- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 22, 2003

“We’ve gone about one-seventh of the way up,” hiker Richard Meinhold says, studying his altimeter on the trail up Old Rag Mountain in the Blue Ridge.

A huff of surprise goes up from the climbers behind him, fellow members or officers of the Capital Hiking Club, one of the area’s most active outdoor groups. As they stop for breath and wait for stragglers, Mr. Meinhold reminds them of what they must have sensed: The rugged 3.3-mile trail is so winding that they’ve come a long way but haven’t climbed very high.

This is, after all, Old Rag, the Shenandoah National Park’s most formidable, and most rewarding, hike. Somewhere up in the mist is the goal, six more sevenths distant, still at least an hour and a half away.

Old Rag isn’t as rugged or tough as some peaks in the West. At 3,291, feet it isn’t even the highest peak in Shenandoah National Park, ranking well below the toppers, Hawksbill at 4,051 feet and Stony Man at 4,010.

Even for the committed hiker, it’s a grind, but it has become one of the park’s most popular hikes because of a combination of challenging bouldering and a respectable elevation climb that many of the other popular hikes lack.

Listed as a “strenuous” hike in the authoritative Falcon Guide for Shenandoah, the trail rises quickly for about a mile and a half before it reaches the infamous “Rock Scramble,” a mile-long shimmy and squeeze over and past boulders where the trail becomes something quite different from a dirt path through the woods. Three false summits and at least two mazes lie between the trail head and the real summit.

Barring bad weather — snow, rain or hurricane — there is little danger here for the cautious hiker. However, Old Rag still requires a level of concentration and attention to the path that other Shenandoah hikes do not demand.

• • •

Mr. Meinhold and his companions — Roslyn Rubin, Claudia Seelig, Susan Klein and Stephanie Allgaier — have come prepared. They have plenty of water, warmer clothes for the peak, tough boots and lunch. They have caught their breath and are ready to continue the ascent.

There are alternative routes to the summit of Old Rag, but the most popular begins near the small parking area at the end of state Route 600. From this trail head, the loop is 7.2 miles.

The trail is wide and rocky, and it ascends rapidly. Lush undergrowth blankets the forest floor, and in places not far from the trail lie huge piles of boulders, a hint of what is to come.

At about a mile and a half, the hikers reach the opening of the forest, where the leaf canopy opens to reveal the beginning of what will be the spectacular views that make this hike so popular. Massive boulders rise from the earth, marking the beginning of the Rock Scramble. The summit is obscured by haze and a close cloud cover, but the valley below unfolds into the distance.

“The view is unbelievable,” says Susan Klein, the club president, as they emerge from the trees and onto the boulders.

Ms. Rubin is looking in the direction of the hazy summit. “Every time I’ve been up here it’s been like this,” she said.

Mr. Meinhold agrees, but Ms. Klein says she has been up there in clear weather. “I remember clear and really hot. And lots and lots of Boy Scout troops.”

These boulders are all that remain of a once-massive mountain range. A billion years old, they are some of the oldest in the park. Time and erosion have ground down the mountain range, wearing away the igneous rock and exposing house-size boulders. The giant tumbles of granite create narrow passes and tunnels.

On high-traffic weekends and holidays, the narrow passes are barriers that can create exactly the kinds of jams people left the city to avoid. Often barely navigable by only one person, they also have the added dimension of height, so even when one hiker can squeeze through quickly, she still has to go up.

Ms. Seelig bemoans these types of bottlenecks before the first is reached, and her climbing partners discuss methods of getting up. The most widely accepted method is to put feet on either side and squeeze up.

Still, this is the fun part. For some, Ms. Seelig, says, “the bouldering” is the real draw to Old Rag. “We’re going over and under and in and around them,” she says. Today the group encounters only one other hiker, who is headed in the opposite direction.

After negotiating one of these bottlenecks, the group pauses for breath again, and the discussion turns to the late Harry F. Byrd Sr., the former Virginia senator who led the effort in the 1930s to create the park and helped popularize the Old Rag hike. Mr. Byrd, for whom the visitor center at Big Meadows and four hikers’ shelters (called Byrd’s Nests) in the park are named, climbed Old Rag annually well into his 70s.

Mr. Meinhold, a keeper of arcane and interesting detail, tells the crew that Mr. Byrd was the brother of Adm. Richard Evelyn Byrd, the aviator and Antarctic explorer, and Thomas Byrd, a federal judge.

Some of the more interesting features of the hike are located near the top. An outcropping of rock hangs impossibly far out over another boulder. At another point lies one of the most often-photographed sections of trail — a staircase carved out of the rock, about 2 feet wide, leading up and under a boulder wedged between two soaring cliff faces.

On the final false summit, the trail levels out and allows the hiker relative ease to move forward. Off the beaten path to the right, high atop a rock outcropping, are the “buzzard baths” once used for washing dishes after dinner in the early days of the Old Rag hike. Back then, mountain men hired by the Skyland Resort’s proprietor would carry all supplies and provisions up to the summit for an overnight stay.

The cloud cover still hasn’t lifted by the time the group reaches the summit. It hangs just overhead, with wisps of mist occasionally blowing through the boulders improbably balanced at the peak. Everyone stakes out his or her own boulder and unpacks a lunch while pulling on fleece sweaters and weatherproof gear. Conversation is limited, as everyone is tired, sweaty and satisfied. The ridge they just climbed snakes down to the east, the false summits looking smaller than they felt while negotiating them.

The break doesn’t last long. The wind picks up, and light sweaters aren’t enough to ward off an icy breeze blowing against sweat-soaked clothing. They collect their trash and begin the long hike down.

The trail continues down the mountain on the Saddle Trail and descends steadily via switchbacks. Soon after leaving the summit, the hikers reach Byrd’s Nest Shelter 1, a three-sided, roofed structure with a fireplace, the ideal spot to wait out bad weather. About another mile down the trail is the Old Rag Shelter, similarly well-suited for bad weather but slightly smaller.

After another quarter-mile comes the intersection of the Old Rag Fire Road and the Weakley Hollow Road. From here the trail levels out and becomes wide and relatively flat — good for keeping a steady, quick pace.

At this intersection, near a concrete post, was the site of the Old Rag Post Office, the hub of the community living here. At the time of the Shenandoah National Park’s founding in 1935, 465 families still lived in it. Many of them eked out a rough living in this valley along the Weakley Hollow and Old Rag roads. The first house in the area was built in 1750. The community had a one-room schoolhouse, but the small log post office and store was the focal point.

Some of this area’s natural and human history has been explored by Len Wheat, an experienced hiker known to members of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club as “Mr. Bushwhacker.” Mr. Wheat has hacked his way through old, abandoned trails in the Old Rag valley and from those experiences produced an off-trail guide for the PATC, The 18 Cabins of Old Rag.

“You can see some of the vestiges of foundation stones on one of the buildings, but essentially they’re all taken over,” he says in an interview.

More damage was done to the human record by the Pinnacle fire of October-November 2000, a blaze that started at the Pinnacle Picnic Area just off Skyline Drive and merged with a second fire, which began near the summit of Old Rag. Fueled by dry leaves and dead trees , the Pinnacle fire consumed 23,085 acres in the park — 14 percent of total acreage — and an additional 1,112 acres outside.

Before that fire, Mr. Wheat says, many of the structures in the valley were easily identifiable. “One cabin was halfway standing,” he says, “and there was an old chicken coop. There are still some chimneys around; one has a concrete foundation.”

Now, as the Capital Hiking Club members head down into the valley toward the parking lot, some of the better-known peaks are visible to the north and west: Hawksbill, the park’s highest peak, and Stony Man, one of the most popular for its ease of access. Off the right side of the road, a stream winds down the mountain.

This hike can get addictive. Harry F. Byrd Jr., who adopted the tradition of his father, puts the point on it. “I started climbing Old Rag when I was 15,” he has said, “and I stopped when I was 80. It was my father’s favorite and my grandfather’s favorite, and I kind of stuck with it.”

Things to know before climbing

The redoubtable Old Rag Mountain in Shenandoah National Park is famed as a tough, sweaty climb with rewards beyond measure, but it takes planning. Here are a few things hikers should know.

Where to start

The trail head begins at a small parking area at the end of state Route 600. To get there:

• Take U.S. 522 south from Interstate 66 (Exit 6) toward Front Royal to state Route 231, which is 0.8 miles south of Sperryville.

• Go south eight miles on 231, cross the Hughes River, and immediately turn right (west) onto state Route 602.

• Stay on the left side of the Hughes River. The route number changes to 601, 707 and then 600. Do not cross the river.

• At 3.5 miles from Route 231, just beyond Nethers, a Shenandoah National Park parking area appears on the left. It can accommodate 200 cars. Park here and walk 0.8 miles to the small parking area at the end of state Route 600.

• On weekdays, the chances of getting a parking space in the upper lot are better, but it is notoriously difficult to do so on weekends and holidays.

• Once at the trail head, turn left onto the Ridge Trail (marked with blue painted strips, or “blazes”) and climb through the forest.

What to bring

m A good trail guide. Hiking Shenandoah National Park by Bert and Jane Gildart (Falcon Publishing Inc., 2000) is popular. Another is 50 Hikes in Northern Virginia: Walks, Hikes, and Backpacks From the Allegheny Mountains to the Chesapeake Bay, Second Edition, by Leonard M. Adkins (Countryman Press, 2000).

• Flashlight or headlamp.

• Some emergency gear — individual first aid.

• A space blanket.

• Fire starter or matches.

• Water tablets.

• Extra socks. (Always a good idea.)

• Plastic poncho or plastic garbage bags. These are good protection from the rain in an emergency but also nice for sitting on.

Rules and regs

• Anyone older than 16 without a seven-day pass, a yearly pass or a Golden Eagle or Golden Age pass must buy a $5 permit. Permits are available from park personnel on busy weekends and holidays or by self-registration at the trail head.

• If you plan to stay in the backcountry, you must obtain a backcountry permit from one of the visitors’ centers or from the Syria Mercantile Store.

• The park prohibits camping at elevations higher than 2,800 feet on Old Rag.

• Camping is also prohibited at the Byrd’s Nest Shelter No.1 and Old Rag Shelter, but hikers may camp out of sight of those shelters.

• Pets are not allowed on Old Rag.

Where to find hiking buddies

Whether it’s the challenge of Old Rag Mountain or a leisurely stroll along the C&O; Canal a hiker yearns for, he or she can find it through the hikes sponsored by the many outdoor organizations and hiking clubs in the area. Here are a few:

Appalachian Trail Conference

ATC is both a confederation of 31 clubs with delegated responsibility for managing sections of the Appalachian Trail and an individual membership organization. Links to several more area hiking clubs. 304/535-6331. www.appalachiantrail.org.

Capital Hiking Club

Year-round Sunday hikes using chartered bus with pickup points in the District, Virginia and Maryland. Monthly moonlight hikes on the C&O; Canal from early spring to late fall. Call Roslyn Rubin at 703.812.4855, write her at [email protected] for more information or see the Web site at www.capitalhikingclub.org.

Center Hiking Club

Weekend activities year-round. Includes hiking, camping, canoeing, biking and backpacking. www.centerhikingclub.org.

Mountain Club of Maryland

Day and overnight backpacking hikes; bike and canoe trips; cabin, car and tent camping. Beginners and experienced hikers welcome. 410/377-6266. www.mcomd.org.

Potomac Appalachian Trail Club

Numerous outdoor activities monthly, including day hikes, overnight excursions and work trips. 703/242-0639. www.patc.net.

Sierra Club — Metropolitan Washington Regional Outings Program

Hiking series for hikers of all levels of experience in the District, Maryland and Virginia. 202/547-2326. www.mwrop.org.

Wanderbirds Hiking Club

Two chartered hikes every Sunday: an easier 6- to 9-mile hike with up to a 2,000-foot ascent, and a longer, fast hike of 10 or more miles. 301/460-3064. wanderbirds.org.

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