Until two weeks ago, I had visited Shenandoah National Park twice. The first time, in March 1994, my wife and I drove the length of Skyline Drive with a six-month-old baby for company. Baby had a cold. The second time, in May 2014, I drove the length of Skyline Drive with my 20-year-old daughter for company, the snuffely baby all grown up. On neither occasion did we stop to hike. And in all the intervening years I had never thought of SNP as a hiking destination. In my mind, the park was Skyline Drive, and any hikes it might offer would be within sight and sound of the tourist road.
Then, last year, a friend from schooldays in England who I had recently reconnected with online, said he hoped to make a first visit to the US in April 2015 to see his son graduate from a Virginia college. Over the course of 12 months, this became a plan to meet in SNP and start the work of catching up on 37 years. Mike and his partner Lou liked to hike, so we set about the work on the trails.
DATE: Tuesday, April 21st.
START & FINISH: Parking area on Virginia SR 600, eastern edge of SNP.
ROUTE: Clockwise loop using SR 600, Ridge Trail, Saddle Trail, then Weakley Hollow Fire Road back to SR 600.
DISTANCE: 9 miles.
TIME: About 6 hours.
TERRAIN: The summit of Old Rag is 2,300 feet above the parking area, but both ascent and descent are mostly quite gradual, and on good trails. BUT, in the words of the National Park Service, there is “a strenuous rock scramble that requires good upper body strength”. Too true! On the approach to the summit, there is in fact a lengthy stretch involving multiple scrambles that require all kinds of body contortions. It is the only tough part of the hike, but it is tough. Check out what Ranger Bob has to say about Preparing to Hike Old Rag Mountain.
MAP: We used the Appalachian Trail map for SNP Central District. Old Rag is not on the A.T. but the map covers other SNP trails.
WILDLIFE: Turkey vultures and unidentified raptors.
BREAKFAST: For me, muesli and coffee before driving to the trailhead.
LUNCH: Assorted trail food on the summit, looking toward the ridge 4-5 miles west that carries (mostly invisible) Skyline Drive.
UPS: Mike and Lou’s obvious enjoyment of the hike and scene.
DOWNS: If I have to find something, feeling my knees a bit and wondering if they might one day become the first part of my body to need replacement.
KIT: Fleece needed at the summit. Poles a hindrance on the scrambles (mine no longer collapse properly).
COMPANY: Mike and Lou, of course, plus a quantity of other hikers that was less than a crowd but more than a smattering.