Sunday, April 5, 2015

Old Rag Mountain

April 3, 2015, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia.

This was the best part of my abbreviated Shenandoah trip. Being out in the woods is a good thing, no matter what.

Friday morning 8:45am, we arrive in the parking lot for the trailhead. It is overcast with intermittent sprinkles of rain. The forecast is for rain off and on in the morning, with chances of thunderstorms throughout much of the afternoon and early evening. Winds are gusty and persistent, and are supposed to get even stronger as the day wears on. Temps begin in the high 50's and are supposed to get into the low 70's in the afternoon.
Weakley Run

This hike is on National Park Service lands for Shenandoah National Park, and this is such a popular hike that there is a ranger shed at the parking lot for collecting fees. We pay the $15 weeklong pass per car, and make sandwiches. This is a very popular hike, and the parking lot, which is quite large, routinely fills up. Between the crappy forecast and the fact that it is Good Friday, there are only a handful of cars in the lot when we set out at around 9:15.

The first 0.8 miles of the hike is up a paved (but largely unused) dead end road that ends at the real trailhead. We bear left up the hill on the Ridge Trail, which will rise gently for a little while before switchbacking up the shoulder of the mountain. Over the course of the first three miles of this 8 mile loop, there will be some hard climbing, rock scrambling, and hand over hand climbing before attaining the summit. The views from the top are supposedly worth the routine crowds, but with today's overcast skies and rain, there might not be too much to see.
More Weakley Run

As we start up the Ridge Trail, I notice almost immediately that while my legs feel good, I have no wind whatsoever. I am not a great climber under any circumstances, but this is noticeably unusual. Not in the sense that I am worried about having a heart attack or being in any kind of distress, I am just very tired and find it hard to catch my breath. We are only perhaps 1 mile up the real trail when I decide that I need to do what is right for me, and tell the group that I will hike the easier loop around the bottom of the mountain and meet them somewhere on the far side.

We have seen few people to this point, but as I hike back down toward the trailhead I pass 7 or 8 groups of people, averaging 3-5 people per group, who are going up. I am feeling fine now that I am not climbing, but I am coughing some, so I am starting to think maybe the cold I had earlier in the week is lingering.
Stone cairns

Back at the trailhead (0.8 miles from the lot), I head the other way around the loop on an old fire road that is the Weakley Hollow Trail. The first mile of this parallels the banks of Weakley Run, a picturesque mountain stream. Knowing I have time to kill while the others do the tough work, I spend a decent amount of time rock hopping around the stream and taking pictures and video.

Further up the trail, the stream veers off and the hiking gets quieter. Ted has given me one of a pair of his walkie talkies, and somewhere on the lower Weakley Hollow Trail, I get an announcement that they have reached the summit.
Yet more Weakley Run

The hollow I am hiking through has signs of settlement from long ago in the form of rough stone walls and stone cairns whose purpose I cannot fathom. They are rectangular in shape, made of the same fieldstone as the walls, but are not hollow like foundations would be, and seem to be solid up to a height of several feet. Curious. I like old stuff like this. Which I guess explains the Archaeology college degree.

About 2.5 miles up this trail, the Saddle Ridge trail goes up the other side of the mountain. The guys will be coming down this way. I'm feeling OK going slow, so I will go partway up and meet them. Somewhere around this time I get another announcement that they reached the actual summit. In the overcast, they couldn't tell that the first high point they reached was a false summit, and they had another section of difficult trail and climbing to reach the real summit.
Saddle Ridge Trail, toward Skyline Drive

On my side, I climbed a little ways past the Old Rag Day Shelter (a small open sided picnic hut), and sat on a large boulder and had a peaceful wait for the others. After a while, they came down the trail, and we did an uneventful 3.4 (ish) miles back to the car, arriving at about 2:30pm.

All told, I hiked an easy 9 miles at a leisurely pace, according to the GPS. The others did about 8 miles, but a much more difficult hike to be sure.
Old Rag Mountain from Skyline Drive

I'm happy that the guys had some visibility at the top of the mountain and were able to get partial views off the mountain. Not completely clear views, but certainly better than the total overcast and zero visibility they could have gotten.

As for me, the idea of summiting a mountain isn't the be-all and end-all of a successful hike, but I do hate missing a good vista and the related photo ops. Fortunately, I also like streams, rocks and laurel thickets, and I got to see plenty of those.
Old Rag Mountain - Part of my hike

Notes on the hike track: Parking lot is at upper right. The gray area is the 0.8 miles to get to the actual National Park Boundary and the start of the real hike. I forgot to turn on my GPS, but the first mile or so of the Ridge Trail goes almost due south from where the gray and green areas meet. It switchbacks up onto the ridge line, and then climbs west/southwest up to the summit (at 3291 feet; the elevation gain from parking is about 2510 feet). From the summit, it drops west/northwest along the ridge line to meet up with my hike track. The loop is typically done clockwise, as the guys did. In total, it is listed as an 8 mile loop. My linear out and back shown here is about 3.5 miles each way, with an added 1 mile out and 1 mile back that is not shown. Total for me is therefore around 9 miles.

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