We don’t have many national parks within a day’s drive of Fairfield County. Sure, we have a national scenic trail or two, and national historic sites, national heritage corridors, memorials, seashores, and so on, but few OMG!-that-critter-wants-my-breakfast national parks. Acadia, in Maine, is 435 miles away and, if truth be told, a beautiful but quite tame place once you get there. Virginia’s Shenandoah – 350 miles in the opposite direction – is our nearest national park, and four times Acadia’s size. All the more surprising that I disregarded it for so long.
National parks are not necessarily top of a hiker’s to do list. Other lands – national forests, long-distance trails, federal wilderness areas – often offer more tempting hikes. But, until a few months ago, I had not even looked into what Shenandoah has to offer. That changed when an old friend suggested meeting in the park – a very old friend in fact. Mike and I first met in 1971, on the first day of big school in England. We were 11 years old, starting out at a grammar school as traditional as Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, but without any of its magic and opulence (or dormitories). We shared a school for seven years, then went our separate ways. I had not seen Mike in 37 years, until his son’s graduation from a Virginia college lured him over the Atlantic for the first time. In e-mails exchanged before his journey, Mike said that he and his partner liked to hike. What luck! I started reading up on Shenandoah.
Shenandoah NP is long and thin. I had driven it north to south (twice, separated by 20 years) on the 105 miles of Skyline Drive. Skyline Drive was the main reason I had disregarded the park for hiking purposes. The road follows the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains, serving up one spectacular view after another. I assumed that the margin of trees on either side would be narrow, and all hiking would be within sight and sound of the cruising cars. It is true that the Park, in places, is just half a mile across. But mostly it is broader, and around Skyland Resort – where Mike had chosen to stay – it was as much as eight miles east to west. What is more, 40% of the Park’s area is federally-designated wilderness, where the human footprint is meant to be faint and temporary.
I met up with Mike, and partner Lou, at Skyland Resort, accommodation made special only by its superb views of the Shenandoah Valley 3,000 feet below. Somewhere in the course of a hectic evening of catch-up, we decided that our hike the next day would be Old Rag Mountain. Now, my research had shown that Old Rag is a very popular hike. The National Park Service website singles it out, emphasizing both its popularity and danger. The summit lies five miles southeast of Skyland as the crow flies, and there were certainly trails that would take us to it. But nearly everyone who climbs Old Rag starts not at Skyland, but on the eastern edge of the Park, where the Virginia Piedmont meets the Blue Ridge. It was tempting to forge our own route, but I didn’t think we had time to prepare properly for a 15-mile trek down into the hollows, up to the summit, and then back again. So we jumped in my car and drove to the trailhead for the popular loop (a mere nine miles).
The drive – 30 miles to reach a place the crow would find in five – would have been worth it for itself. Virginia Route 231 served up a scene of everything rural America can be, but often is not – undulating fields, rustic barns, impeccably kept farmhouses; not a billboard or junked pickup in sight. The trailhead for Old Rag lay at the end of a lane that followed the full-flowing Hughes River to the foot of the Blue Ridge. That we were heading out on a popular hike was clear from the good-sized parking area, but we had little company for the first few miles, a steady climb through sunny woods. Then Old Rag began in earnest all at once. The trail came out to boulders, the first intimation of the scrambles that provoke so many accidents and rescues. And it seemed as if other hikers were appearing magically now from the gaps between the rocks to join us on the summit, join us in looking across greening hollows to the ridge beyond, where the woods remained gray and leafless.
Although the scrambles trend upward, the ascent is mostly lost in the far greater effort of navigating over, between, down, and even under the immense boulders that make up Old Rag’s summit. Abandon all dignity, ye who enter here! You will spend a lot of time on your butt, and much of the remainder showing that part of your anatomy to the hiker behind and beneath you. The reward for all your stretching, squeezing, lowering, and pulling (to name just some of the required exercises) is views that alternate between Piedmont farmland and the Blue Ridge as the trail twists across the summit blade. After several false summits, Mike, Lou and I arrived at the real thing. We lunched on its fissured boulders; and laid out before us was demonstration of how wrong I had been about Shenandoah National Park. We were facing west, trying to pick out the Blue Ridge summits – Hawksbill, Stony Man – that we would hike over the next day on the Appalachian Trail. We also tried to pick out Skyline Drive, but it was mostly lost in the landscape, a faint line on the other side of miles of wilderness. (A few photos of our Old Rag hike can be found on Facebook – “McWilliams Takes a Hike”, Albums, “Day Hike Notes – Old Rag Mountain”, no login needed.)