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Boulder-dash! The Ultimate Guide to Hiking Old Rag Mountain

— Edith Han

Encompassing 200,000 acres of stunning wilderness, the rolling mountains, shady forests, and quiet hollows of Shenandoah National Park are a haven for hikers — but where to begin?

The park features more than 500 miles of trails, including 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail, but the trek to the top of Old Rag Mountain remains the Shenandoah's most popular hike, as well as its most challenging.

Planning your route

Old Rag Mountain tops out at 3,284 feet. Though the tip is far from the highest point in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Old Rag is unique for its rocky summit and difficult terrain, which includes long stretches of bare rock that bear a closer resemblance to the rugged peaks of Yosemite than anything else you'll find in Virginia.

The most common route to the top of Old Rag Mountain is a 9-mile loop that begins at the Old Rag parking area at the end of Route 601. This route typically takes seven or eight hours to complete, and involves ascending to the summit on the Ridge Trail and utilizing the Saddle Trail and Weakley Hollow Fire Road to return to the trailhead. Other routes are also possible, and a detailed trail map is an essential planning tool.

Tips for a successful Old Rag hike

Man pretending to push a giant boulder bigger than he is at Old Rag hike in Shenandoah National Park
Giant boulder at Old Rag hike in Shenandoah National Park (James Strotman, Share the Experience)

The Old Rag hike is the most popular trail in Shenandoah National Park, but it is also the most dangerous. Every year, hikers become injured, exhausted, or dehydrated on the trail and must be rescued. Due to the length of the trail and the difficulty of the terrain, a rescue often takes hours. Before you begin, be prepared, and take a few things into consideration:

  • Make sure you are physically able to complete the hike. Even fit hikers often have difficulty climbing across, around, and between the giant granite boulders that make up some parts of the trail.
  • Check the forecast, and never attempt the hike during wet or icy conditions.
  • Take at least 2 quarts of water per person.
  • Wear sturdy, comfortable shoes that provide good ankle support and a firm grip on the bare rock.
  • Always stay on the trail. This is for your own safety, and also to protect the rare plant life that grows on the mountaintop.
  • Pack as lightly as possible without leaving out anything essential.
  • Pets are not allowed.

There and back again

Man sitting on rocks overlooking the green Shenandoah Valley on Old Rag hike at Shenandoah National Park
Shenandoah Valley on Old Rag hike at Shenandoah National Park (Andy Sides, Share the Experience)

Starting at the Old Rag Mountain trailhead, the 9-mile hike begins with about 2 miles of increasingly steep trail through shady woods. After that, you will emerge on the exposed ridgetop of the mountain. Expect to crawl, climb, shimmy, and scramble through about a mile and a half of boulders, then another half-mile of exposed rock as you approach the summit.

Blue trail blazes are painted on the trees — and later on the rocks themselves — to guide you along the trail. Keep an eye out for double blazes, which indicate a sharp turn or switchback ahead. Most blazes have numbers painted below them, which should be used to report your location to rescuers if you get into trouble.

Once you reach the top, take the time to appreciate the 360-degree view, including the vast area of Shenandoah National Park that is visible from the summit of Old Rag Mountain. Continue down the Saddle Trail and Weakley Hollow Fire Road to return to the trailhead.

Hiking Shenandoah National Park to the top of Old Rag Mountain is no small feat, but it rewards hikers with unforgettable views and the satisfaction that only comes from accepting nature's challenge. To prepare you for your hike, the National Park Service provides a variety of maps and publications about Old Rag and the many other trails in Shenandoah National Park.

Interested in other recommendations on trails and treks for all ages and ability levels? Download our free Owner’s Guide, Happy Trails, filled with 25 unforgettable hikes. It’s a must-have for planning the perfect national park adventure!