***As we celebrate the Holidays here at BecauzeItzThere, please enjoy this re-run of a post that appear in this space earlier in the year — one of the most popular trails in the Southern Appalachians, Old Rag Mountain. It is our favorite single hike in the South!
OLD RAG MOUNTAIN
Sylvia and I have decided to tackle some of the most challenging hikes and scrambles in the Southern Appalachians as way of ratcheting up the bar to a higher level. After all, if we can’t measure up to the challenges of the mountains in our own back yard, then how can we hope to be ready for the much steeper ones of the Alps, Dolomites, Patagonia, to name but a few?
In April, we had done the quintessential Tennessee/North Carolina Hike – Mount Leconte – to prepare for our adventures in Peru. Now, with an eye toward bigger things next year, we set our eyes on yet another of the South’s “Must do” hikes – Virginia’s Old Rag Mountain.
Long considered the best hike in Shenandoah National Park, where it is also the most popular, Old Rag also has a reputation as being unparalleled both in scenic views and inherent challenge. It is also not without its dangers…with over a mile of sometimes intense boulder scrambling, this is not a trail for novices nor the faint of heart.
Even getting to it is a challenge. The trail head itself can only be reached by driving a considerable distance outside of it…nearly 10 miles South of Sperryville, VA, which is in itself seven miles from the Park’s Thornton Gap entrance. To stage for the Hike, we stayed overnight in Mathews Arm campground, a 40 minute drive away.
Despite its formidable reputation, Old Rag is a popular mountain…maybe THE most well publicized hike in Virginia. As proof of this, the NPS parking area off state route 601 often fills to capacity on Summer weekends despite accommodating 250 vehicles. We deliberately hiked on a Monday in the ‘tweener’ season of late September, hoping to avoid the crowds, and were entirely successful. Instead of hundreds, we shared the mountain with only a few score, and these well spread out. For most of this hike we were quite alone.
We were less successful in avoiding the heat…somebody had forgotten to tell the weather that fall had began. We started off in buggy heat that seemed to be about 80 degrees in the valley, though it was probably less.
Challenges aside, nearly half this trail is a road slog. The old parking lot for this trail has been closed, forcing hikers to walk an additional three quarters of a mile over a mostly non-scenic residential road. Where the black top ends, the trail breaks sharply uphill to the left, while straight ahead the Weakley Hollow Fire Road comes in. From that road hikers will close the loop on their return, some hours hence.
The next two miles on dirt/rock are a steep but uneventful uphill climb in the trees. The only things of note on this section, beside the bugs, are the increasing number of boulders…a reminder that soon, the trail will be nothing but boulders. At about three miles in, the real fun begins. A steep and uneven rock stairway takes the hiker past a sign proclaiming a no camping zone…and here the first of the rock scrambles appears, a long, steeply pitched cracked slab of granite, atop which is a very fine view from a ledge down the mountains more populated front side.
Leaving the ledge, the scrambles intensify, entering perhaps the most challenging one of all…a 10-foot deep crevasse between slabs of solid rock, affording only sketchy handholds. This is the scramble that more than any other makes the clockwise direction a more advisable way to do this loop. It plagued us for a few minutes and caused me to drop my now head-mounted GoPro onto the rock, but they make those things to last…ours certainly survived the fall none the worse for wear.
Exiting the crevasse, the trail makes its way around the backside of the mountain where stunning and seldom seen views can be had. But you won’t have much time for gawking at them because for the next mile, you will have all your attention fixed on the route, grasping, leaping, crawling and straining. You cannot just walk this trail…you have to answer each and every challenge differently. Among the highlights:
- A granite slab leaning precariously against a cliff; the trail goes directly through the keyhole between.
- A short traverse of a claustrophobic cave through the rock (I had to crawl, but shorter hikers could probably duckwalk.)
- A narrow chute, directly in the middle of which is lodged a massive multi-ton boulder. Recalling the movie 129 hours, the anxious hiker is forced to go straight underneath this obstacle
- After this comes an startling, gravity-defying rock formation that looks like an upraised fist
- And more balanced rocks than ANY other trail we have seen east of the Rockies
Negotiating these and other obstacles, the trail tantalizes with at least two false summits before the final challenge…this being a long, narrow ascent up a boulder strewn defile, dead in the center of which is an inconveniently placed block. For me, this proved to be the most formidable obstacle of the day; the weight of my too heavy pack, combined with the unseasonable heat, the fact that we were low on water, and a comical episode where my foot became stuck for five minutes in a crack had worn me down. (Sylvia, cursing my ‘lack of flexibility’, had impatiently seized the offending foot with both hands intending to pry it loose before I waved her off to more gingerly coax it forth.)
After several minutes of flopping about, I finally took off my pack and hurled it up and over the obstacle, and then in my usual gazelle-like fashion, took a good ten minutes to execute a my patented ‘full granite body slam’ method of bouldering. Sylvia, to shame me, was able to step lightly through in just two minutes, again cursing the ‘lack of flexibility’ in the gazelle ahead of here.
Fortunately for us, the 3,284 foot elevation summit was just ahead. We lingered for some minutes on the expansive granite slabs, resting and enjoying 360 degree views. Here the hiker is rewarded with something rarely seen in Virginia – mountainsides and valleys almost unspoiled by any kind of development. The backside of Old Rag looks out deep into the lesser seen interior of the national park, something few who venture from Skyline Drive and the park’s more popular overlooks will ever see.
As with my visits to the Smokies, I was disappointed in the amount of haze in the air, which greatly detracts from the views. The proximity of both parks to the industry and coal fired power plants in the Midwest makes this the case, and it seems worse in both spots than it does in the middle regions of Virginia and the Carolinas, perhaps because of the prevailing winds. I am not sure if it is my imagination or not, but it seems to have gotten much worse than the first time I laid eyes on the Shenandoah valley almost twenty years ago.
After resting and hydrating we were back on our way, tired and nearly out of water, not keen on doing any more rock hopping. Fortunately for us, the scrambles were over. From the summit the Saddle Trail comes in and makes a relatively uneventful exit from the mountain. It’s long (5.2 miles from summit to parking lot) and the first two miles are steep, but it’s just a regular trail, nothing that requires any gazelle-like rock flopping. In less than an hour, the Saddle Trail passes a pair of day use cabins and deposits the hiker on the well-graded Weakley Hollow Fire Road. From here, it’s another hour or so slog out.
The road was actually passable to vehicles and one did in fact pass us, which turned out to be the caretaker of the Old Rag Shelter. She very kindly stopped and offered us a bottle of water (much needed) before continuing on down the road.
Though the walk out itself was uneventful enough to be called boring, about a mile from the blacktop we got our last bit of excitement of this day – as we were walking along Sylvia suddenly shouted, “What’s that!” I looked up just in time to see, just two hundred feet ahead, a large black shaggy form go loping across the trail and quickly dive into the bushes. I was about to cry, “Bear!” when a second, somewhat smaller black form came scampering directly behind the first, and that one was followed by yet another. It was a mother bear and two cubs! Probably had they come down to the nearby creek at the end of the day for water, bolting uphill into a rocky area when we approached.
There was no time to get a picture and no chance of following them where they went, even if we were inclined to do so. We kept on walking…no pictures, alas, but we will have the memories of this encounter to treasure. (It marks the only time that I have actually seen a bear WHILE hiking, as opposed to while driving or through a binoculars, etc. Whatever the reason, bears are FAR more commonly seen in the south than in New England. I never saw a single one in many years hiking there!)
All in all, this is one of the best days in the outdoors either of us can remember, and we strongly recommend it to other hikers, so long as they are fit, experienced and well-prepared. No actual rock climbing skills are needed here, but this is more than a bit above just a ‘hike.’ A hiker who is not ready for this challenge may be in serious trouble, and the NPS does undertake many treacherous rescue operations from the mountain every year.
We do offer the following pieces of advice:
- Avoid the trail in bad weather. If it rains, don’t feel the need to be ‘mas macho’…there are 500 OTHER miles of trail in Shenandoah NP.
- Avoid the weekends. Crowds, and the queues that form at the tough scrambles, would have really detracted from the experience.
- Don’t take a heavy pack…go as light as possible
- Be prepared to stow away trekking poles in the scrambles. Or, if you don’t absolutely need them, don’t take them at all.
- Take as much water as possible, this is thirsty work. Minimum 2 liters…more if you can.
- Do the trail in the clockwise direction. The obstacles MAY be a bit less insane this way, and you save the long but easy road walk for the end.
- Once in the scrambles, it is probably better to push on than turn back…it’s all downhill from the summit.
If you are a novice hiker who has seen this or another trail report or video online, our advice is, tackle something a bit less extreme first. Our recommendation…the Alum Cave Trail in North Carolina. Or, Mt. Rogers.
Watch our 15 minute special effects blockbuster movie of the hike! (warning: Some shaky cam and Brian antics possible.)