Old Rag Mountain is one of the most popular trails at Shenandoah National Park. It is also cited as the most dangerous with the highest number of search and rescue missions per year. Although Old Rag is a serious mountain, I think its danger is misleading. Based on some of the people we saw climbing the mountain, they put themselves in danger by not being prepared with proper gear, attire and fitness level.
The hike specs remind me of an Adirondack mountain hike with the round trip being over 10 miles and 2600+ feet of elevation. The other part that reminds me of ADK is the anticipated number of hikers. We heard the trailhead could be busy, so we wanted to get an early start. The actual trailhead is on the boundary of SNP on the east side. You do need a park pass or pay the parking fee to park.
We arrived at 8am on a Wednesday. There were only a few other cars in the lot, but immediately you could tell that it could get quite busy. There were all types of cars from the beat-up outdoors kind of car, you know the one with all of the stickers to a couple of Mercedes. One such Mercedes arrived about the same time as us, an older gentleman decked out in his Patagonia attire ready to hit the trail with his daughter or girlfriend? The parking lot is very large and the 6 port-a-potties indicated crowds are the norm. We checked in with the endearing Ranger at the booth and headed out.
The hike started with a half mile walk up a paved road to the actual trailhead. You pass a couple of beautiful estates, look for the one with the bamboo entrance, and some shabby cabins. You will eventually come across a gated area and the sign for the trailhead is to your left.
This part of the trail is well trodden and eventually gets more uphill until you come to what seems like a never ending series of switchbacks. The switchbacks end at a beautiful overlook that marks the beginning of the rock scramble section to the summit.
The rock scramble was our favorite park of the trek. Unlike an ADK summit, most of the scrambles are mostly horizontal with only a little bit of vertical climbing. The scrambles took you over boulders, through crags and some exposed areas. Some of the crags are narrow and require you to shimmy down like a ninja with your hands and feet spread to the walls. Some of the exposed ledges were narrow and not for those that are scared of heights. My wife who has done ADK peaks and the Beehive in Acadia, was nervous in some of the areas. The rock scramble are offered outstanding overlooks and many views of the Old Rag summit.
There was one crag that required you to pull your self up. I ended up going first and lifting my family up. I offered to help the Patagonia Mercedes guy, but he refused. We heard some profanity behind us and saw that he crashed down hard in that section.
The summit presented us with a 360 degree view of the region. Although there was not a single point that I considered the summit. The area had several large boulders, any one of them could have been the highest point.
We took our time on the summit, enjoying a well deserved lunch. We originally planned to do the trip as a down and back, but the Mercedes guys’s daughter/girlfriend gave us a great tip. She said that going back down the rock scramble is not enjoyable because as the traffic going up increases, you are just waiting at each narrow section for your turn. We decided to heed her advice and headed down the backside of the mountain on the Saddle Trail that leads to the Weakly Hallow Fire Road. This adds about a mile to the hike, but is an easy down hill on a smooth trail.
We are glad we took the backside trails. Halfway to the fire road, on the Weakly Hallow Trail, we had our second bear encounter of our SNP trip. My family was in front of me a few paces when I noticed some big and black off the trail about 50 yards. I immediately got my family’s attention via a strong whisper. It was a Mama and her cub. The Mama was aware of our presence and got between us and her cub. They were a ways into the woods and we posed no threat to them. We let them be and continued down the trail.
Wife note: I don’t know if “excited” would be the right word. Terrified? Anxious? Are probably more accurate emotive descriptions.
At the end of the Weakly Hallow Trail is a cabin designated for day use along with a composting toilet. We stopped for a short time and then picked up the fire road. We were all excited to see bears on the trail.
Then I noticed a small bear on the side of the fire road. This time it was only a few feet in front of us. As soon as it saw us, it scampered up the ridge into the woods. I wanted to get a picture, but was a bit nervous of a Mama bear being present. I did not know exactly how old this bear was. The ranger at the parking lot thought it was a yearling on its own based on my description.
The Weakly Hallow Fire Road routes you right back to the trailhead after crossing a few bridges. After a quick half mile on the paved road, you return the the parking lot. To our amazement the lot was nearly FULL. The ranger said that on the weekend, they will fill the lot early and then some of the neighboring houses offer parking for a fee. So make sure you get there early!
- Day 1 Introduction
- Day 2 Lay of the Land
- Day 3 Luray Caverns
- Day 4 Tubing
- Day 5 Old Rag
- Day 6 Dark Hallows and Hawksbill Mtn
- Day 7 Whiteoak Canyon
Some wise words from my wife Stephanie:
The rock scrambles are super fun and break up the climb nicely.
Having a strong husband available to help hoist you around and up boulders is a real big plus.
Bears are a legit thing. Have a “What do we do if we have a close bear encounter” plan….even if it is a bad one.
The parking lot is ridiculously far from the trail head. When you think you are done, you’re only “sorta” done.
I was most definitely NOT afraid.
Favorite Gear Used:
Gear They Wished They Brought:
- Bear spray
Favorite Meal or Snack:
Maps, Routes and GPS Information
Route Statistics: 10.02 mi, 2,663′ elevation
Caltopo map: https://caltopo.com/m/J1L4