Climbing Old Rag Mountain

Over the past three years Matt and I have hiked and road-tripped our way through some awe-inspiring destinations on the west coast including Zion National Park, Sedona and Big Sur. Traveling “Out West” has become a yearly pilgrimage, yielding beautiful memories from past adventures and unlimited possibilities for future trips. (Portland! Napa! A train ride from SF to Chicago! The Grand Canyon! So much to see.)

With all of that excitement happening on the left coast, I haven’t given much thought to potential trips back east.  Sure, we take annual drives to the Poconos and the beach and make our way up to Vermont or northern New York every once in a while, but none of these places have rivaled the awesomeness of the western landscape. But all that changed on Friday when Matt and I hiked up Old Rag Mountain in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park. Wow!!

Matt and I were in the DC area for work on Thursday and our last meeting ended at 4PM. I realized back when the meeting was originally scheduled that at the end of the day we would have a choice: either head straight home, battling DC and Baltimore rush hour the whole way, or bypass I-95 entirely and head west to the mountains for a day in Shenandoah NP. The answer was obvious.

We spent Thursday night in Culpeper, Virginia, a quiet town with a cute downtown district that included breweries, a quaint Amtrak station, and a great dinner spot called Grill 309. The next morning we were on the road by 6:30 and pulled into the Old Rag parking area less than an hour later. The park ranger wasn’t on duty yet, so we paid our $10pp entry fee at the self-pay station, strapped on our packs, and set off toward the official start of the trail 0.8 miles up the road.

After 90 minutes of climbing we came to the first of Old Rag’s false summits. I knew we hadn’t arrived at the “real” view yet, but man was it pretty. The sun was low in the sky, the light was hitting the granite ridge just right, and we had an expansive view of the valley floor below.

Soon we left the false summit behind and began the section of trail that Old Rag is best known for: a mile and a half rock scramble up, over, under, and around enormous granite boulders on the mountain’s face.

The rock scramble was less intimidating than I thought it would be, probably because I had read so many cautionary tales beforehand. Nevertheless, my upper arms were really tired the next day from pulling myself up and over rocks. And probably also from holding up this boulder, it was pretty heavy:

As Matt and I neared the summit the views got better and better. Finally, at 10:15AM our upward climb came to an end and we were presented with the bald, granite top of Old Rag. The summit was dotted with giant boulders and a handful of hikers relaxing after the hike. Matt eagerly climbed up several boulders for a better view while I waited below.

The view was spectacular. To the west the tree-covered Blue Ridge Mountains stretched for as far as we could see. To the east we looked out over the lush valley that we had driven through on our way from Culpeper. Matt and I spent about a half hour on top of Old Rag, working our way around the boulders and crevices to check out each new vantage point.

The hike down Old Rag was much easier than the climb. We looped down the back of the mountain on the Saddle Trail, passing two day-use shelters and eventually joining up with the Weakley Hollow Fire Road for a long, gradual descent back to our car. We had been the tenth car in the lot at 7:30AM but by the time we got back five hours later the entire lot was packed with dozens of cars and two busses. I’m glad we got an early start!

Although Matt and I only spent half a day in Shenandoah National Park, I left feeling invigorated and excited about the prospect of exploring more destinations on the east coast. I’m now convinced that we need to drive the entire length of the Blue Ridge Parkway and hike up Grandfather Mountain in NC while we’re at it. I also want to visit Acadia in Maine, the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania and Niagara Falls. So many places within driving distance!

We live in the Philadelphia suburbs. Anyone have any other suggestions for awe-inspiring natural wonders within a 6-8 hour drive??

You can view more of my Old Rag photos below. (Click to start the full screen gallery.)

Old Rag Mountain Helpful Links:

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4 thoughts on “Climbing Old Rag Mountain

    • Thanks for the recommendation! I just googled Breakneck Ridge and it looks perfect. 3-3 1/2 hours from our house and, better yet, only 1 1/2 hours from Matt’s parents’ place in the Poconos. We’ll have to go!! I’ve seen the Hudson in the Poughkeepsie/Kingston area and it really is breathtaking. Sooooo wide.

      One question since you’ve done it before — do you think that Piper could come along on this hike (on a leash), or it is not safe for dogs? We can pick her up and carry her for short periods of time, but I don’t want to put us or her in a dangerous situation with the rock scrambles.

      • It’s been a couple of years since I’ve done the hike, so I don’t have a clear recollection of how long the steep parts were. There were definitely sections where I was using my hands to crawl up. Ben, who is nimbler than me, skipped up like a mountain goat. A guy blogged here that he would only recommend dogs that you could carry and he has a picture of a dog roughly Piper’s size (http://hikethehudsonvalley.com/breakneck-ridge/). I definitely seen dogs on the trail. I’d have no problem bringing Bandit, but Bandit can also be shoved into my backpack and carried for long periods of time. Once you get to the top (there are several false summits, fyi), the way down is pretty gentle. If you want to hike Breakneck, you’ll need to do it this fall because they’re closing the trailhead next year starting in early 2018 in order to improve access.

        Another hiking recommendation is Mohonk Mountain Preserve – I don’t believe dogs are allowed here and if you’re doing the trail with the section called Lemon Squeeze (seriously fun), I don’t recommend bringing Piper even if she were allowed.

  1. Great hike!!! You got to do the Billy Goat Trail at Great Falls Park next DC trip!! Really close to DC, Not as long as Old Rag but so scenic along Potamac River! Also loved Acadia!! Wish it was closer! Great climbing hikes there! Scenic too!!

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