Old Rag is located on the outskirts of Shenandoah National Park. To reach Old Rag, avoid the park’s Skyline Drive and instead take VA state route 231 to the park’s east. The hike itself is a 9 mile loop with a 2500 ft elevation gain and decent. This hike is not for the timid. What makes this hike great for adventurers, is a one mile rock scramble with challenging obstacles. While no special gear is needed, the rock scramble (and general length and elevation gain) can be strenuous and I would not recommend hiking it alone. If you question your hiking ability, make sure to do some research and double check that Old Rag is the hike for you. I’d recommend bringing at least 2 liters of water per person and a picnic lunch to eat at the summit.
We’ve completed the 9 mile loop twice. Once was in October and the other was in August. In October we experienced freezing rain. Make sure to dress appropriately. Rain jackets and gloves were needed. At the rock scramble, the October weather added two major difficulties. First, the rocks were very slippery. Good shoes are another must have, as well as friends who are willing to help each other over obstacles. The other difficulty caused by the October weather was the temperature. The cool rain made the stone on the mountain very cold, and for most of the rock scramble it is important to use your hands to help you over obstacles; which left us with very cold and very sore fingers. The August hike was much more enjoyable. Its recommended to get an early start, which, combined with the shady trail and summit breeze made the climb very enjoyable.
9 miles can be a long distance. Here’s what to expect of the trail. The parking lot, which is self pay and costs $8 per car (so bring cash), is roughly half a mile from the start of the trail. I suggest arriving before 8am, however if you go on a weekend even 8am will put you with a lot of other hikers who you will probably ‘leap frog’ up the mountain with. After walking 0.5 miles on paved roads you arrive at the start of the trail. It is recommended to follow the trail clockwise and I strongly agree to this. If you choose to go against the flow of hikers, be prepared to upset several other hikers when they are trying to pass you along the narrow rock scramble.
The trail itself begins slowly enough with a consistent elevation gain through a forest. After another half mile you will find the trail elevation gains increasing quicker as a series of switchbacks start to climb the mountain.
When you reach the 2 mile mark, the rock scramble begins. The mile long rock scramble involves climbing up boulders and then lowering yourself into several crevice as deep as 12 feet.
You will use your hands and feet a lot. As a piece of advice, try not to ever use your knees against rock when climbing or scrambling.
As you get closer to the summit there are several ‘false summits’, but remember to stop and enjoy the views there too. After the scrambling the travel gets easier as you get to the true summit. The true summit is marked by a sign indicating the distances back to the parking lot. The distance you’ve traveled so far is 3.8 miles. The sign indicates that the remaining distance to travel is 5.2 miles to the parking lot, with other indicators at 0.4 miles, 1 mile, and 1.9 miles.
The hike down is significantly easier, but remember to take your time. Its a long 5 miles back to the parking lot and the quick elevation loss is very difficult on knees. I’m a young reasonable athletic adult and I found my knees in great pain by the end. As you start down and first two miles are again on forested trail. .4 miles into the descent you will meet the Saddle Ridge Trail and a small picnic shelter. After another mile of descent, there is another shelter with an organic bathroom. This is the only bathroom along the entire trail. After this point you will essentially be on roads of varying degrees of maintenance for the remaining 3 miles. Some people complain that the Weakly Hollow Fire Road is boring, but after such a strenuous hike I find the road to be a nice way to push yourself to keep going a little further.
If you are interested in hiking Old Rag be sure to leave yourself enough time. I’d say 8 hours plus travel time. Maybe more if you choose to stop for dinner on the way home. I also highly recommend this website for more information.
I highly recommend this as a great teenage and adult daytrip from the Washington DC are. Make sure to come prepared with water, food, and appropriate dress for the weather. Leave yourself a full day for this hike, but remember to take your time and enjoy the views as you go!