This is oddly late. Possibly too late, but life has been busy with work, the High Holy Days, and a random trip to Cuba. Despite happening two weeks ago, I still want to give my reflections on Old Rag. Many of the hiking resources on the Internet are written by people who really know the ins and outs of hanging out in the outdoors. Obviously, that’s great and important, but doesn’t really do a lot to manage expectations for average people who really want to hike, but don’t know what they’re doing.
It’s not like you have to prove your experience level to get on the trail, so really the only reason why we waited so long to do Old Rag is that I’m super paranoid and overly cautious. At the beginning of the summer, when Sireen and I decided that hiking was going to be “A Thing,” Old Rag was one of the first hikes that we discussed. If I was more fun, we probably would have tackled it immediately, but I made us wait until we got some hiking skills under our belts.
In the interim, there’s been a lot of drama—getting lost, unexpected rain storms, snakes, a run-in with a wasp, a staph infection—but with summer coming to a close, we felt ready to take on the mountain.
Like I said above, we’re hiking amateurs, and we really don’t know anything. We approached this trail armed with knowledge gleaned from googling, a map and instructions printed from HikingUpward, a surprising amount of endurance, and some gear we picked up at REI.
One lesson learned: doing hard trails on crazy hot days is a bad idea. Seriously, what were we thinking? It was humid and muggy and by the time we made it from the parking lot to the trail head, we were covered in sweat. I had sweat in places I don’t even want to discuss, and the situation didn’t get any better as we embarked on a series of switch backs us up the blue blazed Ridge Trail.
As we trekked to the first view point area, we kept passing all of these poorly prepared hikers. This was a grueling ascent. We had to stop every 20 minutes for a brief break. Sireen had to use her inhaler twice. I had to ask her if we needed to turn around because of breathing reasons. I wear a fitbit that measures flights of stairs, and I noticed that we were going at a rate of 1-2 floors per minute.
Maybe this isn’t true for everyone, but for me steepness + heat means that you need proper hydration and food on hand. I would have passed out if I didn’t have both. We were observing people who weren’t even carrying any water. There was one guy holding a plastic bag with some food and water in it. Old Rag has a summit elevation of 3,291 feet, no way I’m carrying a heavy plastic bag up that high.
No surprise, we didn’t see most of these people again once we got to the rock scramble. I try not to wish failure on anyone, but I kind of hope they all turned back.
As we approached the first vista (about 1.9 miles up), we finally started to get a break from the heat. Even though we still had switchbacks to get through, it became noticeably easier once the weight of the humidity was off our shoulders. Sweat drenched and generally yucky, we made it to the vista and took a short break to nom on some jerky (hiking fuel for champions).
Our reprieve was brief as we approached the first of the rock scramble. While I’m not a super experienced rock scrambler, this wasn’t my first rodeo. Like any decent Washingtonian, I’ve made my way around Billy Goat A in Great Falls. I knew this was going to be more challenging, I’d seen pictures and read hike reviews, but it wasn’t until I saw the first giant obstacle that I really understood the challenge ahead of us.
One of the big drawbacks of Old Rag is that it’s popular and crowded. Hiking Upward gives it a 0 for solitude and that rating is earned. But I’ll be real, I don’t think that I would have been able to do this hike without help from our random trail friends. It was only with the help of these awesome strangers that we were able to make our way through the most difficult parts of the trail.
I don’t want to sugar coat this—even with help, it was hard. There were parts where I had to use my limited upper body strength to lift myself up onto the next boulder. Times when I was sure that I only made it to the next element through sheer force of will. I’m almost ashamed to admit that this hike brought out the dreaded “can’t.” Normally, I try to keep myself in good spirits even when I don’t want to, because nothing brings everyone morale down more than when someone gives up. There were two spots where I just couldn’t keep my negativity in check. I looked at the next challenge ahead and just couldn’t.
What was strange about my breaking points is that they didn’t come at the hardest parts of the trail. It’s like, I did so much really hard physical stuff that my brain just couldn’t handle the effort of leaping over the next spot or negotiating how to get my body up the next boulder. I just wanted to sit down and scream, “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.” But I knew if I gave up that it would bring us both down, and I didn’t want to give us permission to fail. So I shored myself up and just did it. And because I proved it was possible, Sireen had to do it too or I would have judged her, and that’s how we made it through.
These brief moments of fail were kind of pathetic, but they were easily forgotten, because there was also awesome stuff happening at every turn – breathtaking 360 degree views, a cool cave to go through, a staircase partially blocked by a boulder that you have to crawl under. Every awful moment was countered by something fun and challenging that made it worth it.
Once we reached the summit, we took some celebratory photos but opted not to chill for very long. We’d gotten kind of a late start (stupid metro) and had another three miles ahead of us, and neither of us wanted to be on the trail after dark.
We made a brief pit stop at the Byrd’s Nest Shelter, which featured a composting toilet that I opted to use. The night before, I was watching the HGTV show Tiny Houses (yes, I know), where I happened to learn about composting toilets, and now I had the chance to experience one! For the record, it was gross, but it gets points for sustainability and not being a cathole. We also saw a deer while we were near the shelter. Yay, nature!
The rest of our hike was very chill as we transitioned to the Saddle Trail and then Weakley Hollow Fire Road to make our way back to the car. Normally, I hate fire roads. The gravel feels awful under my boots, they’re too wide, and they’re boring. But after our earlier excitement, I felt like this one was a welcome respite.
The circuit route (Ridge Trail to Saddle Trail to Weakley Hollow Fire Road) is about 8 miles. From parking lot to parking lot, including short breaks for rest and photos, this hike took us 6 hours and 1 minute (per my Fitbit).
I feel like I should rate this hike, since that’s a thing that normally happens in recaps. I’d say this is easily the most challenging hike I’ve ever accomplished, so I’m ranking this as a 5 out of 5 for difficulty. If I ever take on a harder hike, I am going to have to establish a 6, because Old Rag has earned the 5. I also giving it a 5 out of 5 for awesome. I’m already thinking about hiking it again.