Why I Hated Hiking Old Rag

If you live in Virginia and you mention that you like hiking, someone will suggest climbing Old Rag.

It’s about the best hike Virginia has to offer, and I will give it this: The climb took some effort and at times left me breathless.

“Some say it’s even the best hike in the mid-Atlantic region,” reads this blog. (In fairness, hiking with kids must require a lot of caveats – although I was less reluctant to bow down to the many mighty parents hauling both kids and dogs up 14ers in Colorado.)

I climbed this badly-named “mountain” one October day while I was in the middle of a nasty fight with the guy I was dating. He was ignoring my phone calls; I was angry; my stomach was in knots. In other words, I was motivated to climb away from my problems.

I drove 2 and a half hours from Washington, D.C., to get there so the stakes were pretty high — I was dedicating the day to the activity.

Because I was alone, I took the Berry Hollow trailhead, which avoids some of the bouldering of the traditional route. When I got to the trailhead, it was completely deserted. (This never happens in Colorado. I don’t care what day of the week it is, there is always someone hiking. The trailheads are so busy some trails now offer shuttles.)

The trail signs were a little confusing and seemed to contradict the map. (I recommend following the posted map.)

It was a hot day and the climb didn’t get any cooler, because this is Virginia and you’re starting below sea level.

Here are my recommendations for making hiking bearable in Virginia:

  • Insect-proof everything. (This is something I didn’t know about until I left Colorado.) I have Permethrin in a spray bottle that I used on my hiking pants and Camelbak pack, plus insect-treated socks and a buff for my head.
  • Pants and long-sleeved shirt made of breathable fabric.
  • Bring a lot of water to replace the sweat.

For this hike, I also recommend real hiking boots. For most hikes in Virginia, you can get away with any form of athletic shoe.

This hike was strenuous enough to get my mind off my problems and my hand off my phone, so points for that. My boyfriend and I worked things out later that evening, but I spent most of the day thinking about breaking up with him.

There was a false summit with a pretty decent view.

False summit

I was pretty tired — and a little embarrassed to be tired, to be honest — by the point I got to the false summit, and at that point a pair of older hikers warned me to watch out for the swarm of bugs higher up. But I kept going, of course, because I have never climbed a mountain and not made the summit (what would be the point?).

This is the first time the strategy has not paid off.

Old Rag’s summit is 3,284 feet and there is no view. 

The summit

Unimpressed.

I came, I saw, I turned around and climbed back down again. I ate my peanut butter and jelly sandwich down at the false summit instead and tried to ignore the sweat and the bugs and the fact I’d spent an entire day on this.

The climb down was not as fast as I would have liked because of the stretch of loose rocks (this hike is 5.4 miles and took me about 2 hours to go up). My car was still the only one in the parking lot and the drive home felt very long.

There’s a small town near Old Rag but it didn’t have any obvious places to stop for food or any type of liquid reward after the hike.

I might be comparing Old Rag to my ideal version of hiking, but it’s a version that exists. In Colorado, here’s what our summits look like:

I tried. This is yet another reason why I hate hiking in Virginia.


Why I Hate Hiking in Northern Virginia

The short answer: Because I’ve hiked in Colorado.

Long answer: I would like to make the case that there is no hiking in Virginia.

I know you AT thru-hikers will protest, but there is a difference between walking outdoors and hiking.

If you think you are “hiking” in Virginia, you have never hiked in Colorado (or pretty much any state in the west) or somewhere the rewards are great than just being outside and moving your feet.

So maybe that makes my position entitled — I lived somewhere great hiking is taken for granted — but east coasters have their own entitlement issues (that’s the only reason anybody lives here?) so I think it’s fair to counter-argue that living here sucks if you’re an outdoorsy person.

If you live in Washington, D.C., and want to find a hike with a view (that isn’t urban) you have to be willing to travel — and I have. I have also done several of the hikes that come up when you search “day hikes near D.C.”

Have I done Old Rag? Did it. Have I been to Shenandoah? Of course. Have I seen Great Falls and Sky Meadows?

Did those. The ratio of effort to payoff was a disappointment for all of them.

Hiked Sugarloaf “mountain” and in Harper’s Ferry and Purcellville, too — more on those later.

While I don’t discourage my fellow outdoorsy transplants from attempting the same quest to find the kind of soul-nourishing hiking I was used to here (if you find success, let me know!) — I would encourage you to lower your expectations.

I’m compiling my own attempts here.

First and the reason I finally tipped over the edge and decided to write this blog: Scott’s Run Nature Preserve. This comes up on a list of rewarding “hikes” near D.C. compiled by the state of Virginia. I drove to it — about half an hour from me away — without much hope for Virginia hiking but with a desperate need to get out into nature. I passed a lot of enormous houses with Christmas trees waiting to be taken away on their curbs. If this was Colorado, high property values would be promising for hiking prospects. In Virginia, it just means people have an off-street option to walk from their mansion to the highway.

Do not, I beg you, drive to this trail (and not just because Google will mislead you). You can find a closer local trail to walk your dog on — and that’s the only thing this is good for. Admittedly, there is supposed to be a “waterfall” on this trail that I did not see. If you’ve seen one “waterfall” on the Potomac, you’ve seen them all and you might as well just see Great Falls.

I’m not saying there are no paths like this in Colorado. We just don’t call them “hiking trails.” We call them “that dirt path behind your house.”

Here are more examples:

Why I hated hiking Old Rag