I had never hiked Old Rag before, but I have been hearing about it ever since I moved to Virginia. I had always heard so much about the unbelievable crowds that I always chose other less crowded hikes over this most popular one. But my hope was that in mid January, the crowds would be bearable. With this relatively mild winter we are experiencing right now, the weather ended up being perfect for the trip – highs in the low fifties, mostly sunny, and enough warm days preceding our Saturday hike to melt off most of the ice at the top.
Being an Old Rag newbie, the crowd at the parking lot still surprised me, but all the other members of my hiking party agreed that it was much less than would be expected in any other season. We were running a little bit behind schedule that morning, so our hike didn’t get started until about 10 a.m. I didn’t keep detailed trail notes, but you can find great ones with pictures here: http://www.hikingupward.com/snp/oldrag/
The first part of the hike is a wide, well trodden trail through the forest, climbing steadily for an hour and a half or so of walking. The higher you get, the rockier the trail, and the more beautiful vistas you encounter. The trail was certainly busy, and the rocky views were populated by other hikers lounging in the sun, taking group photos, and enjoying the scenery. But the crowd wasn’t overwhelming, and there were plenty of quiet stretched of trail to be had.
Eventually, the character of the trail changes from walking a path to something more like a natural rocky jungle gym. You drop down into crevices, scramble up slanted rock faces, squeeze through narrow caves, and hop over cracks. I was glad to have a sturdy pair of boots for this part, but some of my friends were doing just fine in standard tennis shoes. It’s good for groups to stick together throughout the scramble, because there
are a few places where a leg up or a helping hand are much appreciated. In case of the lack of companions on the trail, there are sure to be other hikers who are willing to lend a hand. In one particular area, hikers have to climb up a narrow crack between rocks where the strong footing and hand holds are not readily apparent . Aided by someone from another group, we formed a chain where each person pulled up the person behind them and provided tips for the best hand and foot holds. The strong sense of camaraderie that comes from taking on these challenges as a team only adds to the enjoyment of the hike.
This stone obstacle course never felt overly treacherous to me, but those with a fear of heights might need a little encouragement in places. Eventually, though, the scrambling levels out into mostly just rock hopping. All along the ridge, there are boulder studded views that could easily pass for Old Rag’s summit, but the path to the true peak is clearly marked with a sign. Here there are plenty of photo ops and more rocks to climb around on. Currently there are signs and ropes attempting to protect the summit vegetation from getting trampled by Old Rag’s many visitors.
We summited the mountain right as light rain clouds were rolling in, so after a few photos, we started the descent on Saddle Trail. There was a little ice on the trail and mist in the air, but we made the entire descent without really getting caught in the rain. This route back passes the Byrd’s Nest and Old Rag shelters and eventually intersects the Weakly Fire Road, which takes you over a few bridges and eventually back to the upper parking lot. This route back is noticeably less exciting than the Ridge Trail, but it makes for a smooth descent. The hike took us right about
6 hours, including long breaks for snacks, lunch, and some extracurricular exploring and climbing. I was actually a bit surprised to see the parking lot so soon.
All in all, this was an absolutely fantastic hike and I hope to do it at least once more before the crowds pick back up in the Spring!