Monday, August 11, 2014

Day Hike/Gear Test: Old Rag Mountain

Day Hiking on Shenandoah National Park's Old Rag Mountain

With our first Appalachian Trail shakedown backpacking trip coming in the next couple of weeks, Muskrat and I decided that yesterday would be a great day for a solid day hike to test out some of our new clothing and gear purchases.  Despite many visits to Shenandoah National Park, neither of us had ever hiked the famous Ridge Trail to the summit of Old Rag Mountain.  It's described as a rugged and challenging 9.2 mile circuit from the parking lot, up along ridge line to the summit and a winding path leading into Weakley Hollow Fire Road back down.  It features a mighty fun rock scramble and some steep climbs that make for a great cardio workout!  It also has some of the most gorgeous views in Shenandoah National Park!


We got up at 7am for coffee, got started packing gear, ate breakfast, walked the dogs, showered (because it's always nice to start a hike feeling clean!), and hit the road just before 10.  It's just about a two hour drive down there, so we pulled into the parking area (which is not inside of Shenandoah National Park, but has its own fee station to allow you to easily comply with entrance fee requirements) at about 11:45.

We changed into our boots, extended our trekking poles to the length Eric from REI recommended for us, and began the .8 mile walk up the road to the trailhead.

We saw this guy on our way to the trailhead!

Muskrat at Old Rag trailhead
Ironjen at Old Rag trailhead
We took a couple of photos with my phone before we started, and were happy to hear some returning hikers tell us that we would be happy we brought trekking poles.  Now, we just needed to figure out how to best use them!

We decided to take the Ridge Trail up, and decide at the summit whether we wanted to come back the same way or add the extra miles and come down the fire road.

The trail started as a steady uphill with switchbacks and a mostly packed dirt surface with a few rocks thrown in.  It gave us both a good chance to figure out how to work the presence of the trekking poles into our cadence.  By the time we hit the more challenging rocks, we both felt pretty confident walking with the poles.

I had been nervous about trying them, because I thought that they would slide easily off of rocks, but it turns out that they really grip the rocks easily.  They even grip the rocks where it doesn't look like there is anywhere to grip!  I was really impressed with them, and I was even more impressed by how they helped me leverage my upper body strength to keep my legs from fatiguing.  It was also nice to have the extra balance and stability they provided when I tripped or misstepped.

We snacked on some Hammer Bars on the way up to the rock scramble, planning to eat our wraps up at the summit.  Sunny summits always make the best spots to eat!

The rock scramble turned out to be as challenging as the website said!  It was so much fun to  find foot and handholds on the rocks, and to use our entire bodies to maneuver ourselves through the rocky terrain.  We found that the trekking poles were easy to collapse and let hang from our wrists when they weren't useful to our progress, and that much of the time they didn't even need to be collapsed.  I was particularly happy with how easily they reseated themselves properly in my hands when I came out of a section where I had let them dangle.

Early on, I noticed a bit of a sore spot on the ball of my left foot.  It got pretty painful then went away.  I noted that my 10 year old boots may need some new insoles if I expect them to get me very far.  They may even need to be replaced. . .

We were rewarded all the way up with expansive and beautiful views of some of the best of Virginia's highlands!  We both remarked how we will miss this when we move to Colorado.  The Rockies are impressive for sure, but there is a special beauty to the old Appalachians.

Almost to the top




Muskrat checking out the view

We made it to the summit, ate our sandwiches, and enjoyed the breeze.  We both noted that though our shirts were both pretty sweaty, they felt cool and dry.  By the time we finished eating (maybe 10 or 15 minutes), they were dry, and ready to be sweat upon again!

At the summit
We looked around up top for a place to hang the hammock, but didn't find much for sturdy trees close enough together that wouldn't obstruct the trail.  I really wanted to hang out at the summit in the breeze for a bit!

Muskrat at the summit

Other hikers relaxing at the summit

Ironjen at the summit
Muskrat at the summit

View from Old Rag

View from Old Rag

View from Old Rag

Muskrat enjoying the breeze

Muskrat and Ironjen made the summit
We decided to take the longer but gentler way down the other side of Old Rag to the fire road, because the balls of my feet were both pretty sore now, and I wasn't sure how I would handle all of the rocks on the Ridge Trail.  I also wanted to check out the day shelters and see if there was a spot to hang the hammock for a break!

The way down was pretty easy compared to the long rock scramble we had just done, and we came to Byrd's Nest Day Shelter pretty quickly.  It has a spot to get out of the rain, a fire pit and picnic table, and overnight camping is prohibited here, and everywhere above 2,800' on Old Rag.  Sadly, there was a lot of trash in the picnic area.  C'mon people!  Leave no Trace!

Byrd's Nest Day Shelter
A mile or so later we came to Old Rag Day Shelter.  We found more burned trash, and . . . a spot to hang the hammock!  Just in time too, because my feet were very very unhappy about walking on the rocks.

Old Rag Shelter

Enjoying the hammock

Hanging out at Old Rag Shelter

Hanging out at Old Rag Shelter

Ironjen hiding in the hammock

Muskrat settling in for a nap
We spent about 15 minutes enjoying a break in the hammock, then continued down to the fire road, which would loop us past several other trailheads, and back down to the road back to the parking lot.

Along the way, my feet started to hurt again.  The break had been awesome, but the rocks were really pounding them.  We started to hear the river that we had heard back near the trailhead, so we knew we were getting closer, and I knew I just needed to suck it up and keep walking.  We passed the Robertson Mountain Trail trailhead, and the sign said that we had 1.4 miles to go to get back to the Ridge Trail Trailhead.

The next trailhead we came to, led to the edge of the river, just steps off of the fire road.  We walked over, and I sat on a rock taking my boots and socks off and wading into the cold rushing water.  It felt AMAZING to sit and cool my poor beat up feet!

Cooling my sore feet!
Taking a break at the river
Since we had stopped, we got out the DSLR cameras and took some photos at the river.  I haven't downloaded those images off of the cards yet, so you'll have to make due with the iPhone photos!

My feet felt so much better after the break, and the rest of the walk felt much more bearable.  We made it back to the trailhead, walked back along the road the the parking lot, and changed back into sandals!

Post hike
We were both starving, so we agreed to stop at the first open restaurant we saw.  Thornton River Grille, in Sperryville, VA was open, so we parked and went in.  Not only was the place open, but we got on the deck outside, live bluegrass, and a really well crafted menu!  Muskrat had the Red Snapper special and I had the pork chop with balsamic reduction and mango puree!  We tried a new local brew, Old Bust Head English Ale, and had a salted caramel tart for dessert.

Blurry driving away photo of Thornton River Grille!

Sadly, the time had come to leave for the city.  We did stop to shoot some photos of the super moon though!  Again, the better photos are still in the big cameras, but you get the idea. . .

Super moon over Shenandoah Valley

Backpacking Gear and Clothing Test:

One of our major goals yesterday was to test our our new clothing and some of our gear before we take it out for a week long trek through Shenandoah National Park's southern district in a couple of weeks.  Better to find out that your new underwear chafes on a 9 mile day hike than on a 70 mile backpacking trip!

We were testing clothing for comfort, wicking, and durability.  We were testing footwear for comfort.  We were mostly testing ourselves with the trekking poles, because neither of us had ever hiked with them before!  We were testing our hammock for ease of setup and comfort.

So, what did we bring, and what did we think?

Muskrat's clothing & gear:

Muskrat wore his REI sahara convertible pants, REI wicking boxers, Royal Robbins Island Cool Mesh shirt, REI wool hiking socks, and his Asolo Reston waterproof boots.  He carried his Black Diamond Trail Back trekking poles, and his old Camelbak day pack with a 100oz bladder.

Muskrat's Asolo Reston boots

Ironjen's clothing & gear:

I wore my REI sahara convertible pants, Patagonia wicking briefs, Columbia Sportswear Omnishade shirt, Injinji running socks under REI wool hiking socks, and my 10 year old Asolo FSN 95 GTX boots.  I carried my old Camelbak Cloudwalker day pack with a 2L bladder and Black Diamond Trail Back trekking poles.

Black Diamond Trail Back trekking poles

Other stuff:

We packed a couple of wrap sandwiches and some Hammer Bars for lunch/snacks.  As hungry as we got on this hike, they were the best most delicious foods EVER!

We also brought along our Eno Doublenest 2-person hammock and Atlas Straps, because we haven't gotten to try it out since buying it in June!  Everywhere we have brought it so far, it has either rained or hasn't had anywhere to hang it!  We were determined to find a place to hang it this time!

We brought along our rain shells, just in case, but didn't get to use them.

We also brought our two professional Nikon bodies and three lenses to see how much of a pain they'd be to carry and use.  We didn't use them much, but their weight wasn't really noticeable. . . We will see what we say about that when we bring them along on the shakedown!  I do believe that they are necessary, because, while the iPhone takes fine snapshots when there is enough light, even with flash, it often falls short in lower light, and I want to make beautiful images on the trail!

Our assessment:

We loved our clothes!  The shirts were comfortable, cool and felt dry the whole time, even when they were not dry at all!  We did a lot of sliding down rocks on our butts and the pants held up very well under the abuse.  I did manage to scuff up the fabric on one pocket that had my phone in it while squeezing into a rock crevice.  That was slightly disappointing, because I'd have hoped that having something in the pocket wouldn't make it so easy to start wearing through under normal circumstances.  Muskrat is undecided about the wicking boxers.  They don't fit like his normal ones, so more testing is required before he makes a final decision.

My 10 year old boots are in INCREDIBLE shape.  They are still waterproof, have great tread, perfectly intact uppers, and even perfect original laces.  (Yes, I have hikes a lot in them.  I also take meticulous care of my expensive toys!)  Their insoles, however, are dead.  Once we were back at the car, I felt my insoles and Muskrat's insoles.  Mine have zero cushion left in them.  Not surprising for 10 year old rubber.  I'm going to try out some Superfeet insoles before I break down and buy new boots.  Either way, something has to change, because I can't walk in them the way they are.

The trekking poles are AWESOME!  They are sturdy, easy to maneuver, grip rocks incredibly well, and made me see why they have become such a popular piece of gear!  I don't ever want to hike without them again.

Our Eno Doublenest hammock with Atlas straps is officially my favorite luxury item!  It sets up really quickly and easily, and feels super sturdy.  It's comfortable for both one or two people, but I don't think I would want to spend a whole night in it without a bug screen!  For a quick break/nap along the trail, there is nothing better!

So far, I don't mind dragging the Nikon SLRs around on the trail.  We brought along two bodies and three lenses, (50mm f1.8, 105mm macro f 2.8, and a 16mm fisheye f2.8) and one speedlight.  So far, this seems to cover just about anything we might want to shoot.  Obviously, a longer lens would be better for birds/wildlife, but just too heavy to bother with.  We will see what our final kit looks like.  Right now, my main concern is finding a way to carry them that is accessible without subjecting them to certain destruction.  Stay tuned for carrying options!

Another Day Hike:

We both woke up feeling pretty good this morning, but I am still feeling a slight bruised feeling in the bottoms of my feet.  We have decided that it's a good idea to pick another trail to day hike next weekend too.  I'll be testing out those new insoles on that one!

©2014 Jennifer Magnuson, All Rights Reserved, Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.

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