Its bald, rocky summit allows a spectacular view of the Piedmont to the east and the Shenandoah Valley to the west.
Although there are higher mountains even in the Shenandoah National Park itself, Old Rag Mountain is by far the toughest and the most exciting hike, or climb in the area. Unlike most mountains in the Shenandoah it is free-standing, requiring an over 2,600- foot climb to the top.
And yes! You can and should take your hiking, or Nordic walking poles with you.
My first trip up Old Rag was without poles, but just a hiking staff and without many preconceptions, although I have heard of the tough, exciting rock scrambles on the summit ridge. After slugging it out upwards for an hour on the switched-backed Ridge Trail, from the small, nine-car parking lot (located right next to the trail head, about a mile closer than the main, 200+ car NPS lot), I wiggled through the first of the rocks on top, through what in my mind has become The Gate to Old Rag Mountain.
Shortly after, I hid my hiking staff in a rock crack, to be retrieved on the way back, as it was too long to attach to the pack and it seriously interfered with scrambling through the rocks. Hiking staffs and better yet, hiking, or Nordic walking poles are highly recommended both on the way up the mountain, as well as down, with the notable exception of the rocky summit ridge.
The Gate to Old Rag Mountain (my name for it) is the beginning of the rocky summit ridge and even though quite a few first-time hikers assume that they have reached the summit, time wise, if not distance wise, they are only half way to the top. The mountain offers several false summits: all rocky and offering great views in almost all directions.
Old Rag Mountains ridge is a mass of granite boulders of all shapes and sizes, requiring care, patience, strength and endurance. Bouldering is not an easy, or relaxing activity, but one requiring some expertise, or at the very least strength and lots of care. A mistake could mean cuts, bruises, broken bones, or even death here.
The fact that your thighs are already worn out and burning from the long climb up the Ridge Trail doesn’t make matters easier – because even though all kinds of muscles are involved in the rock scrambles – the quadriceps (muscles in the front of your thighs) take the brunt of the effort. My own experience dictates taking along with plenty of water a sports drink, or a salty vegetable juice such as V-8, in order to replenish the body’s essential salt stores, sweated out during the approach. Otherwise, particularly in hot weather you probably will suffer leg cramps, before you even reach the summit.
Since that first climb a few years ago, I have been on Old Rag Mountain quite a few more times. In every instance I have used hiking poles, which not only help in ascending the sometimes steep Ridge Trail (not to be confused with the actual ridge), but their true usefulness truly becomes apparent during the descent, not only because of my 56-year-old knees, but also help legs, already very tired from the ascent and especially from the rock scrambling on the summit ridge. Poles effectiveness becomes even more apparent to those carrying heavy packs, as quite a good percentage of the weight and effort gets transferred from the legs to the arms and shoulders. Hiking, or walking with poles, whether they are of the special Nordic walking variety, or adjustable hiking models, also gives a great upper body workout, something that is often missing from plain hiking, or even backpacking.
Getting back to Old Rag Mountain, there is little question that the extremely varied rock formations on the mountains ridge and summit make it a unique and magical place.
During the 50, or more minutes that it takes to negotiate the ridge to the 3291-foot summit, you will be forced whether you like it, or not to negotiate horizontal and vertical rock cracks, pull yourself up vertical pitches, crawl under hanging rocks and rock overhangs, while almost constantly on the lookout for more and more rocky obstacles. During most of this time providing the summit isn’t cloaked in clouds, mist, or industrial pollution from Ohio and West Virginia – the views in all directions are really worth all of the effort. The spectacular view lures over 100,000 hikers each year, especially during October and November to view the Fall foliage.
The return trip, or the ascent, if you rather avoid the rock scramble on the ridge can be along the longer, but easier Saddle Trail where you pass by two day-use shelters: Bird’s Nest Shelter No.1 and the Old Rag Shelter.
If descending, about a half-mile after the latter turn right into Old Rag Mountain fire road and then Weakly Hollow Road, which after a fairly long walk will take you back to the trail head parking lot.
Total hiking time – for me at least – averages about four hours, although some guidebooks estimate it as a six-hour hike. In either case make sure that you have enough time to complete it, before darkness falls and just to play it safe, do pack a small LED headlamp with spare batteries.
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