Sunday, November 2, 2008

Old Rag

There is one day of the year where all of these intersect, if one is lucky: crisp fall weather, gorgeous foliage, mountain hiking, and the chance to sleep in an hour before heading out. For me, that day was Sunday, November 2, although the weather was hazy – not quite crisp - and I took advantage of that extra hour to get an early start by heading for Old Rag in east-central Shenandoah National Park, instead of getting extra sleep.

Old Rag is an incredibly popular hike on weekends, and is a very unique hike for this part of the world as well. It is like nothing else I have hiked in Virginia, or anywhere else for that matter. There is a small 12 car parking lot at the trailhead, and a huge 200 car lot about 0.8 miles away. I figured by getting an early start – 5:30AM – I could get there early enough to get a spot in the 12 car lot and save myself 1.6 miles of round-trip walking along a road. When I passed by the 200 car lot about 7:40 and saw about 20 cars were already in it, I figured that I was too late. But I pressed on to the trailhead lot anyway, and was surprised and delighted to see 3 spaces left, one of which I grabbed! I put on my boots, got my gear together, and started hiking.

The first thing I saw, at the very start of the hike, was this sign warning of aggressive bears. I hadn’t seen a bear in the last 3 years of hiking.

I wasn’t ½ mile into the hike when I looked up and saw a large black bear right in the trail about 200 feet away! At that exact instant, my heavy beaver-wood hiking staff hit a rock in the trail with a loud report, and the bear dashed through the woods like an Olympic sprinter! I was sorry to have scared him inadvertently, but it was amazing to watch him sprinting through the open fall forest for a couple of hundred meters, his jet-black coat contrasting with the fall colors.

I was hiking on the ridge trail, which climbs for 3.2 miles to get to the summit. Old Rag is composed of billion year old granite formed from ancient magma, and the upper parts of it are a jumble of huge boulders and rock formations. The first 2 miles or so of the trail climb steeply at times, with many switchbacks, and is a good workout of about an hour’s exertion. The autumn woods were beautiful:

This part of the trail is typical Appalachian hiking, and gives no real hint of what is to come, until the first good view of the summit, looming still over 1,000 feet above finally came into view. The name Old Rag comes from the ragged appearance of the upper reaches from all of the boulders. Note not only the boulder covered summit but the huge boulder field to the upper left approaching the summit:

There were also very pretty views of the valley and mountains to the north at this point. At about a mile from the summit, the real work began. This last mile took two hours of very hard work, with only one 10 minute rest break to eat a power bar when I felt like I was hitting the wall. It mostly consisted of clambering over, between, around, and under boulders and slabs of rock. I had to remove my pack at least four times during this stretch because there was no way to fit through with the pack on. Plus for much of this section, carrying my heavy hiking stick was a hindrance, not a help. After a half hour or so of this, some more beautiful views appeared. Here is the south slope of the mountain, still hundreds of feet below the summit:

This set of photos shows one of the really neat features of the climb. One actually has to climb down into a rock slot, dropping in about 6 feet or so. The blue trail marker points down into the slot:

These next photos show a view back through the slot from inside it:

and moving through the slot to climb out of it and make a sharp left turn at the far end. This hiker I met passing through there gives a good perspective of the size of these rocks and the slot:

Here is another view of the summit, which looks so close, but it was still about 75 minutes (for me) away at this point:

At one point, the trail moved though two caves, for a total of about 40 feet:

Shortly after this point, it reached a spot that looked impassible. In fact another hiker came out of a steep and narrow chasm telling me that it was impassible and it must be the wrong way. After scouting around, we determined that the trail did have to go that way. Three young women came by us as we were debating about which way to go, and said “this trail weeds out the out-of-shape and over-weight people.” I was feeling kind of out-of-shape at that point, marathons and all. All five of us had a devil of a time climbing out of the chasm at that point, but we all figured a way to do it.

About an hour from the top was this beautiful set of stairs going through the rocks. They look man-made but are actually architected by Mother Nature – wind, ice, snow, rain, and broiling sun. The trail went right up the stairs – just remember to duck!

About a half hour from the summit was this huge boulder. This whole area reminded me of mountain tops in Northern New England, except it was even more rugged:

Finally, at about 11 AM, I emerged on to the summit, about 3 hours of hiking and climbing and 2,300 feet of elevation gain. This is one of four spots in Shenandoah National Park with 360 degree views, and despite the haze which muted the fall colors, the views were spectacular. Weakly Hollow far below, through which I would hike on the return, looked like a colorful carpet, even though the haze dulled the colors a bit:

Here is a view to the west of the “second summit”, which is slightly lower. In the distance almost directly over this summit is Hawksbill Mountain, the highest point in SNP:

I asked a young woman to snap a shot of me on top of Old Rag, my second time there and my first time as a cancer survivor and as a grandpa:

After spending 45 minutes on the summit enjoying the views, eating lunch, and stretching out on my back on a sun-drenched rock, I decided to head down. I could have returned the way I came, but decided to make a circuit hike of it by hiking down the Saddle Trail and the Old Rag Fire Road. For one thing, I was tired from the rough trip through the rocks and although it was fun, I didn’t think it would be as much fun going back. For another, I like a little variety in hikes, and returning by a different route would give me that. Maybe I would see another bear, or some other wildlife. This trail was about 4.2 miles, but was a typical mountain trail – no more rock hopping. Even though it gets tremendous use, it was well maintained and in good condition for the most part. The trail descended sharply through the alpine and wooded areas, and reached this interesting shelter after about 0.4 miles (Byrds Nest #1):

After about 2/3 of a mile of descending, there was a nice view back up at the second summit of Old Rag looming hundreds of feet above:

Shortly after this point, the views opened up one last time for a nice look across Weakly Hollow to Robertson Mountain and Corbin Mountain. On a future trip, I must hike up these mountains:

I was very impressed with the trail maintenance. A good example is this beautifully built set of stairs:

After about 2 miles of descending the trail and passing another shelter in the woods, the Saddle Trail ends, and the remaining two miles+ of the hike is along the Old Rag Fire Road. This felt like traveling along an interstate highway compared to the ascent, and went along through beautiful autumn woods:

During the hike out I passed dozens of people hiking up the fire road and the Saddle Trail. Even though this is a longer approach than the Ridge Trail, it is a much easier hike. A number of the hikers looked very worn out coming up, although I figured that they would decide that the views from the top are worth it. Other than a few juncos, I saw no other wildlife after seeing the bear at the start.

I got back to my car about 1:30 and headed for home. The 200 car parking lot looked totally full on my drive out!

This was my first mountain hiking since my trip to New Hampshire, and was a memorable day in a fascinating and unique spot. If you are ever in that area and want to try something a little different, give Old Rag a try. It is well worth it. But trust me, you are going to earn the great views!


  1. Wow that was some hike. The photos are wonderful. What spectacular fall views. The natural rock stairs are just amazing.
    I don't think I would like to encounter a bear though!!
    A snake is nothing next to that! :-)

  2. Wow! What a fascinating hike! Pictures are beautiful!

  3. Thanks Anne and Happyone, for your comments. I finally have internet back. It is a fantastic and unique hike, and I really enjoyed it. I am glad that you like the photos.

    You have to be cautious around bears of course - even a small bear is many times as strong as the strongest man, and that doesn't include the teeth and claws. But generally, the black bears are not agressive and are scared of humans. I've enountered them about a half dozen times or so on hikes and have always been thrilled.