If you spend a lot of time around travel blogs/social media like I do, you’re well aware of the fact that it’s the 100th Anniversary of the National Park Service, which as good a reason as any to start checking those parks off your bucketlist if you haven’t already.
Unfortunately for us here in the Keystone State, the large majority (and most famous) National Parks are all situated out west. Those in the east are not close to us either, including the one I’d like to visit most, Acadia, which is a good 15 hour drive at the top of Maine (I was going to write something about it practically being Canadian, but since Toronto and Montreal are both easier to reach, that seemed like a moot point). We do however have two that are relatively easy to reach by car, depending of course on what part of the state you’re in.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio is one of the smallest, and newest additions to the park systems, which preserves the area along the Cuyahoga River between Cleveland and Akron. To be completely honest, I just became aware of this park when doing research for this post, but plan on doing some additional research to see if it’d be worth visiting. The other relatively easy to reach park would be Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, which spans the Virginian portion of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the western part of the state, which I had the pleasure to visit for the first time this past Memorial Day.
I absolutely love when I go somewhere that exceeds my expectations. I’m glad to report that everything about this trip did.
As of this writing, I have 2 weddings left out of a 9-wedding summer. I’m in one of the weddings. Three required travel, and one of those which required travel was actually in County Roscommon, which is not in Pennsylvania, but in Ireland, where I decided to then frolic for an additional ten days. I just got back from Nashville, where I attended a bachelor party, and still made time to do my annual trip to Sea Isle City. Moral of that rant (besides subtly suggesting how popular I am, and humblebragging about how great my summer was): I had an expensive summer, and knowing that, didn’t make plans for Memorial Day. However, as May came to a close, I characteristically started regretting not having anything to look forward to for the long weekend. Luckily FOMO runs strong in my family, and my cousin Casey texted me, stressed because she also had nothing to do, and invited me down to DC to visit her. We chatted a bit about what to do, and again, with all the weddings coming up, decided that just barhopping around DC for three days wouldn’t be beneficial to either or our livers or wallets, and that we should focus on a more activity centered trip. We’d spoke on my previous trip there about hiking Old Rag Mountain, what’s considered to be both one of the hardest and most popular hikes in Virginia, which after some more brainstorming, we decided to combine with a trip to Deep Creek Lake in western Maryland to go riverboarding, which I’ll detail in and upcoming post. It ended up being an amazing roadtrip, and despite everything else I’ve done, one of the summer’s highlights.
Old Rag is situated at the very top of Shenandoah National Park, just under 2 hours southwest of DC. We got to DC late Friday, went almost immediately to bed, and woke up at 5:30 AM Saturday morning, in order to have our hike started by 8:00. If you’re tackling Old Rag, I’d highly suggest doing the same, as it does get extremely crowded, which can cause you to park very far away (the parking lot was very small) and can cause the narrow trail to bottleneck, and actually cause hiking traffic jams (a first for me!). Old Rag is actually a very popular sunrise hike, where people head up around 3 AM, making it to the summit in time to watch, and we did indeed pass quite a few people coming down we got on our way around 8:30. After doing the hike myself, I highly commend those individuals, and have added this to my ever increasing bucketlist.
Shenandoah Park stretches for 105 miles, the center being it’s famed Skyline Drive (another bucketlist item), a 109 highway that cuts through the center of the park, and has countless hiking opportunities, but Old Rag is by far the most popular, mostly because of its exposed summit, and likely helped by it’s easy proximity to the Baltimore/DC metropolitan area. There’s multiple ways to get to the top, but we did the most popular 9 mile ridge trail which includes an infamous rock scramble, which was by far the highlight of the hike. *For detailed hiking instructions, check out this site here; I printed out those instructions, and found them very helpful. While we’re on the subject, if you need any ideas of other hikes to do, or other fun stuff to combine with your Old Rag hike, check out the official Virginia tourism site. It’s EXCELLENT.
The hike starts innocently enough with a leisurely stroll through the forest.
I’m going to stop and give you a quick aside about how gorgeous both Shenandoah and the country around the park is. Growing up in what a lot of people consider rolling, green countryside of NEPA, and living in the picturesque rolling green countryside in Lancaster for 5 years has left me a bit apathetic towards well, rolling, green countryside, but this managed to impress me-I wish I was able to take more pictures driving in, but as I was the one driving, this proved difficult (see also: me being the worst when it comes to taking photos). Similarly, I thought maybe doing so much hiking up in New England and the Adirondacks would leave me less then impressed with the Blue Ridge’s 3000 foot peaks, but again, I was proven wrong.
About a mile into the hike is where the real fun starts. Most of the “rock scrambles” I’d tackled prior, involved a rocky patch, maybe 500 feet or so, where one has to do very minimal hand over foot climbing. The rock scramble on the way up Old Rag goes for more than a mile, goes up, down, and up again, and feels more like you’re on an obstacle course then out in the forest. There’s paint markers to help you out, which I’m sure would come in handy on say, a weekday morning in the fall, but being MDW, there was a steady stream of people we were able to follow–in fact I took advantage of the instructions the dad in front of me was giving his young son on where to step, grab, or pivot. My favorite parts included a section where you actually had to lower yourself into a crevice between two boulders, and a rock “staircase” underneath a boulder wedged between two larger rocks which was reminiscent the opening scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. There was one time here where we actually had to stop and wait to climb a particularly harrowing section, which was actually fine by me, as it gave us an excuse to rest, however when we looked back at one point, we did see an actual annoying human traffic jam about a half mile back, which let us know we made the correct decision to start the hike when we did.
Word of warning to those who are taking this hike: after the rock scramble, there is a false summit, that has great views, a nice flat area to eat lunch, and tons of people taking pictures. This is however, a false summit, and you still have a ways to go. We were fooled into a false sense of both accomplishment and comfort, only to be told after we gorged on hoagies, that we had at least a mile to go, up a very steep hill.
I’m not going to recount that part to you, but I will let you know it was painful and I almost vomited several times. That being said, the actual summit, which is very clearly marked, is a glorious sight to behold. Have you ever seen Last of the Mohicans? I feel like the last scene could’ve been filmed here (it was actually filmed in NC) and like the rock scramble, the summit has a lot of intricate areas to explore, which could make staying up there for a long time, very easy.
I’m happy to report that the way down was pretty easy, and after an initial quite steep descent, the majority of it follows an access road, on a rather mellow decline. Again, this is a nine mile hike, that typically takes 7-9 hours. We completely it in just over 6, and I don’t believe I mentioned that it was close to 90 degrees, so we arrived sunburnt, sweaty, and exhausted to the parking lot, around 2:30 in the afternoon. After collapsing, chugging hot Gatorades we’d neglected to ice like idiots, and dumping gallons of hot water we’d also neglected to ice over ourselves, we changed into some clothes which were appropriate for a little bit of brewery hopping, which we all agreed that very much deserved.
The Old Rag trailhead is right outside the small town of Sperryville, a town of less than 400, whose close proximity to the park, allows it to house two breweries, a distillery, a bar/golf course, pizza place, and several small shops of the artisanal variety, and absolutely no campgrounds or hotels, and at least when I was looking, only expensive Air Bnb’s (be warned).
Our first stop was Hopkins Ordinary Ales. People like to throw out the term “micro” or “nano” brewery, but this truly was one. The brewery is housed in the cellar of a Bed and Breakfast and consists of a counter, and maybe room for 5 people to comfortably stand and order. Luckily, it also included a backyard garden with tables, which is where we shared two flights and several pints. Bonus: instead of free popcorn, they offered free goldfish. I was down.
We decided to skip the Copper Fox Distillery, but did spend quite a bit of time in the Pen Druid Brewery that shares the same parking lot. This might be my favorite brewery find of the past year, which is impressive being that within said year I’d been to Vermont twice, Portland Maine, Lancaster twice, Ireland, all over upstate New York. Pen Druid is run by three local brothers who decided to take up this project after almost a decade of touring Europe with their band. As to almost be expected at this point, the brewery had a large outdoor area with bean bags and was housed in what seemed to be a large industrial space where they actually brew the beer. We sat inside at the bar, because we were done with sun, but there were also a bunch of picnic tables filled with people eat. The brewery doesn’t have food, but apparently is BYOP, as in bring. Your. Own. Pizza, which is a concept I could get behind. While the bartenders looked like your proto-hipster type who might be above gracious socializing, they were all super friendly and ready to talk beer in a completely conversational manner. What I also liked was that all of their beers were pretty weird, probably due to the yeast and fermentation they used, which I’m not going to pretend to know anything about. I picked a “Neptude,” which the bar-tender told me would be “dry and funky,” and I’ll be damned if that’s not exactly how I would have described it myself. It was delicious and I’m still kicking myself in the ass for not getting a growler.
We ended up having to camp about 45 minutes away as the last minuteness of this trip had most of the places booked, which ended up not being bad, as we ended our nights on the banks of the Shenandoah. The campsite we picked was absolutely rocking with people ready to get down for the holiday weekend, but being that we’re old, and we hiked nine miles, we were all sound asleep by 11.
Check out the rest of my western VA/western MD roadtrip here (coming very soon).