I settled on Old Rag, a (relatively) nearby mountain with an elevation of 3,291 feet. A few people, including Susan and Dean, had mentioned it. Everyone said it was a hard hike, but I figured I was up for the challenge.
But maybe I should have done some research before rushing off. Here's what the Shenandoah National Park website has to say about Old Rag:
Old Rag is Shenandoah's most popular and most dangerous hike. The number of blogs and websites about this hike attest to its popularity. The number of search and rescue missions each year attest to its danger.And then they want you to watch a safety video. Hmmm.
I started to get inklings that this hike was not what I was expecting when I picked up the map at the entrance to the park. In capitalized letters, it said something to the effect of THIS IS A VERY STRENUOUS HIKE. DO NOT ATTEMPT THIS HIKE WITHOUT BEING FULLY PREPARED.
The park ranger on duty looked at me with an experienced eye and asked, in a slightly skeptical voice, if I was hiking alone. Yup. Was I prepared? Well, I had my camelback filled with water, two sandwiches, sunglasses and a camera. How much more prepared can you get? She gave a miniscule shrug and let me wander off to my doom.
It's a three mile hike to the summit. The last mile of that hike is the so-called "rock scramble", which I had pictured as a windy trail scattered with rocks that you can climb on if you want, in the style of a Discovery Zone made of stone. Au contraire. Apparently, Old Rag is well known as a place for rock climbing, and a little rock climbing is exactly what you get to do.
Luckily, my stupidity in doing this hike alone was not rewarded as stupidity generally is. Doug and Lexxie, a couple hiking from DC, and their dog Zeus were kind enough to let me hike with them through the rock scramble. They were friendly, and helped me navigate the maze of rocks - in lieu of an actual trail, the park paints blue markers and arrows on rocks to show where you should go.
There was one point on the hike I doubt I could have climbed without help - a tall, very slippery crevasse with no hand holds or roughness to grip. Taller folks didn't seem to have much trouble with it, but my vertically challenged frame was not so lucky. However, fate stepped in, and a lanky rock climber named Joe hauled me up the rock face.*
The summit was definitely worth the hike, as if the satisfaction was not enough. To the east, green fields and farmland as far as the eye can see. To the west, mountains. I took a twenty minute break up there to eat my squashed pita and chat a bit with Doug and Lexxie (you can see them, and Zeus, in the picture below) before finishing the trail.
It took me about five hours to complete the 8.8 mile circuit. The first three miles of it, including the rock scramble, took me about two and a half hours, if that gives you any indication of its difficulty.
Ultimately, I'm glad I didn't know how crazy this hike is, because I might not have done it. But next time, I'm bringing a buddy.
*Sadly, I didn't get very many pictures of the rock scramble, probably because I was using at least three of my four limbs at any given time. You will just have to use your imagination.