“It’s worth it,” I said when I voluntarily heaved myself out of bed at 4:45 a.m. on a Saturday. I’d spent a week deliberating, talking myself in and out of hiking Old Rag and then, finally, in a fit of decisiveness, I stopped making excuses and decided to just fucking do it.
Old Rag is one of the most popular hikes in Virginia. It’s 9ish miles, depending on how you hike it, there’s a 1.5 mile rock scramble I’d been repeatedly warned about and it’s listed as hard or very strenuous, depending on your reference. I was, to be completely honest, a little afraid of Old Rag. The National Park Service says it’s the most dangerous hike in Shenandoah National Park and that was enough to give me pause, enough for me to question whether hiking it by myself was the right choice.
I’m a girl who goes into the woods alone with reasonable regularity, but I’m also a girl who respects the wild and never, ever wants to get into any sort of trouble that necessitates a rescue. When it comes to risk-taking in the wilderness, I’m generally cautious. I take risks, yes, because I’m a woman in the woods alone and that by itself is risky, but I try to mitigate the danger as best I can. I rarely hike on trails where I’m completely alone. I always let someone know where I’m going and when I’m expected back. I take water and snacks and a small first aid kit with me every time I hike and I try really hard to be smart and prepared when I’m in the woods.
I have a hard time differentiating between the caution that keeps me safe and the self-doubt that tells me I can’t. I’ve let self-doubt win before. I’ve let it keep me from adventures, from exploring the outer limits of my comfort zone and it’s caused me to turn back when I could have gone further.
When I started thinking about hiking Old Rag, I started thinking about doubt. The trail is hard, yes, but it’s a trail that’s hiked by thousands and thousands of ill-prepared and wild-illiterate park visitors every single year. If they could do it, I could do it. The mountains of Shenandoah National Park are the mountains I grew up in, the ones I ran wild through as a baby cat. They’re part of me, and after much deliberation, I realized I needed to take back an adventure that doubt had almost taken from me.
I pulled into the parking lot just as the sun was coming up. Everyone said I had to go early, told me the trail gets busy on nice days, so busy that lines form along the rock scramble as the hiker hoard maneuvers through it. So there I was, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, mine just one of ten cars in the parking lot.
I headed toward the trailhead anxious and excited. I didn’t know what to expect, not really. I’d done a bunch of research, read trail reviews and tried to get an accurate gauge of how challenging the hike would be for me, but I still had no idea.
“Here we go,” I said to myself. “Finally.”
I spent the first few miles of the hike trying to focus on what was right in front of me. It was quiet, the sun was slowly lighting up the forest while birds chattered back and forth about the morning. I wanted to enjoy every step, every minute, but all I could think about was the rock scramble. I rolled around the advice I’d gotten about Old Rag over and over as I walked, wondering how hard it would be, what the views would be like, if there was going to be ice or water on the rocks.
A few miles up the trail, there’s a sign that says, “NO CAMPING BEYOND THIS POINT.” I stopped, took a picture. This sign had nothing to do with me, I wasn’t camping, but I knew it what it meant: I’d reached the rock scramble.
I plunged forward, trying hard to temper my anxious excitement. Finding and following the blue blazes that guide you through the rock scramble can feel like a scavenger hunt. They lead you up and over boulders, down into cracks, up a staircase, under a rock, through a crevice.
Somewhere in the middle I stopped to catch my breath. I looked around, cracked my knuckles and took a few minutes to appreciate how much fun I was having. I’d worried so much about the rock scramble, had let my caution and worry keep me from the trail for months. It was challenging, yes. I had to think my way through a few tough spots along the scramble, I was breathing hard, had scraped a few fingers, but mostly, I was having fun.
At the summit, it was just me and two guys who had passed me on the rock scramble. They were both alone, both doing their own thing and I found a quiet place away from them to sit, drink my trail beer and munch on my Pringles while I contemplated the view.
This is my favorite part, the part in the middle where you get to enjoy the hard thing you’ve done, gaze across a stunning landscape and sit for a while with your thoughts. This feels good every time, in the desert or the forest. It’s the way I feel in that moment, on top of mountains, perched beside a waterfall or walking across a salt flat, that makes me want to keep going. It’s what drives me through the trip planning process. It’s what pushes me through the anxiety and the worry and the self-doubt. It’s knowing that I’ll make it to an incredible place, that I’ll get to put my pack down, open up a snack and be able to exist for a few minutes or an hour without anyone or anything demanding something from me. In those moments, I’m just me, a tiny speck in a great big world living and existing completely for myself.
NICE TO KNOW
- Allow 4-8 hours to complete the Old Rag circuit. I did it in just under five hours, moving fairly quickly with several photo breaks and a 30-45 minute break at the summit to drink my beer and eat my Pringles.
- You can hike Old Rag as a circuit (9.1 miles) or an out and back (8.2 miles). If you choose to go down via the rock scramble, know that you’ll be going against the flow of hiker traffic and on busy days everyone will hate you.
- Dogs are not allowed on Old Rag.
- Take water and snacks with you. Dehydration is one of the most common issues on the trail.
- Visit Hiking Upward for trail reviews by all sorts of people during all times of the year.
- Hiking Old Rag requires an Shenandoah National Park entrance permit ($30 per vehicle) which can be purchased from a ranger or via self-pay at the Old Rag Fee Station. You can also purchase an annual pass, valid for free admission at more than 2,000 federal recreation sites, including this one.