After backpacking and camping at Sky Meadows, H and I were ready for our next camping adventure (I’m going to make it sound like both of us are doing the same amount of camping and backpacking research, even though H is definitely more into it, since it is my blog). We were looking for places close to DC, so Old Rag wasn’t on our radar until H found an itinerary to camp in Shenandoah National Park and hike to the peak of Old Rag for sunrise. I decided I would brave another night in a tent for a good sunrise!
Hike Til You Drop
Old Rag is a popular hike and everything we read was totally threatening (“Do not camp on the weekend! There are extremely limited camping spots! There is extremely limited parking! The parking lot will be full by 8 AM!”), so we left at 7 on Saturday morning to get to the park early. We checked in at the Old Rag parking lot, paid our $30 park entrance fee, and applied for our free backcountry permit. The parking lot was full of families, scout troops, and college students getting ready for the hike and being interrogated by the park rangers about whether they had enough water with them, and we could tell it was going to be a busy day at the park.
Nervous that the tiny parking lot would already be full, we sped along the country roads towards our start point for the hike, Berry Hollow, with a quick stop for bug spray (which we realized we had forgotten in the height of #tickseason). We saw open spots in the White Oak Canyon parking lot, which is just down the road, and decided to park there and walk up the road to start our hike from Berry Hollow.
We got our gear together—we each had a pack with our sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and extra clothes. We added our packed meals to our backpacks, strapped the tent to the top of H’s pack, and started walking up the road to the Berry Hollow parking lot. Since I knew it would be hot that day, I wore a white V-neck t-shirt, a pair of Nike shorts, and an old pair of running shoes.
We passed the Berry Hollow parking lot, which naturally only had two cars in it, and started up Berry Hollow Fire Road. Once we got to the intersection of Berry Hollow Fire Road, Weakley Hollow Fire Road, and Saddle Trail, we started looking for the campsites that were marked on the map, although I definitely had second thoughts after we ran into two hikers who had seen a bear nearby. We doubled back a few times before we finally turned off Saddle Trail and found a flat spot about 100 feet back from the trail.
After we set up the tent, we walked over to the shelter, Byrds Nest 1, so we could sit at a picnic table to eat lunch instead of sitting on the ground (#campinglife) and the food smells/crumbs that attract animals would be at the shelter instead of our camp. We had a middle school-style packed lunch: PB&Js, Sun Chips, apples, cosmic brownies, and a Diet Coke to share. There was a latrine near the shelter, which turned out to be a mouldering privy—you were supposed to throw in a handful of wood chips after using it, which made the whole thing smell like a hamster cage.
Since we didn’t have any more hiking planned until the next morning, we relaxed in the tent after lunch. H napped and I read a paperback, keeping one eye on our packs since all our food and other smelly items were still in them and I was irrationally worried the packs would get Yogi-beared, picnic basket style. The woods were peaceful except for an occasional group of noisy hikers, and I told myself that camping wasn’t so bad after all. The third or so time a group walked by clapping and yelling, though, I popped my head out of the tent to see what was going on and there was a bear running away from the trail only fifty feet from our campsite! I screamed, which woke up H, and we immediately started transferring our food to our bear bag.
We hung our bear bag at the edge of a glade of beautiful long grass near our campsite, which looked like somewhere elves would live, and decided to go explore a creek we had seen off Berry Hollow Fire Road. We waded in the creek, which was icy cold, past a tiny waterfall until it was too rocky to keep going. Once we were done splashing around, we filled two pouches with water to purify and headed back to our campsite.
Since it was getting late, we walked back to Byrds Nest 1 Shelter to make dinner. We set up the stove and heated up pasta with vegetables and olive oil that I had cooked the night before so we just had to warm it up—I had remembered our uncooked mac and cheese at Sky Meadows! The pasta tasted great for camping fare, and we split our second Diet Coke.
The Night of Terror
Dusk was falling fast, so we cleaned up from dinner and got ready for bed. I washed and moisturized my face because I’m a diva, even on camping trips. As we walked back to the tent from our bear bag, we almost RAN INTO this extremely bold deer, which kept chewing calmly a few feet away from us even when we clapped and shone a flashlight at it. I was totally freaked out, because I’ve heard too many stories about people getting trampled by deer. Finally, it moved away and we settled down in the tent for the night.
We got in our sleeping bags and H fell asleep immediately. I tried to get comfortable, but after the bear, the deer, and the murder on the Appalachian trail that had happened like a month before, I was wide awake and the sounds of the forest just seemed to get louder the longer I listened. The deer (OR SOMETHING ELSE) was back, and it was so close I could hear it chewing. I was just waiting to feel its hot breath on my ear as it tried to pull a mouthful of grass from underneath our tent. I could still hear hikers on the trail, and I swear I heard a person walk right by our tent. I could hear howling far away (Wolves? Coyotes? Dogs?) and I resigned myself to not sleep at all that night.
Around 10:30, things got worse. I could hear an animal moving around outside our tent close enough for me to hear it breathing. I didn’t know if it was a deer, a bear, or a raccoon, but I was terrified. I lay very still and thought “Go. Away. Go. Away. Go Away.” I had to go to the bathroom, but there was no way I was going outside. Finally, my panicked heartbeat and ragged breathing woke up H, who helped me calm down. It was quiet for a long, long time and eventually I fell asleep.
At 1:30, I woke up again needing to use the bathroom, so I woke up H to come with me (boyfriend of year!). I went back to sleep, but he stayed awake and heard an animal—I say definitely a bear—lift its leg and pee right outside our tent. When it was time to leave for the summit at 3:30, we popped out of the tent ready to do battle, but nothing was out there. We found the bear bag in the dark, got out our breakfast, which we put in my pack with our jackets and survival essentials to take with us, and started our hike up the Saddle Trail.
Hiking in the Dark
Since we were hiking at night, I wore athletic leggings, a pink-and-white striped sports bra, and a super-thin lavender quarter zip. I had a warmer fleece and a rain jacket in case I got too cold, but the hike was strenuous enough to keep me warm—for a while I was hiking in just the leggings and sports bra. We both used our headlamps, which were nerdy but useful, since the light automatically points anywhere you look.
The hike seemed like it took forever—the trail was steep, and it was so dark all we could see was the rocky path in front of us, the next bend, the next boulder. H carried the pack (he’s a trooper) and he told me afterwards that he was about to ask to take a break when he heard me mumbling “just keep going” under my breath. I was still on edge and worried we would run into a bear, and H and I made a pact to not talk about anything we had heard in the tent until we got back to the car. After about an hour and a half, we could tell we were close to the summit when we crossed a huge expanse of rock and saw the outlines of mountains in the distance against the starry sky.
Just as the darkness turned from black to dark gray, we got to the top, oriented ourselves, and made our way to the eastern side of the summit. The light changed slowly: first a wash of light pink and gray spread over the valley below, then bright orange and pink streaked the sky, and then the sun peeked over the horizon with violent golden light. We jokingly sang the music from the beginning of the Lion King, ate our protein bars, and basked on the rocks, enjoying the beauty of sunrise after the long, scary night. I felt like I was on top of the world.
Once the sun was up, we took a few more photos and then started the hike back, marveling at the beautiful views from the trail that we had missed in the dark. Back at our camp, we disassembled the tent and fit everything into our packs for the mile hike to the car. After almost a full day in the woods and only two hours of sleep the night before, my nerves were definitely a little frayed and I was relieved to be back in civilization. We headed home, stopping at Starbucks for a coffee, and we were home by 11 AM.
For all you camping enthusiasts out there, here’s a breakdown of luxury items I brought and ones that I thought about bringing but didn’t (I will not, however, reveal which of these items H carried).
|Two Diet Cokes and one can of coffee||S’mores ingredients, which are probably lighter than drinks but would have taken up way more space in our packs|
|Fresh food, like sandwiches and pasta—I don’t know what real ultralight campers bring but I’m sure it’s much lighter and much less appetizing||More food than we needed—we had some extra protein bars, but I largely denied my instinct to bring lots of extra food for worst-case scenarios|
|Soap, moisturizer, a toothbrush, and toothpaste so I could have some semblance of a nighttime routine||Special facewash and a pillow—I made do with soap and a rolled-up fleece|
|More clothes than were strictly necessary—I had a t-shirt for Sunday that I didn’t wear, and I could have worn my fleece instead of the quarter zip||A tripod/any camera equipment besides my phone|
I was so glad we decided to go on this backpacking trip, since we got to see such a beautiful sunrise! I would definitely hike Old Rag again, especially since we didn’t take the trail with the rock scramble, but after our bear sighting, deer encounter, and night of terrifying animal noises I may never camp in Shenandoah National Park again! Day hikes only!
Have you hiked Old Rag? Would you do a sunrise hike or backpacking trip? Have my bear stories scared you off camping forever? Let me know in the comments!