Located in Virginia, Shenandoah National Park is a place that I visited when I was about 7 years old, and an honorary member of my brother’s boy scout troop. I have fond memories of hiking Old Rag Mountain, and have been meaning to get back for years. Finally, the chance arose for Ethan and I to escape for a few days, and I suggested Shenandoah NP.
We had roughly 5 days/4 nights for a camping trip, and we knew that we wanted to do some backpacking there as well. We had little time before the trip to actually plan out any routes so we figured we would do this on the way up. It turns out that Shenandoah is a long, narrow park that is effectively divided in two by a 105-mile long main highway – Skyline Drive – that transects it pretty much straight down the middle, along the mountain ridge. This meant that while the park itself is around 200,000 acres (805.5 km2) – placing it 32nd in size out of the 59 national parks – it lacks sufficient acreage to support backpacking and hike-thrus. Accordingly, it is a national park full of (mostly) short hikes, making it great for beginning hikers and day visitors. Shenandoah is also home to 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail, much of which runs parallel to Skyline Drive.
There are over 500 miles of maintained trails, the most popular being the Old Rag Mountain Trail – the trail of my memories. We arrived in Shenandoah on July 4th after driving up from Raleigh, NC. We had no concrete plan, and due to the holiday time, were a little nervous about finding a campground. We were lucky that we arrived early enough in the day to grab one of the last spots within Big Meadows campground, a large campground facility complex – and the largest one in SNP. However, we could only stay there for one night (due to reservations) and figured we would be backpacking from there on.
We ended up grabbing dinner at the Big Meadows Lodge restaurant as we were low on backpacking food and wanted to preserve what we had. The Lodge itself overlooks a broad valley, and it was relaxing to sit on the porch as the sun set lower in the sky, with a glass of beer in hand. Dinner itself was rather unremarkable but satisfying – Ethan and I both opted for the vegetarian options – Ethan had a mushroom ragout over polenta, and I had a portabella sandwich. Later that evening we went to check out the local ranger program, led by a young ranger in the topic of “Mini Monsters”, or aquatic macroinvertebrates. Ethan and I both enjoyed it and learned a few species to look out for as we hiked – caddisflies, stoneflies, water boatmen and other aquatic inhabitants. I usually neglect thinking about the insect world, but they live on a whole different scale and aquatic macroinvertebrates inhabit a whole different world. I always found dragonfly larvae fascinatingly terrifying – and our ranger did not fail to mention their voracious predatory habits during their long aquatic stage.
The next morning we decided to get up early and hike Old Rag. To actually hike the mountain, though, entailed leaving the park through the northern gate, then driving back down south along the edge to park at the base of the trail. All in all, this took a little over an hour to get from Big Meadows to Old Rag parking. SNP has a pamphlet for this popular trail, and warn hikers of the “challenging and extremely strenuous” conditions of this trail. They recommend having at least 7 hours to hike it in its entirety.
We started the hike around 8 am, and it was already hot and humid. There were a few hikers not too far before us and behind us, so the hike was lacking in solitude…but that’s okay because we knew to expect this. The first two miles or so were really hard, but this was due to the stagnant air and high humidity. Ethan’s wool shirt was thoroughly soaked within the first 30 mins. However, after we gained a little elevation, the humidity seemed to disperse somewhat and it was a little easier to hike.
As we hiked up, we stopped at various viewpoints. After about 3 hours we reached an area where there was a small traffic jam as people had to squeeze through a tight space in between some large boulders – as well as climb up and over these boulders. Some stopped here and didn’t want to go further, even though not long past this obstacle lied the summit. Here is where you would want to have some good shoes with good grip – the granite is coarse and gritty with large particles that slough off easily.
And the summit is beautiful with sweeping vistas of Shenandoah Valley and beyond. A great place to stop and rest and have a snack (or a nap!) while admiring the view and relaxing in the breeze.
The hike back down is easier and there are a couple of options. We took the route that ends in a stretch of fire road that parallels the river for a length. Easy, green, and lush with the deciduous forest that surrounds you on the path.