One of the most well-known and popular hikes in the DC area and named one of the 25 best hikes in the world by Outside Magazine, Old Rag Mountain in Shenandoah National Park (SNP) is also one of the best in the area if not the entire mid-Atlantic region. The 9.4-mile hike is strenuous and includes nearly 1.5-mile long field of boulders (unique for mountains on the East Coast) to navigate. The reward for the hard work are the sweeping, panoramic views of the sprawling acres of SNP.
NOTE: Between March 2022 – November 2022, SNP is running a pilot permit program requiring hikers to have a permit for the hike. SNP issues 800 permits a day (400 available thirty days in advance and the remaining 400 available 5 days before). The permit costs $1 but does not guarantee a parking spot.
WHAT YOU’LL FIND IN THIS BLOG POST
I’ve hiked this mountain many times over the years and I look forward to the hike each time I come back. I’ve also hiked Old Rag in each of the four seasons and fall is my favorite time to tackle this beautiful hike, especially during a year where the foliage colors are bright and plentiful. There is really no better place in the area to see the magic of fall come alive. Spring, especially during Wildflower Weekend in May, is an extremely beautiful time to hike this well-trodden path and see the park covered in more than 850 species of wildflowers. Summers in the DC area are hot and muggy. I have hiked Old Rag in the summer but I usually wait for a low humidity day. Otherwise, the hike can feel miserable especially in the exposed boulder field areas.
A few years ago, I hiked Old Rag in the winter after a small snow storm. The trail was manageable and all was as expected on the way to the summit via the Ridge Trail. On the way down from the summit, the trail was covered in a layer of ice several inches thick. My friends and I were not expecting nor prepared for the winter conditions including lacking microspikes. We slid on our butts over much of the trail. Now, it’s a funny story to share with friends and strangers alike but it was also a good lesson in being prepared for winter hikes!
There are so many sweeping views Old Rag offers at one false summit after another, it’s hard to count them all. Each one will impress you and leave you wanting more of it at the summit. Besides the majestic views Old Rag offers, I also enjoy the boulder hopping on the trail. No matter how many times I do the hike, each time I have to remember how to navigate the boulders. Most are fairly easy to manage but some of the boulders can be gnarly, especially the big hop from one boulder to another close to the summit.
The trail is popular and the number of people on the mountain, especially on a beautiful day, reflects this popularity. If you’re hiking for solitude this is not the hike for you. While the large crowds certainly have an impact on the resources of SNP and the mountain itself, I find it exciting whenever I see lots of people here, especially ones new to hiking!
There are two options for hiking Old Rag – the slightly shorter loop route or the longer out and back route that skips the boulder field. There is also a third pet-friendly option to hike parts of Old Rag. I’ve only hiked the loop route so the summary below captures the details of this route.
The Old Rag hike starts with the Ridge Access Trail, which begins to the left of the ranger station at the Old Rag Lower Parking Lot. Continue past the information kiosk and across the bridge just short of the 1-mile mark to the intersection with the Ridge Trail. Veer left to continue on the Ridge Trail.
The next two miles of the trail winds through shaded woods and gradually climbs through a series of switchbacks. At this point, the trail becomes a boulder field over the next 1.5 miles that will involve climbing, crawling, scrambling, and even shimmying in between and over boulders. The first bouldering challenge comes immediately after the trail emerges onto the exposed ridgetop with a crawl through a 12-foot deep crack in the rock. Arrive at the first vista of the hike. A short distance from here, the trail will start to get steep again and pass through a small cave, which ends at the first false summit. Turn left to follow the blue blazes (there are several false trails that lead to overlooks) to the second false summit.
The true summit is about 0.3-miles away and the last challenge of hopping across two large boulders with a big gap. Signs immediately below the summit point hikers in the right direction. There are many large boulders at the summit that you can climb if you haven’t had enough fun with boulders!
Continue along the loop and head down the mountain via the Ridge Trail. Within a half mile of the descent is the Byrd’s Nest Shelter, a good option for taking a lunch break if the summit is too windy or cold. If you want additional rock scrambling, Balance Rock (coordinates: N38.5505, W78.3236) is located 0.2 miles from the shelter but will require a compass and bushwacking skills to get to.
From the Byrd’s Nest Shelter, take a right onto the Saddle Trail and continue descending. Arrive at the Old Rag Shelter after a mile and the trail becomes an old forest road. In less than half-mile the Saddle trail will become a T-intersection of three fire roads. Keep right to follow the yellow-blazed Weakley Hollow Fire Road. In the next 1.2 miles, the fire road will intersect with a couple of trails. After passing a closed parking area, you’ll arrive at the intersection of the Ridge Access Trail. Turn right to go uphill and then in less than half-mile left towards the Old Rag Lower Parking Lot. Arrive at the parking lot in another half-mile.
THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND
- Keep track of the time and daylight! This is a long, strenuous hike and the boulder field can get jammed and be slow-going on busy weekends (up to an hour in difficult areas), so plan your hike time accordingly.
- Bring a day pack with the 10 essential items as well as plenty of snacks, and water. Old Rag is a long hike and does not have a water source, so it’s important to bring an adequate amount of water for the strenuous hike. Avoid large backpacks, which will be difficult to squeeze through boulders.
- Do not hike Old Rag during storms (a good portion of the trail is exposed boulders) or when rocks are wet/icy.
- Bring basic first aid items (part of the 10 essentials) and be prepared with self-rescue strategies. Small accidents (e.g., ankle injuries, falls, etc.) are common on Old Rag.
- OTHER REGULATIONS
- SNP is a dog-friendly park, but dogs are not allowed on most trails on Old Rag Mountain including the ones leading to the summit.
- Camping is limited to below 2,800 feet and sites are very limited and require backcountry permits. Be sure to know the regulations for choosing a camping site.
- Stay on trail for your physical safety and to protect the rare plant life on the mountain.
- Parking is limited, only 300 hundred spaces between the three parking lots. SNP issues 800 permits per day to hike Old Rag, so a permit does not guarantee a parking spot. Arrive early (before 8 AM) to secure a parking spot. Some neighboring houses now offer parking at cost however parking on private property not open for public parking or along the road is prohibited and enforced by towing.
- The Byrd’s Nest Shelter and Old Rag Shelter are for day use only.
- SNP charges an entrance fee ($30 for a car and good for seven consecutive days, $60 for an annual pass to SNP, or $80 for an annual interagency pass that gives you access to all areas managed by the National Park Service). Parking is free but an entrance pass must be displayed (passes can be secured at the ranger station). This is independent of the $1 hiking permit.
GEAR FOR THE HIKE
- Hiking shoes aren’t necessary but make sure you have sturdy footwear with good grip.
- Layers of clothing will come in handy on the summit where it can get windy (and cold during the shoulder season).
- Bring a day pack with the 10 essential items, including extra water and snacks.
The Ridge Trails starts at the Lower Parking Lot (coordinates: 38.57135, -78.29359) to the left of the ranger station.
Old Rag parking areas begin at the end of route VA 600/Nethers Road. Be aware of the new parking areas SNP opened for Old Rag in June 2020. There are three parking lots – Lower Parking (where the trail starts), Overflow Parking Lot (connects to the Lower Parking Lot via the Old Rag Access Trail), and the Upper Lot (for horse trailers and RVs only).
There is no portable water at the trailhead or parking of areas of Old Rag, but there are vault/compost toilets at the day shelters. There is an information kiosk and ranger station at the trailhead.