We hope you enjoyed our Acadia series… but now it’s time to get back to Virginia hiking. We decided resume our normal posts with an exceedingly well-known mountain – Old Rag. This 8.8 mile loop hike is Shenandoah’s most popular hike. It’s so well-loved and traveled that the official Shenandoah website has a whole section dedicated to hiking this mountain. [View NPS Map for this hike]
Note: Some of the NPS website details (and mileage markers along the actual trail) were a little outdated as of summer 2011, as they refer to the hike distance before the park service closed the upper parking lot in April of 2010.
After two and a half years, we’re finally getting around to covering Virginia’s most popular, most well-known hike – Old Rag. I’ll make an outright confession. Old Rag, as beloved as it might be by (seemingly) everyone else, is not my favorite hike. But, when you have a Virginia hiking website, you’re practically obligated to have a write up about this mountain. So, on to the post!
We’d been tossing around the idea of hiking Old Rag for the blog for well over a year. Adam would suggest it and I’d invariably tell him that it was too hot, too cold, possibly wet and slippery, I heard there was ice, my feet hurt, I don’t feel like driving that far, etc. Basically, I floated every excuse in the book to delay the hike. But then I went and did something incredibly stupid and it really blew up in my face! I had a day off work coming up. It was going to be a beautiful August day – crisp and unseasonably cool! I had visions of getting up early, doing a photo shoot in the park, maybe eating some donuts and then taking myself to a matinee movie. But before I could stop myself, I found that I had blurted out “Tomorrow would be a GREAT day to hike Old Rag!” I assumed this was purely hypothetical because Adam had to work. But he immediately responded “Yeah! Let’s go! I’m taking tomorrow off too!” Ugh – I didn’t see that one coming! I don’t like to back out on plans, so the next morning we were up before dawn, snacks stashed and Camelbaks filled.
We got to the parking lot before 8:00 a.m.. Getting to Old Rag early is something I consider to be a necessity. The trail is always crowded – even on weekdays. The Old Rag parking lot is actually my first point of contention with the hike. It used to be if you got up early, you could always get a parking spot in the small upper parking area located right at the trailhead. In April of 2010, a couple years after our last hike up Old Rag (fall of 2008 – see photos), the park service closed the upper lot to all vehicles. Now, all vehicles must park in the lower lot, which is just a shade under a mile from the trailhead. The added mile follows a paved road uphill to the beginning of the Ridge Trail. I’m not going to make any apologies; I just don’t like road walking on outings that are supposed to be hikes.
Once we got to the Ridge Trail, things improved a bit. The trail climbed upward for about two miles. It’s not terribly steep or difficult climbing, but it is steady uphill. There are occasional switchbacks, lots of gigantic boulders along the trail and even some glimpses of views through the trees.
The higher you climb, the better and more open the views become. After the first real panoramic view, you get your first little sample of the extensive rock scrambling you’re about to encounter. The first pass is short, but requires hoisting yourself up through a small opening, then across a flat pancake of rock. At this point, my boot slipped and I almost toppled over backwards. Luckily, I was able to hang on long enough for Adam to give me a hand up.
Shortly after that little scramble, you’ll come to what I think is the nicest view on the hike. Instead of overlooking mountains with a distant peek at Skyline Drive, this viewpoint overlooks the valley below. The vista is dotted with little farms and winding country roads. It’s really pretty! At this point of our hike, we encountered an emaciated, but super-friendly dog. He had a collar but there didn’t seem to be any human to claim him. Dogs are not allowed on Old Rag’s hiking trails, so we figured someone brought a dog up anyhow, and then abandoned him when he could no longer follow along the rock scramble. The dog looked so pitiful and hungry that we ended up sharing some cashews and half a Luna Bar.
The dog followed us along until the scramble began in earnest. He looked sad to see us go, so we decided to report him to park rangers at the end of our hike, in hopes that they could send someone up to retrieve him and lead him back down to the base of the mountain.
After saying goodbye to the dog, we began nearly one-mile of rock scrambling required to reach the summit of Old Rag via the Ridge Trail. Anyone wishing to reach the summit without the scramble can follow the Saddle Trail (accessed by either the Weakley Hollow or Old Rag fire roads). The scramble is the part of this hike that I enjoy most, but also simultaneously fear. I have vertigo, so there are a couple passes that play tricks on my visual and balance centers. Otherwise, the scramble is a lot of fun! It’s almost like a hiking puzzle. You have to look at each obstacle and plan the best strategy for traversing it. The scramble is tough – it’s not so much a cardio challenge as it is a strength challenge. There are lots of places where you’ll rely on both your upper and lower body strength to carry you across the rocks. It’s nice to have at least one hiking buddy to help you along. One particularly steep place, I had to shove Adam up (one hand on each butt cheek) and then he had to tow me up behind him.
The summit of Old Rag is beautiful and decorated with many large and interesting boulders. It’s the perfect place to enjoy a snack while taking in the view. We watched the clouds clearing away, ate cheese and trail mix and watched falcon soaring on the breeze. It may have been a peregrine, as they are known to nest on Old Rag, but we’re really not sure.
After leaving the summit, the hike becomes sort of tedious. Yes, it’s all downhill, and you’ll pass a couple interesting trail shelters (Byrd’s Nest and Old Rag). Both are available for day use only. There is one more decent view. But right after passing the Old Rag Shelter, you’ll reach the Berry Hollow fire road. You’re only on that for a short while, until you meet the Weakley Hollow fire road. You’re on that road for the remainder of the loop until you come back to the paved road at the trailhead. Honestly, everything after the scramble on this hike is just not fun to me – too many miles of featureless road walking. All in all, the Old Rag hike has close to 4.5 miles of road walking (over half the hike). Adam and I were eager to finish up our hike, so we jogged most of the way back along the fire road and paved road.
When we got back to the car, we told the ranger at the check-in station about the skinny dog. She laughed and said “Oh, him! He’s our resident Old Rag beggar!” Apparently the dog belongs to a local family. He likes to take daily hikes to solicit treats from people climbing the mountain. He sure tricked us!
The parking lot had really filled up since we arrived! We were glad to be done, and on out way to get some lunch (fried chicken – yay!).
When I reflect back on hiking Old Rag, and what could be done to improve the experience, I can think of a few things. One idea I think would work well is to issue a finite number of permits per day to hike the mountain. Perhaps limiting numbers on weekends would be enough. I think if they could limit hikers, they could reopen the upper lot and eliminate almost two miles of road walking. Another thought is to limit the number of people allowed per hiking party. So many church youth groups and college clubs hike Old Rag in huge crowds. This causes massive ‘traffic jams’ along the scramble. No fun! I also think that limiting hikers would go along way toward alleviating the trail damage and erosion on Old Rag. The trail is crumbling, lots of rocks on the scramble have been worn to a smooth polish under years’ of boot traffic, and sadly there is garbage everywhere. It’s a trail that would benefit greatly from being enjoyed by fewer people.
That said, I think every lover of the outdoors in Virginia should hike Old Rag at least once! The scramble is truly without compare.
Well, Christine summed it up nicely describing the pressure that I have been putting on her to tackle Old Rag. We last did this hike together shortly before we started this blog. The logo that we use for the website is actually taken from a photo of Old Rag, so it was a must do. About every year, I put together a list of hikes that we have talked about doing in Virginia and we hang it on our refrigerator. After we finish the hike, we have a ceremonial highlighter that we use to highlight the hikes we’ve finished. For the last few years of printing a new list, Old Rag has been one of the few that has not been highlighted before the latest version is posted. I let Christine do the honors of marking Old Rag off the list – and she was happy to do so.
I would also agree with Christine that Old Rag is very overused. One thing that makes this hike particularly challenging during the rock scramble is that the rocks are so smooth, you could easily slip. When it has just rained, you know you will have no footing whatsoever. Many of these boulders have no handholds or footholds, so you do have to be creative with how you will get through the scramble. I would recommend that you do this hike with someone else to help you through the scramble. I think Christine especially enjoyed the opportunity of putting both of her hands on my butt and shoving with all of her might. It’s not very often that she gets to do that.
The hike begins from the parking lot and consists of walking up a paved and then gravel road for about .9 miles until you reach a smaller blocked off gravel lot (with a portable toilet) and a sign for the trailhead to the left. This begins the Ridge Trail. The trail starts off as a gradual ascent through the forest. At about 2.3 miles, you reach the first of several switchbacks. There isn’t a lot of note on the main portion of the trail as you are just walking uphill through the woods, without any notable views. At about 3.2 miles, you reach a nice overlook. As soon as you leave this spot, the rock scrambling will begin. You have about one mile of rock scrambling until you reach the summit. This path is quite dangerous as you have to navigate down tight crevasses, around boulders open to large drop-offs, and up other boulders with slick surfaces. The summit marker will indicate the end of the tough climbing. There are several places to take in the panoramic views at the top and some of the more adventurous will climb up some of the large boulders at the top. Once you are done taking in the views backtrack to the trail and then take a right on to the Saddle Trail. At about 4 miles you reach, the Byrds Nest Shelter No. 1, a day-use only shelter. Continue down the steep trail and at 4.5 miles, you will reach another day-use Old Rag shelter. Continue down the trail and at 4.9 miles, you reach the junction with the Weakley Hollow fire road. Take a right on this fire road and you have about 3 miles of this fire road to walk down before you reach a few bridges and finally the smaller blocked-off Old Rag gravel lot. Go back the way you came and you should reach your vehicle around 8.8 miles.
I do think we have put a lot of warnings about this hike, but the reason that this hike is likely so popular is due to the challenge and the amazing views. The summit of Old Rag does provide some of the best views in Virginia. Some people even do rock climbing at the top to rappel over the edge and make their way back up. On a clear day, you can see for miles of countryside and layers of mountains. I know most people do put this on their list of must-hikes in Virginia. I recommend to tackle this hike as early in the morning as possible to beat the crowds. If you wait until the middle of the day, you will likely face people-jams as the navigating through the rock scramble takes a while.
For any of those interested in geocaching, there are two geocaches nearby the trail:
- Old Rag Cache
- Old Rag Mountain – earthcache that requires a photo and some answers to questions to prove you found the cache
For further reading about Old Rag and its history, check out the Climber’s Guide to Old Rag Mountain with some interesting information about the history of the area and the USGS’ Hiker’s Guide to the Geology of Old Rag.
I really have to hand it to Christine for confronting her vertigo and facing Old Rag. I told her I wouldn’t bother her again to do the hike since we now officially have it on the blog, but I will probably do it again sometime. I think this hike does have about 1.5 miles of very exciting climbing and wonderful views, but the rest of the hike (especially the way back on the fire roads) seems a little boring and you will look forward to seeing your car in the parking lot after the long hike back. The last time we did this hike was on a fall day at the peak of fall color. If you can find a day like that to tackle this hike, you won’t regret it.
- Distance – 8.8 miles
- Elevation Change – about 2600 feet total.
- Difficulty – 4. The uphill climbing is gradual and never terribly steep, but the scramble requires good upper and lower body strength.
- Trail Conditions – 2. I think the trail is eroded and worn smooth in many places due to years of overuse.
- Views – 5. The views are wonderful and include both mountain and valley views.
- Wildlife – 3. There have been a fair number of bear sightings on Old Rag. You also have a good chance of seeing birds of prey on the summit.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. Follow the signs. This well-traveled trail is well-marked. Distances on the markers are out-of-date and refer to mileage when the upper lot was still open.
- Solitude – 0. Can I give this a negative score?
Download a trail map (PDF)
Directions to trailhead: From Sperryville, Route 211, turn onto Route 522 and follow it south for .8 mile. Turn right on Route 231, follow 8 miles, turn right onto Route 601 and follow signs to the parking area, approximately 3 miles.
From Madison, Route 29 Business, turn onto Route 231 and follow it for 12.8 miles. Turn left onto Route 602.
Follow signs for the parking area. Old Rag parking is approximately 3 miles from the turn onto Route 602.