Posted Date: May 24, 2021
If you are wondering which hike to choose in Shenandoah National Park, I would recommend hiking Old Rag. With its panoramic views and billion-year-old granite rock boulders, Old Rag is the most popular hike in Shenandoah and was recently named one of the 25 best hikes in the world.
Hiking Old Rag is an adventure in itself with rock scrambles and 360-degree views – you’ll be entertained the whole way.
Be prepared though – this 9.4-mile round-trip loop is not for the faint of heart. You’ll be tested on your physical strength and ability as you scramble your way up, around, and through the granite rock boulders near the summit.
With that being said, this is one of our favorite hikes we have ever done, and we think it is 100% worth the challenge.
Guide to Hiking Old Rag
Old Rag Circuit Hike Details
Distance: 9.4 miles
Hiking time: 5 – 7.5 hours
Elevation gain: 2,348 feet
Difficulty level: Strenuous
Day pass cost: $30 per vehicle
Parking: Old Rag parking area
Best time to hike: May – October (spring and fall are best for cooler temperatures)
Parking at Old Rag
After a 1 hour 45 minute drive from Washington, D.C., we arrived at the Old Rag parking lot at 10:30 AM. Our arrival time was about 2 hours later than we hoped, but alas, we have never been early risers.
Luckily, the parking lot was not yet full. We were able to park in the lower parking lot with just a few spots left. The lower parking lot is about a quarter of a mile away from the trailhead, so be prepared to add a few minutes onto your hike time to get to the start of the trail from here.
Note – there are several parking lots, but they fill up quickly. Once spots are gone, there is nowhere else to park and you’ll either have to wait or go back another time.
To avoid this, arrive early in the morning (before 8:30 AM) to ensure you can get a spot on busy weekends. We got lucky that there were a few spots left. I’ve also heard that the weekdays are much less crowded, and there’s a better chance you can get a spot throughout the morning.
Getting to the Old Rag Trailhead
From the lower parking lot, take the Old Rag Access Trail up to the fee booth area. If you parked in one of the upper lots, then the fee booth is just a short walk away.
Either pay the entrance fee of $30 per vehicle or show your park pass if you have one. Pick up a trail map at the booth and use the restroom here because there are no restrooms on the trail – other than nature of course.
The trailhead is located on the left side of the fee booth, and this is where you will start your ascent via the Ridge Trail.
Hiking Up to the Rock Scramble
The Ridge Trail is marked with a light blue “blaze” on the trees – it’s easy to follow and the path is surrounded by lush forest the entire way up.
The beginning of the hike is pretty steep as you follow switchbacks up the mountain. I would recommend taking it a bit slow in order to save some energy for the remainder of the hike.
At about 2.5 miles into the hike, you will reach a couple of viewpoints and notice the ground starts to get a bit rocky. This is the start of the rock scramble.
Old Rag Rock Scramble
This is where the real fun begins! The rock scramble is the most fun part of the hike, but it is also the most strenuous part of the hike. At this point, be ready to climb up, around, and under boulders, jump over crevasses, and squeeze yourself through narrow passes in the rocks – finding barely visible hand and footholds.
The total distance of the rock scramble is around 1.3 miles, and it took us about an hour to do.
On a busy day, be prepared to wait anywhere between 15-30 minutes to make it through several narrow passages in the rocks. The line can queue up quickly and can take a while for everyone to get through. We got stuck behind a Boy Scout troop and this put us behind by about 30 minutes.
I would suggest waiting until you reach the summit (at the end of the rock scramble) to pause for a lunch or snack break in order to avoid getting stuck in the backlog.
Don’t forget to enjoy the views during this part of the hike! The tree-covered mountains and views of the valley are absolutely stunning from the top. Being from the Western United States, we aren’t used to seeing such green and lush valleys, so we had to stop a few times along the way to take it all in!
At the summit, you can enjoy panoramic vistas and relax on one of the many flat-topped boulders for a lunch break.
The distance from the summit back to the parking lot is 5.2 miles. We were a bit shocked by this, since we thought we were halfway through at the top.
Luckily, the descent is a combination of downhill and flat the entire way. To get back, you follow the blue-blazed Saddle Trail on a windy path down the mountain. We were able to keep a good pace and made it down the mountain pretty quickly.
After about 2.7 miles, you will reach the Weakly Hollow Fire Road. From here, it’s about 2.5 miles* back to the trailhead on a flat, even path.
*Note* – Once you reach the end of the Fire Road, you will see a chain gate that blocks a paved road. Instead of taking the paved road, you are supposed to take the Ridge Access trail to the right of the road back to the trailhead – this adds another mile to the hike. Apparently, this is a newer addition to the hike, but we ended up taking the paved road since everyone else was taking it.
Tips for Hiking Old Rag
- Arrive early in the morning. The earlier you arrive the better your chances are at getting a decent park spot and avoiding lines at the rock scramble. Parking lots fill up quickly and there is nowhere else to park once they are full – try to arrive before 8:30 AM.
- Take plenty of water. Plan to take around 2 liters of water per person to be safe, plus an electrolyte drink as well, especially in the summer months. We only took 48 oz of water per person and that was definitely not enough for the length of this hike.
- Pack snacks. Take a lunch or plenty of snacks to help fuel yourself during your hike. It’s exhausting and you’ll need the extra energy!
- Take hiking shoes (if you have them). Some of the rocks are quite slippery as they’ve been smoothed out over time from the wear and tear of past hikers. Maintaining a good grip on the rocks will be much easier if you have good tread on your shoes. However, hiking shoes are not necessary. Colin hiked in Allbirds and I hiked in Nike running shoes, and we were just fine – we just had to be a bit more careful with where we placed our feet during the rock scramble.
- Do not take a large backpack. Many of the bottlenecks at the rock scramble are tight and will be difficult to fit a large backpack through. A small daypack will work just fine.
- Make sure you are physically prepared. As someone who has done many difficult hikes around Europe and the Western United States, I can certainly tell you that this hike is strenuous. You need to make sure your body is in decent physical shape to jump on rocks, lift your body up and around large boulders, and walk on uneven surfaces.
Overall, we absolutely loved hiking Old Rag! The hike was rewarding, adventurous, and one of the best hikes we have ever done. We both agreed that even though it was exhausting, it was a really fun hike, and we loved the challenge of the rock scramble.
I definitely recommend this hike as a day trip from the D.C. metropolitan area and as a must-do in Shenandoah National Park!