Tucked away in Shenandoah National Park, Old Rag Mountain is one of the many natural gems in the United States. Offering hiking trails and saddle trails all that way to the top, the climb to the summit of Old Rag rewards hikers with stunning panoramic views and a challenging hike that will reaffirm everything you love about trekking in the backcountry.
It’s a surprising feature for its location in Robertson, Virginia, about a 2.5-hour drive from Washington DC. Visitors might expect the rock scrambling and granite boulders on the ridge trails and switchbacks of Old Rag to be found somewhere on the west coast like Yosemite, but that’s just one feature that makes it such a great hike.
If you want to section-hike the Appalachian Trail or take a quick circuit hike around the grounds, then hiking Old Rag is a solid choice for a quick hike and has a parking area for easy access and exit. Hikers don’t have to climb to the top of Old Rag necessarily, as there are many other hiking trails in Shenandoah National Park ranging from the easy to the strenuous for all levels of hiking expertise.
It’s one of the most popular hikes in the parks for the stupendous 360-degree views from the summit and the challenging rock climbing required to navigate it through to the end. If you are looking to reach the summit, you’ll most likely be entering the park from the eastern side to reach the parking lot and trailhead of the Old Rag Mountain Loop.
The rock scrambling in the last ¼ of the trail requires lots of upper body strength and is definitely going to affect your hiking time. There are tons of switchbacks that also add to the total hiking time since hikers won’t be taking the most direct route up the mountain. Hikers can also customize their trip on Old Rag with a side-trek to Byrd’s Nest Area for additional rock scrambling. In short, the hike to the summit of Old Rag can be tackled as a day hike, a multi-day overnight hike, and all things in between.
Hiking Old Rag can be a thrilling hiking experience or it can overwhelm hikers with the sheer amount of options it presents. The best way to prevent your Old Rag Mountain hike is to plan ahead, and that’s why we’ve prepared this comprehensive guide on all things Old Rag. There are offshoots and side-trails you can take to add new dimensions to your trek and there are some time-saving tips you should take into account if you’re trying to reach the top on a day hike. Read on to find out about the trails to the summit of Old Rag, some practical considerations, and some safety tips to make to most of hiking Old Rag Mountain.
What to expect in Shenandoah National Park
Shenandoah has over 500 miles of hiking trails through redwood forests that support populations of hundreds of different animal species. Part of the Blue Ridge Mountains comprise a section of the park; between them and the Shenandoah River and its valley, the national park sports a healthy variety of landscapes and natural features that are stunning from the summit of Old Rag. Hikers visiting Shenandoah National Park can expect to cut through lush forest hiking trails that scale and sink over some intense elevation gains. The highest point in the park, Hawksbill Mountain, rises up to 4,051 feet.
Some advantages of hiking in Shenandoah National Park are the various parking areas and facilities, including a visitor’s center. There are over 75 hiking trails inside the park, so if you’re looking to get a feel for the whole thing and not just tackle a circuit hike or make the summit of Old Rag Mountain, then you’ll definitely want to leave yourself plenty of time. It can take a few hours just to drive through the park, so if you really want to get around the hiking trails you should probably go ahead and plan on a multi-day hiking trip with camping at night.
Old Rag Mountain
So, what should you know about the mountain itself before you try to climb it? First of all, it isn’t the tallest peak in Shenandoah National Park but it is by far the more difficult of the two to scale and it is definitely the most popular hike in the park. The top of Old Rag reaches 3,284 feet and features bare rock rather than the more common tree-covered peaks in the rest of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
A geological event that happened about one billion years ago formed the granite of Old Rag, which you’ll see at the summit but also in rocky outcroppings and exposed sections along the many hiking trails. Greenstone, sandstone, limestone, and other minerals are also present in the mountain and the surrounding soil, so you can definitely expect a rocky hike. The rock climbing and scrambling on the way up makes for a challenging hike that’s left an impression on the roughly 100,000 people who attempt the hike each year.
Hiking Old Rag in sections
There are some rough delineations along the hiking trail to the top of Old Rag that can help gauge your progress on the way up and help you make sure you bring the right equipment to help you tackle the trail in good time as well as in a safe manner.
Depending on the hiker and their personal view on the hiking trail’s characteristics, there are about seven segments to the circuit hike up to the summit of Old Rag and back down again. Luckily, you can start and finish your trek in the parking area on Nethers Road, which will allow you to concentrate your efforts on tackling Old Rag and not have any unrelated hiking involved unless you want it to be.
The basic sections of Old Rag Mountain are these:
- Nethers Road Parking Area to closed Old Rag upper parking area: This beginning section is about 0.8 miles and takes hikers from the initial parking area (if that’s where they’ve started their hike) to the beginning of the blue blazes, which is a name for the blue lines that designate the trail path and indicate certain conditions up ahead. For the first Nethers Road section, hikers should take care not to exert themselves too much, since that energy will be useful later on when the hiking trail becomes much more difficult. Keep a steady pace and drink plenty of water in this and all other sections on the hike to the top of Old Rag.
- Blue Blazes to the first overlook: The grade will increase once you veer left from the Old Rag upper parking area. Everything will get much rockier after this section, so watch where your feet are landing and make sure not to slip. The Blue Blazes should take on a double-line shape during this second section of the hiking trail, indicating the nine switchbacks hikers will trek their way around before moving on to the third section. All in all, this second section runs about 2.2. Miles and has an elevation gain that might catch you off guard if you try to climb it too quickly.
- First overlook to the summit of Old Rag Mountain: Here’s the section of the hike where you’ll want to keep a close eye out for the Blue Blazes. There are tons of false routes and dead-end trails to mislead you and that elevation gain doesn’t give up at all in the third section of the uphill hike to the top of Old Rag. If you came to this hiking trail looking for some rock scrambling, then this third uphill section is where you’re going to find it. Geographical features such as a 12-foot deep crack in the rock and some narrow passages carved from the granite of the mountain shouldn’t be attempted by the inexperienced or the aloof. It’s a serious undertaking and it’s going to take some time. It’s best to take it slowly and enjoy the hike during this section.
After clambering down the narrow rock passageway, the trek turns into a kind of ridge trail. The good news is that the views at this stage are fantastic, but hikers would do well to make sure not to get too close to the edge for obvious reasons. Keep moving past a false summit at this stage of the hiking trail to reach the true summit of Old Rag. Along the way you can take in breathtaking 360-degree views from a few different points. Once you reach the top of Old Rag, enjoy stunning panoramic views of the 200,000 acres of Shenandoah National Park.
Descending to Byrd’s Nest
The 0.4-mile descent to Byrd’s Nest is fairly simple to do. The only thing to look out for at this stage, beyond watching your step and treading carefully as you likely will have learned to do at this point anyway, is Byrd’s Nest. For some extra rock climbing and rock scrambling, Byrd’s Nest is a great addition to the rest of the Old Rag hiking trail.
You can find it at the intersection with the Saddle Trail on the way down from the summit. Once you reach Byrd’s Nest, you can find some granite stones to climb on and take a bearing for Balanced Rock, which will be visible after a bit of extra trekking. If you’re extending your Shenandoah National Park hiking trip into a multi-day overnight trip, there’s a campsite around this stage of the hiking trail to the top of Old Rag Mountain.
Byrd’s Nest Shelter is also on this section of the hiking trail. Byrd’s Nest Shelter is a day-use only shelter that can be used as a rest stop or to take cover in case some kind of inclement weather has surprised you while you’re out in the backcountry. It’s worth a look whether you actually need it or not since it gives the impression of the kind of remote forest cabins constructed in this part of the United States before Shenandoah National Park was a protected area.
Continue on the Saddle Trail
Weakley Hollow Fire Road
This section of the hiking trail runs from the intersection of Berry Hollow Fire Road, Old Rag Fire Road, and Weakley Hollow Fire Road on back to the old upper parking area. It’s just under 2.5 miles long, during which time you’ll cross the Robertson Mountain Trail and the Corbin Hollow Trail. Consider this a kind of denouement of the Old Rag Mountain hike. It’s not that this section isn’t still a fun hike, but it won’t take the same toll as the more strenuous sections of the hiking trail to the summit of Old Rag.
Return along Nethers Road
This section is going to look familiar if you haven’t replaced its memory with the stunning sights at the summit of Old Rag. It’s the same as the beginning, which should make sense since it’s a circuit hike. The 0.8 miles from the old Upper Parking Area along Nethers Road to the usable parking area is like a pre-emptive congratulations to hikers who have, for all intents and purposes, completed the hike by the time they reach this final section.
Safety while hiking Old Rag Mountain
While this is the most popular hike in Shenandoah, that doesn’t mean it’s the easiest or even necessarily possible for novices and those who aren’t in a good enough shape to reach the summit of Old Rag Mountain on the circuit trail. Rock scrambling can sound like good, easy fun in web forums where experienced hikers and rock climbing enthusiasts are discussing it, but it’s not something everyone can just jump in to. Always try to hike with experienced hikers who can spot you if need be and show you how best to tackle difficult hikes like this one.
One thing many hikers forget is drinking water. It seems like a no-brainer, but it’s easy to underestimate how thirsty a really difficult climb is going to make you. Hikers should always make sure to bring at least 2 quarts of water per person in order to stay hydrated on the way to the summit of Old Rag and back down to the parking area. In addition, footwear is going to be really important on this particular hiking trail, since the exposed rock will be much slicker than many hikers might be used to, even if they’re familiar with hiking in Virginia.
So, how long does it take to hike Old Rag Mountain?
Now that you know how the trail looks, more or less, and how difficult it is to tackle, you should have some idea how long it will take. A safe estimate is about 7 hours for experienced hikers and perhaps 9 for those who are less familiar with this type of hike or who tend to take time for personal enjoyment and reflection when they’re out hiking in the backcountry.
Again, this can vary according to your own schedule, your speed, your size, your pack weight, and many other factors. If you’re unsure at all about timing, don’t cut it close. Always leave way more time than you need. If you do manage to finish this hiking trail earlier than expected, there’s plenty to do in the rest of Shenandoah National Park to stay entertained for the remainder of your time there.
Old Rag Mountain is the most popular hike in Shenandoah National Park and also the most challenging hike. The terrain at the summit of Old Rag and all the sections of the trail near that point are full of granite boulders and exposed rock that can be quite slick. There are also fantastic panoramic views of almost 200,000 acres of the surrounding redwood forests to reward hikers who can reach the top of Old Rag with enough time to take in the landscapes.
Many factors can affect how long it will take different hikers to get to the summit of Old Rag and get back down to the parking area again. In general, it’s wise to overestimate how long it will take you to complete the trek. Leave early enough to finish the trail before nightfall.
This is one of the busiest trails and a favorite hike for many visitors to the Shenandoah National Park, so it’s likely to be best attempted early in the morning on a weekday. If you can keep a steady pace and bring enough water to drink, you can reach the top of Old Rag on a day hike. Or, if you prefer to stop and smell the roses, you can turn this hike into a multi-day overnight trip. Whatever way you decide to visit, the summit of Old Rag Mountain offers some stunning views however long you take to reach it.
Bonus tip: Watch this quick video to get a brief look at the hiking trails around Old Rag Mountain!