Distance: 14.8km roundtrip
Elevation gain: 725m
Location: Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Old Rag is reputed to be the most popular hike in Shenandoah National Park in large part because of this intense rock scramble, which also makes it one of the most strenuous hikes in the park. I visited Shenandoah back in 2017 and Old Rag was easily one of my favourite hikes.
We set our alarm for 6:45a.m in an effort to get an early start on our hike and beat the crowds. We read in advance that the parking lot can fill up pretty quickly. Since it was still dark and chilly outside we figured we’d make breakfast when we got to the parking lot. Although Old Rag is accessible from the park by driving along Skyline Drive, the park rangers at our campground recommended exiting the park along Route 211 and driving towards Sperryville. From there we took Route 522 south, turned right onto Route 231 and another right onto Route 601. There was fairly decent signage to the parking area along the way.
After eating some breakfast (we fried up some eggs in the back of our SUV despite questionable looks from incomers – they were obviously jealous) we filled up our packs with water, snacks, and some lunch. We started our hike shortly before 8:00a.m. As we were leaving the parking area the rangers on duty were just pulling in and asked us to check in with them upon our return to either show our parks pass or pay the per-person fee for this hike.
The trail takes an average of 7 to 9 hours to complete. The trail forms a loop and there are two ways to hike up Old Rag. The most popular circuit is along the Ridge Trail, through the rock scramble up to the summit then down the Saddle Trail to the Weakley Hollow Fire Road, which leads back to the trailhead.
We opted for the popular route as we might as well go with the traffic than against it. The first kilometre or so is along a paved road that passes by a number of houses for which the owners are fiercely protective of their property – there were numerous “no trespassing” or “private property” signs posted. The paved path eventually intersects with the official start of the trailhead. From there we followed the blue blazes up a slight incline along the Ridge Trail for the next few kilometres.
At nearly 5km in marks the start of the Rock Scramble. And this is when the hike really begins. From this point every blue blaze is marked with a number in sequential order in the event of an accident. For the next couple of hours we used every body part available to manoeuvre up, down, around and through giant granite boulders. There is no graceful way to approach this.
There were a few dicey sections that created a backlog of hikers. This is a large factor as to why the estimated time to complete this hike is so long – because there are many bottleneck areas where you just have to sit around and patiently wait for your turn as there is no opportunity to bypass. For most of the way up the rock scramble we followed closely behind a father (Mathew) and his son (Dave).
We reached the (first) summit shortly after 10:45a.m. We sprawled down on the rocks and ate our lunch and an orange. It wasn’t until after we began what we thought was the descent down that the rock scramble continues until the second summit.
After taking another break and eating another snack at the second summit we started our descent for real this time along the Saddle Trail. Descents are always my least favourite part of any hike as it’s much harder on your body. We followed along on the trail and continued right as we passed the Old Rag Shelter area. There are washrooms located here – you can smell them before you can seem them.
The Saddle Trail turns into the Weakley Hollow Fire Road after passing the shelter area and leads back to the start of the trailhead. The blazes along this stretch of the trail were yellow. Along our hike back down we bumped into Mathew and Dave again and walked with them back to the parking area.
By the time we returned to our car it was just approaching 1:30p.m. And we were exhausted.
To read more about my adventures in Shenandoah National Park, click here.