Fall, with all the changing colors, is the best time to hike Old Rag.
There’s no day-hike within driving distance of the DC area that’s more popular than Old Rag Mountain in the Shenandoah Mountains, and with good reason. The 9-mile loop offers gorgeous views, fun rock scrambles and is challenging yet doable for most fitness levels. It takes about 2 – 2.5 hours to get there and is particularly great in the fall.
1. It can—and will—get crowded. If you’re going on a weekend and it’s nice weather, you’ll want to plan on leaving as early as you can tolerate. There’s one particular place about halfway through that requires a tricky shimmy in between two rocks. I have twice waited a whopping 45 minutes to get through this section. There’s another option, walking around a large bolder, but the ledge is pretty narrow (as is the margin of error).
2. You’ll have to pay for parking. There’s a grass field down the road from the trailhead with a park ranger pay booth. The cost is $8/individual, $15/ car or $30 for an annual pass and, surprisingly, they prefer credit cards. Don’t forget to get a national park stamp if you’re into that sort of thing. Note: There used to be a few parking spots right by the trailhead, but they’re no longer available.
3. Go before you go. There also used to be a port-o-potty right at the trailhead. They got rid of that, so make sure you use the two that are in the parking lot before heading up the road to the trailhead.
4. Bring some cash. On the road walking to/from the trailhead, there’s often someone selling cider or apples. I always regret not having cash on hand to purchase some.
5. Don’t forget to bring the basics. Over the winter my roommate and her friend forgot to bring water on their Old Rag hike. They had to eat snow. So yeah, don’t do that. And bring lunch, snacks and sunscreen too.
One of the trickier (and most fun) sections.
6. Decide where you’re going to eat afterward, beforehand. There’s no question that you’ll want to eat a big meal after the hike. You’ll pass through Sperryville, but the only cheap option is pizza. (Here’s a list of the most current dining options.) Last time I hiked Old Rag, my friends and I had trouble finding a convenient place to eat on our way home, and it was annoying because by that time we were tired and hungry. I advise pre-planning and making a decision on the drive up.
7. Go clockwise. I get so annoyed with hikers who go in a counter-clockwise direction. Most people go clockwise, and so you will be constantly going against traffic if you go the other direction.
8. You will hate your life for the last 45 minutes. Assuming you go clockwise, the last 45 – 60 minutes are down a dirt path. It’s boring and by then I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll be over it. Since there’s not actually anything you can do about it, maybe I shouldn’t have brought it up at all … oh well!
9. Beware of bears. The first time I did this hike it was on a weekday and I was by myself. I only saw a few other hikers the entire time. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Luckily, I didn’t see any bears that time, but I saw one on my most recent trip a few yards from the trail.
10. Be realistic. The amount of time this hike takes varies dramatically depending on your fitness level and the number of breaks you take. My roommate took 4 hours while my co-worker, on the same day, took 7.5. If you think you’ll be pretty slow, make sure to bring adequate supplies and leave early enough so you don’t have to worry about the sun setting while you’re still on the mountain.
Want more info? Check out the National Park Service’s Old Rag webpage.