The Old Rag Mountain hike in the Shenandoah National Park is one of the most popular hikes in the mid-Atlantic region. With many spectacular panoramic views, and one of the most challenging rock scrambles in the park, this circuit hike is a favorite of many hikers. But be prepared for the crowds. This is the only hike we give a star rating for solitude.
On the other hand, it's the only hike we give a star rating to for views. Many hikers also prefer to do this loop counterclockwise, thereby tackling the rock scramble on the Ridge Trail on the downhill. Either way, the rock scramble can be challenging, being both steep, and requiring climbing through cracks in the rock. The best bet to enjoy this great hike is to be at the trail head by 7 a.m. before all the crowds arrive.
From the lower Old Rag parking area walk 0.5 miles up SR600 where it veers left and in another 0.4 miles ends at the Old Rag closed upper parking area. Turn left uphill on the blue blazed Ridge Trail next to the closed gate. The trail will gradually increase in grade and make nine switch backs before reaching the first of many view points in 1.9 miles. From the first vista point to the west, the Ridge Trail will become more rocky before reaching the main easterly vista on the ridge in another 0.2 miles.
From this point to the summit in 0.9 miles, the trail becomes a rock scramble with narrow passages, and several spots requiring hand over hand climbing.
From the easterly vista on the ridge start up the rock scramble, with the first obstacle a 12ft deep small crack in the rock. Climb to the bottom and follow it out to the left. Continue following the blue blazes passing around to the easterly side of the ridge and through another crack where the trail meets a small cliff. From here, the trail will become increasingly steep going through a small cave, before reaching the minor summit where the trail turns left. Be careful to follow the blue blazes, as there are several false trails that lead to overlooks.
After passing around the minor northerly summit, the trail becomes less steep, but still requires rock-hopping for most of the remaining 0.3 miles to the true summit, where there are several points with 360° views.
Continue south along the Ridge Trail now descending for 0.3 miles to the junction of the Saddle Trail and Byrd's Nest Shelter. Turn right descending on the blue blazed Saddle Trail, then in 0.6 miles pass the Old Rag Shelter. Both shelters are available for day use only. From the Old Rag Shelter the trail widens and follows a forestry road for the 0.4 miles to the intersection of the Berry Hollow Fire road (left), Old Rag Fire Road (straight), and Weakley Hollow Fire Road (right).
Turn right downhill on the yellow blazed Weakley Hollow Fire Road. In 1.2 miles pass the Robertson Mountain Trail, and in another 200 yards the Corbin Hollow Trail. Continue along the Weakley Hollow Fire Road the remaining 0.8 miles back to the upper parking area.
Byrd's Nest Area Scrambling: For some additional rock scrambling, consider a side trip near the Byrd's Nest Shelter to see the Balance Rock that you can see from Old Rag and the Saddle Trail. About 20 yards from the shelter is a series of rocks worth climbing and to get a bearing (about 300 degrees with our compass pegged on North) to the Balance Rock, about 0.2 miles away. This will involve some bushwhacking, follow a visible path for about 50 yards or so beyond the first set of rocks and it will bear to the right near a campsite and take you below a cliff and the Balance Rock will be visible to the North West, mostly bushwhacking from this point to the Rock. We did not see an easy way to climb Balance Rock but with a little bit of effort we were able to get on the rock just below it for some great views. The coordinates for Balance Rock: N38.5505 W78.3236, the coordinates for the Byrd's Nest Shelter: N38.5501 W78.3211
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Reviews For The Old Rag Mountain Hike (5 Most Recent)
In response to ALC's question relating to the differences in mileage shown on their Garmin GPS compared to the that shown by Hiking Upward. I have found that my Garmin GPS routinely shows a longer track than the route published by Hiking Upward. I believe that it is more a matter of advancements made over time in the precision of the civilian GPS. Your newer Garmin GPS, by capturing more frequent points along your path, more accurately captures all the turns and switchbacks. Earlier GPS's captured less frequent points along a given path that resulted in a track that appeared as a series of connected straight lines at angles to each other. Is simply related to that old geometric rule that "a straight line is the shortest distance between two points." Hope this helps.
Date of Hike: Thursday, November 20, 2014
We hike Old Rag every year for my husband's birthday - a sort of test of the aging process -)
He just turned 56, I'm a bit younger. Two observations from this year:
1) It was surprisingly deserted! We usually have a moderate crowd, even on a weekday, but we actually had the summit to ourselves. We only saw 3 other parties.
2) We used a brand new Garmin GPS, and logged over 10 miles. We've noticed that our GPS says we hike further than posted mileages. I tend to believe the GPS - so how the NPS / Hiking Upward come up with mileages?
Date of Hike: Thursday, November 20, 2014
ALC most if not all trail mileage measurements in the park are done with a surveyors wheel. Normally a GPS would err on to the low mileage side especially if you had your waypoints set at long time intervals. For example imagine a hypothetical trail that has 20 half mile switchbacks perfectly staked above each other. If your waypoint is taken at the middle of each switchback you would not get credit for the back and forth linear hiking distance of each switchback. Sometimes there can be confusion in regards to what the mileage is measuring. On Old Rag some of the very old signage may be measuring to the closed upper lot while some of the newer signage may be measuring to the lower lot with the range contact station. There is 0.8 miles between the two.
Date of Hike: Tuesday, November 11, 2014
Ok, so I knew it was going to be hard and crowded, cuz I read it on here, but I wanted to add my thoughts here for the next person reading these reviews. Maybe they care about these things.
I am 47, in pretty ok shape. I went with girlfriends on a Tuesday Veteran's day, so I will admit it's my fault. We got a really early start - 7:45 - I am pretty sure, and walked up the switchbacks. I am not sure that we saw but 20 people going up. It was pretty nice, plenty steep enough for me, and luckily cool, prob about 55. I enjoyed the hike up, had a great sweat going, and was looking forward to the views up top! It was the most perfect weather, and I was with some great friends. The day ahead spilled out before me in sunbeams of happiness.
We got to the rocks and it was really, REALLY neat. Like a big puzzle and juuuuust hard enough to be scary but not too hard to quit. yet.
Well, once we got up there, it was like 300 people up there. Where did they come from? Loud, reckless, and well, not my cup of tea. Dangerous poses atop rocks for the best 'facebook pics'. It was soooooo sad. Even people drinking beer. And really crappy beer at that! The backup for the rocks was like, I dunno, 100 people, and I could hear mean and insulting comments from the younger, stupider people that I was ruining the day for, apparently. That inbetween the constant cry of "I still don't have any service up here". I felt pressured and uncomfortable, and I kept letting them go past me, but it really was unpleasant.
I no longer could enjoy the challenge of the rocks, or peek at the views. I became very nervous about the f-ing idiots who were packed in so close behind me that if I needed to rethink my footing- I was screwed.
Ok, so, I am doing my all out best, trying to stay focused on the next obstacle and not absolutely lose it and start imploring the ignorant, shallow, yoga pants-clad youngsters behind me with their boyfriends carrying their packs to slow down and enjoy the moment, or at least A moment. My friends are kind, trying to be helpful, but I am clearly not a happy hiker.
Ok, so finally, we get to the down. And it is still rocky, steep, and required 100% focus from me to watch my footing. Probably best, since it was a constant game of stepping aside so those behind me could pass. But they didn't just pass. They would get REALLY REALLY CLOSE UP ON YOU. Some of these idiots were running (clearly they were invincible), and didn't even have the courtesy to say 'left' or 'pass' or ANYTHING, before they nearly knocked you down. One time I had to stop to refoot, and literally 3 people backed up into me like a pileup on the freaking beltway.
So, after a while of this next level of hell, we made it to the fire road. I was finally able to look about and notice the beautiful day, some illusion of space and catch the sounds of nature here and there. Because even though I was really, REALLY tired, (knees ESPECIALLY!)there really wasn't any other option than to go on :)
So, in retrospect, I am 1) happy I can check this hike off of my list. 2) happy I enjoyed the day with great friends, 3) pleased I got to work on my self restraint and focus techniques for the day, and 4)will never bother again, unless my some chance I can reserve the mountain for the day for people who enjoy a little nature along with their need for attention.
DO NOT GO ON THIS HIKE IF YOU WANT TO ENJOY NATURE IN SOLITUDE OR WITH THOSE WHO SHARE YOUR LOVE OF NATURE.
p.s. for those competitive sorts, you might also tie your legs together or perhaps add blindfolds to enhance your enjoyment of the day.
Date of Hike: Tuesday, November 04, 2014
For those considering this hike who are a little older, don't be intimidated, but be prepared. I am 56 and in decent shape, and was able to complete the hike (parking lot to parking lot) in 6.5 hours. This was with lots of short breaks on the way up, waits at some of the rock scramble choke point, and a very slow pace on the fire trail (due to sore feet). The day was great and the views fantastic. Along the way, met some very nice people, and everyone helped each other over the difficult obstacles. Here are some lessons learned that may help the next person: (1) Bring lots of water. I had 1.5 liters for each person, and would have liked more (2) Protect your feet. Bring good hiking shoes, no sneakers (3) Bring first aid kit. You will want something if you get a cut, scrape, or blister (4) Take is easy on the decent. It may be temping to hurry down the mountain, but your knees will not thank you (5) Get an early start. Even though this is a tough climb, a slow pace and lots of breaks will make it comfortable (6) Don't go alone. There will probably be people there to help, but you will want someone that you can rely upon, just in case.
Before and after pictures of 'The Staircase' section on the Ridge Trail of Old Rag. The 2 black and white photos were taken in 1968 prior to the boulder falling and partially blocking the route in the early 1970's, then as it appears today in the picture on the right.
1968 Photos courtesy of Henri Weems
January (photos courtesy of Heidi W.)
Mid April (photos courtesy of Jake)
Video - Beginning Of The Rock Scramble Ridge Trail - Early October