. So I was huffing it to the top where I’d hopefully run into a bunch of satisfied customers. As such, I wasn’t paying the slightest bit of attention to my surroundings, and apparently almost got eaten by a bear or three.
I ended up hiking much of the trail with these two, stopping to interview fellow hikers along the way. I didn’t make it to the summit, I ran out of time. But I had my interviews and I’d been there before. Still though it’s gut-wrenching to turn back on a hike before getting to the destination…especially a destination as pretty as Old Rag.
After moving to DC, Old Rag very quickly became one of my favorite places to escape. It’s relatively close to home, about a two hour drive (without traffic) from Dupont Circle, and the views are simply stunning. Don’t let the name fool you…I mean it sounds like something disgusting that you might find stuffed in a pipe under your kitchen sink. The name is short for Old Raggedy…basically because the summit looks like a ragged edge from afar, especially compared with the smooth ridges of the Shenandoah. The top of the trail is home to some of the best rock scrambling in the East. Huge granite boulders seem to defy gravity perched atop large rock exposures. Massive cracks invite climbers to try their hand at some bouldering and rock climbing.
The rock itself feels very similar to what you’d find in the Sierra Nevada in a place like Yosemite, they share similar geological histories. Both mountain ranges were formed deep beneath the earth before continental drift pushed them skyward. These igneous rocks cooled under deep pressure, which gives them their density…and ultimately that’s why Old Rag is still around some 200 million years later. The cracks are seams formed during the cooling process that have been infiltrated by water and wind, widening microscopically with every season.
What does all this mean?? It means that when you get up to the top…you’re gonna get a great view with a little adventure tossed in for good measure. The hike is strenuous, but don’t let that term deter you. I’ve met plenty of first-time/beginner hikers at the top. It does mean that you should prepare a little bit:
1. Wear comfortable shoes, and it helps if they have some grip on the soles. You don’t want to be slipping on the rocks at the top. And don’t wear your brand new hiking shoes, make sure they’re worn in unless you want some gnarley blisters.
2. Snacks, snacks and more snacks. I love packing a lunch and eating at the top, it’s a bit of a celebration for making it to the summit. Also stay hydrated, 3 liters of water in the summer is a pretty good standard. The best way to carry that is with a Camelbak, or something similar. And have some salty snacks to eat on the way up…all that water is useless without some electrolytes.
3. Familiarize yourself with the hike before you get there. Get a guidebook or check out a site with trail notes. Cell service is spotty around the mountain, so don’t depend on having access to directions if you get lost. The trail’s pretty easy to figure out…just follow the blue blazes. But in the rock scramble section it’s pretty easy to veer off the path. If you get a good rundown beforehand you’ll know when to expect the tricky sections and you’ll know what landmarks to watch out for.
4. Get there early on the weekends. Get to the trailhead parking before 8 in the summer. The parking is actually about a mile from the trailhead, so you’ll have to hike that part roadside before the actual trail starts. The parking lot isn’t huge and it does fill up…the last thing you want to do is just park on the road. Nothing sucks more than finishing off a 9 mile hike and discovering that your car has been towed…in the middle of nowhere. If you can, do the hike on a weekday. Parking’s not a worry and the trail is way less crowded.
5. Keep an eye to the sky. The exposed granite at the top can be a magnet for lightning. So check the forecast before you head up…even with the all clear this part of the country is prone to pop-up thunderstorms in the summertime. If you hear thunder, pay heed. And that may even mean turning around, but that’s better than getting struck by lightning. Also note that there are a few shelters on the trail past the summit, one is called Byrd’s Nest. If you find yourself near the summit as a surprise storm blows in that’s a good place to wait it out.
6. Pack in, pack out...this is less a tip and more of a demand. If you take something onto the trail make sure it comes back with you. Mainly this applies to trash. For whatever reason there are people out there who think it’s acceptable to just toss aside wrappers and bottles. Do us all a favor and resist that urge to be a lazy human being. Thanks 🙂
Most importantly…have fun! And take your time, the summit will be there when you get there.