Old Rag has eluded us for years now — a glaring white box on our mental East Coast to do list that we had yet to check. It has loomed over us every time we have visited Shenandoah, and pretty much every time we considered hiking it we came up with a bunch of reasons why we shouldn’t do it on that particular trip. Too far. We just wanted to relax that weekend. We had a lot of other trails we wanted to hike. Why don’t we try something that doesn’t require us to wake up so early. Not really feeling it. Let’s hike something a little shorter. Chance of rain. Too many people. The list went on and on. There was that one time we were really close to going — got up before the sunrise and everything — but in the end, with the threat of rain looming, we nixed the idea.
This time was no different in the sense that the same excuses kept popping up. I was hoping Sly would talk me out of it, but he never did. At some point I realized that we were really (finally) going to do this thing and from that moment on we became all in. We ate dinner in our motel room and went to bed early. We woke up before the sunrise, got ready in tired silence, packed the car and set off for Old Rag.
The drive to Old Rag was stunning in the morning light — another picturesque scene that would make for a great jigsaw puzzle cover. We parked our car — the parking lot already practically full by 8:30 — gathered our things, and tried to beat the crowds of people milling about in the parking lot.
The first part of the trail was paved and easy, and then came the climb. Up we went, bypassing group after group of people, anxious to get to the top and get the incline portion of the trail over with. Dirt trails led to carved stone steps that led to slippery rocks. We climbed over and under and between and around. Pulled ourselves up and dropped down and squeezed and climbed and ducked and shimmied. This part — known as the rock scramble — was reallllly fun. We reached the ‘false summit’ and stood in awe looking out over the golden trees and then climbed even higher, the trail seemingly never ending and always going up. Was this the summit? What about this? How about here? We kept climbing and climbing and climbing until we found a cozy hidden spot where we ate our lunch with a million dollar view.
As for the ‘real’ summit? Anti-climatic to some degree. There were much better views and places to sit and ponder the beauty around us than the actual and legitimate top of the mountain. But then, perhaps I was biased — there were just too many people there and all I wanted to do was retreat back into nature.
So back down we went, this time practically running, letting gravity aid us on the downward sloping trails. Leaves fluttered magically around us — red and orange and yellow — all glittering in the October sun as they floated down to kiss the ground. The entire way up and down I dreamed of drinking a cool crisp glass of sweet apple cider from the little stand we had passed on the way up. It did not disappoint. Liquid magic. Best cider ever, but maybe that much better because it felt well-earned; a reward at the end of our journey. And as we hiked along the now=paved roads on a perfect Autumn day, cider in one hand, a bag of local apples bought from another vendor in the other hand, we wondered aloud: why hadn’t we hiked Old Rag sooner?
Old Rag Trail // 8-9 miles RT, moderately strenuous // Most everything we read said that this hike would take 7-8 hours. It took us about 4-5 and that’s with A LOT of stopping for pictures, a 30-45 min break for lunch, another 30 min wait to get through a backed up part of the rocky section, and a few stops to buy stuff from vendors. This hike was also described as “strenuous to extremely strenuous,” but I found it to be rather moderate. Maybe a 5.5/10. The beginning portion is steep, but it’s a gradual incline and gradual switchbacks. This portion is only about 2.5 miles or so and it’s over pretty quickly. The rocky portion of the trail requires some upper body strength, but I wouldn’t classify it as difficult. Let me put it this way: I saw a lady about 20-30 years older than me climb to the top wearing mom jeans and Keds — and she made it to the top at about the same time as us.
– If this is your first time to Shenandoah you should know that access to Old Rag is on the other side of where all the park stuff is located. It will take about 1-1.5 hrs to drive to Old Rag from Big Meadows Lodge.
– Lodging options near Old Rag parking are pretty limited in terms of budget options. Many are B&Bs and many require more than 1 nights lodging. Besides backcountry camping, we couldn’t find any camping options directly by Old Rag. Luray, Warrenton, and Culpeper are about 35-45 min away and have some more budget-friendly motel options. We passed a PATC cabin that was being built right next to the trail head. If this place is open and available, it’s seriously in the best location and you wouldn’t have to worry about parking/getting up *as* early. You can also stay at Corbin Cabin and hike to Weakley Hollow Trail from there.
– Weekends + awesome Fall weather = people overload. We arrived at the parking lot around 8:30 and the main lot was practically full. If this concerns you, I would aim to be there before 8am. Or even better yet, camp in the backcountry the night before.
– There is a fee to park at the Old Rag parking lot — it’s the same 7-day fee you would bay upon entering the park. Of course our National Parks Pass expired just before this trip but if you have one of those the fee is waived. Credit card is accepted at the fee station (and is preferred).
– You can find porta-potties in the Old Rag parking and a primitive outhouse near one of the shelters — I think it was Byrd’s Nest.
– Old Rag trail is a circuit loop so you can start from either end — via Ridge Trail or Weakley Hollow. Ridge Trail is the ‘normal’ way to go up — it’s shorter but steeper. The opposite way is via the Weakley Hollow that follows a fire road the majority of the way with a short climb as you start to summit towards the end. I actually think the ‘easiest’ way up is via Ridge Trail. No matter which side you choose they both require some level of climbing and I think if you are going in ‘reverse’ some of the rock portion will be harder to navigate as you will be going down through a crevice rather than climbing up.
– Wear grippy shoes (though I guess Keds work too) and bring grippy gloves. While the gloves are not mandatory, they would have come in handy. Our hands got a little scuffed up climbing on all those rocks.
– If it’s raining, I probably wouldn’t hike this trail. Some parts were reaallly slippery — even without any rain.
– Bring some cash. There were a couple souvenir, food, and fruit stands along the side of the paved trail on the way up/down. We skipped the souvenirs and went right for Frank’s blue tented beverage stand. In the Summer’s, I think he sells homemade ginger ale (possibly other drinks), but when we went he was selling homemade apple cider — hot or cold — and it was the best $2 per cup ever spent. Frank was pretty awesome too — total old school mountain man. Closer to the parking lot there was a guy selling apples out of the back of his pickup truck. On the way up he tossed us a few of the less-than-perfect apples for free so we could taste them. Well they tasted delicious. We bought a bucket full on the way back to our car for $7.
– This goes without saying, and is reiterating every single guide book or article I read about the hike, but go early (or go on a weekday). We didn’t get there *that* early, but it was still just early enough that we missed the throngs of people behind us. And while I generally like hiking in solitude there is another reason for getting there early — by about noon or so some portions of the rock scramble area became extremely congested with lines that backed up all along the trail (click here to see what I mean). From the top all we saw were lines and lines of people just waiting to scramble through the rock passages. It’s not all like this but there were some areas that required a little more time to navigate and some people were REALLLLLLLLY slow or tentative in these sections. It’s a bit like car traffic — one person slows down to look at something and next thing you know every car is at a standstill. Thankfully we only waited in one of these lines just once, but if I had to do it all the way up, it would have really taken the fun out of the rock climb part.
– Overall I get why this hike is so popular — it’s challenging but anyone can do it. It’s a lot of fun climbing and exploring the rock section, and it’s easy to find a hidden little spot to get away from the crowd.
– For a tiny sampling of what Old Rag is like — try hiking Bearfence Mountain. It’s short, fast, and pretty easy but you get to climb over rocks and have a really good pay off/view at the end.