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Old Rag Mountain is one of the most popular hikes at Shenandoah National Park, if not #1. It’s a well-deserved ranking and in fact, it’s so much fun I named it one of the top 5 hikes in Virginia.
Despite being one of my favorite trails and one of the few hikes I’ve made a special effort to repeat, I had never made the circuit in winter. With my time in Virginia drawing to a close, it seemed like a good idea to head back to Shenandoah for a last trip up Old Rag.
The hike itself is an 8-mile loop with a somewhat strenuous rock scrambling portion leading up to the summit. It’s the scrambling that makes the hike most enjoyable, in my opinion; otherwise, the trail isn’t much different from other options in the area.
The first few miles are relatively easy. The trail heads steadily uphill, but the terrain is easy and even in winter the ice could be avoided. The mud, on the other hand, could not. One upside to hiking in March was being able to peek through the trees to see a few views in the distance that ordinarily would be masked by foliage.
One of the reasons that I think Old Rag has become popular is because there are several overlooks along the way (and a few false summits as well). I’ve never been a lover of Shenandoah Valley compared to farther south in the Blue Ridge Mountains, but I always appreciate the chance to catch my breath under the guise of taking a photograph.
It’s at this point that the fun begins. The trail meanders over rocks without a care in the world that you’ll be jumping, climbing, and crawling in some sections to head toward the summit. Doing this in winter, where there are slick, icy patches in some sections adds an element of challenge.
To be fair, though, typically the most precarious part of the scramble is the fact that many hikers don’t realize the trail is intended to be a one-way hike. The path is definitely not wide enough for two-directional traffic, causing huge back-ups as scramblers wait for others to pass by. In some cases, we decided to simply take our own shortcuts instead.
Eventually, the hard work is over and you’re rewarded with a 360-degree view, at least on a clear day.
Our time at the summit was cut short as the rain rolled in. Our lovely 45-degree day instantly cooled off by about 10 degrees and felt even chillier as we started to get wet. Luckily (or so I’d thought), we’d be heading down via the Saddle Trail rather than scrambling back over the rocks.
Unfortunately, the back side of the mountain was a whole different scenario than our nice hike up the mountain. This side remained covered in ice and snow. Now, soaking wet and chilled to the bone, we found ourselves slowly making our way down in hopes of not slipping and falling as we went.
Casual hikers we are not, but stupidly any gear that would have been helpful was back at home. Spike or Yak-trax for our shoes would have been a lifesaver and trekking poles would’ve surely helped with balance. Instead, too stubborn to turn around and take the long way back, we persevered, eventually making it to a very muddy fire road that at least wasn’t too slippery. Jogging it out to the finish, we made it back to the car in record time so that we could change into dry clothes.
Regardless of our shortsightedness, Old Rag was a fun hike even in winter. We managed to laugh through the freezing rain and smile during the farewell to Shenandoah National Park.
If you go…
Keep in mind that while Old Rag is part of Shenandoah National Park, the typical loop is not accessible from Skyline Drive and instead you’ll need to leave the park to drive to this boundary entrance. Entrance fees are still collected.
Casual hikers would do well do try Old Rag in the spring or fall, when weather is most likely to be favorable. Allow 5 or 6 hours for the 8-mile hike; we’ve done it much quicker (even with our icy descent) but the duration of your hike is more likely to be based on how crowded it is rather than the actual length of trail or elevation gain involved. Weekday mornings, unsurprisingly, are the least crowded.
Stronger hikers can start their hike from Skyline Drive, though this roughly doubles the trail length. It’s a great hike or overnight backpack route, with plenty of spots to set up a tent before starting your summit. Pack a headlamp so you can enjoy sunset from the top before making the trek back down in the dark (it’s not hard if there’s no ice!).