Old Rag is probably one of the best known hikes in our region. Located in Shenandoah National Park, it’s about a 9 mile circuit hike with outstanding views. It’s an easy drive from DC and many other nearby areas. Because of this, it can be incredibly crowded and filled with “newbies” whose behavior may frustrate or appall. Despite the crowds, it remains my favorite day hike in the region.
There are several ways to hike to the summit. If you choose the “normal” way, starting from the Old Rag parking area, you will have to walk about .8 miles to the trailhead. From there, you’ll hike up what starts as a slight grade, and turns into steeper switchbacks, where eventually you will reach the rock scramble that makes up the last mile or so to the summit. You would then hike down the back side of the mountain (Saddle Trail) through a series of downhill switchbacks that eventually lead you to the fire road. From there you make a right turn and hike about 2.8 miles back to the parking area along the mostly level road.
If you opt to hike Old Rag “backwards”, you can either park at the Old Rag parking lot and walk the two miles up the fire road to start the hike at the Saddle Trail, or you can park at the Berry Hollow lot which is much closer to the trail. From the lot, you would walk up to the trailhead on the right. You’ll hike up the back side of the mountain, the Saddle Trail, to the summit. From there, you’ll have 1 mile of rock scrambling until you reach the switchbacks that lead you down the mountain.
There’s only a couple of reasons I would ever recommend hiking the trail “backwards”. Once, while hiking with some friends who were worried about their ability to complete the hike, we decided that parking at Berry Hollow and starting at the end made the most sense. That way, if anyone didn’t feel up for the scramble, they would still get to see the summit and then they could go back down the way they came up (decidedly easier and a few miles shorter). Along those same lines, if you have someone who has an extreme fear of heights/exposure, or someone with physical limitations that would prevent them from being able to complete the scramble, I would recommend the backwards route. But if you and your group are healthy and confident, the conventional way of hiking this route is definitely recommended.
One of the tricks I like to use that I don’t see too many others doing, is to park at the Berry Hollow lot and hike down the fire road to start the hike at the traditional trail head. This makes the trip down from the summit much shorter, since you don’t have the 2+ mile walk to the parking lot at the end. Instead you get those miles out of the way in the beginning, which also serves as a great warm up for the hills to come.
Along the way to the summit, there are several false summits that are almost as amazing and awesome as the true summit. These are great places to catch your breath as you make your way up the scramble to the summit. I have hiked Old Rag in all kinds of conditions, with spring and fall being my favorite times to visit. In the winter (or even late fall) the back side of the mountain and parts of the scramble can become quite icy and dangerous. While hiking it the day after Thanksgiving a few years ago, I was coming down as it was getting dark, and between the dark and the ice, I definitely did a lot more slipping and sliding than I was comfortable doing.
The rock scramble is my favorite part of this hike, but it is not for everyone. There are several places where you are quite exposed to drop offs. There is also a spot where you have to lower yourself into a gap between rocks and then climb out. There are some pretty technical scramble tests as well where foot and hand holds are scarce. Because of this, I’d recommend always hiking Old Rag with at least one other person your first time. You may need a hand or a boost in some spots. The scramble requires upper and lower body strength, but I have seen people of all sizes and abilities successfully make it to the summit.
Old Rag is one of my favorite places to bring new hikers or even experienced hikers who’ve never been. Every single person has loved it, which is why it is so popular and can be so crowded. Getting an early start or hiking on a weekday will make the hike much less crowded and in my opinion, much more enjoyable. Below are the tips I always give to friends before we tackle the hike:
- Because the summit is basically a giant pile of boulders, it is usually much colder and windier at the top. Plan accordingly and make sure to dress in layers (see here for tips on that). Even in warm weather, bring a layer to throw on at the summit in case you get chilly
- Water sources are limited, so bring enough for the day. I recommend 2-3 liters, definitely at least 3 if it’s a really warm day
- Bring snacks or a lunch to enjoy on the summit. There are many great places to sit and take in the view, so spend time enjoying your reward for all that hard work!
- Wear shoes that you know will not cause issues. I like trail shoes or grippy sneakers for Old Rag because they grip the rocks really well, but boots are fine too. Whatever shoes you wear, make sure they are comfortable
Because I am usually the unofficial “leader” in this hike, I make sure to always bring the things that others may not have or think to bring. Things like extra sunscreen, bug spray, my first aid kit, baby wipes, tissues, etc. Also make sure to bring something to store trash in, as there are no trash cans at the top 🙂
If Old Rag is too far for you to trek for a day hike, there are some amazing places to stay nearby. We often rent from VRBO and have always had wonderful accommodations. We have also stayed at hotels in the Charlottesville area. This puts you close to Monticello and other landmarks that you might want to explore as part of your weekend. Old Rag is in the heart of Virginia wine country, so if that’s your thing, it’s a great way to recover from the aches and pains of the hike!
This year will be the first time that I get to hike Old Rag during peak fall foliage. There are about 12 of us going and spending the weekend, so I know that between the hike and other recreation the area has to offer, we will all have a great time. I am super excited and can’t wait to post pics and a recap afterwards.
Did we forget any important tips? Let us know in the comments!