Watching the sunrise from the top of Old Rag Mountain

Old Rag Mountain (summit elevation 3,291 ft) is a popular and challenging hike in Shenandoah National Park. Located in the Blue Ridge a mountains about an hour north of Charlottesville, Virginia and two hours from Washington, DC and Richmond, Virginia, it’s an easy day trip for anyone looking for a physical challenge and unspoiled mountain vistas.

There’s no question that hiking Old Rag at sunrise is the best way to enjoy the mountain. If you’re anything like me and like to avoid crowds, you won’t want to go any other time of day. The trail fills up quickly in the daylight and you can find yourself competing with crowds for trail space and Instagram-worthy views at the top.

Camping & Timing Your Departure for the Old Rag Sunrise Hike

We can probably all agree that the idea of watching a sunrise is romantic, but the reality of getting up for it is painful.

When you factor in hiking for hours up a mountain in the darkness, the payoff had better be good.

In my case, the alarm startled me out of slumber at 1:45 a.m. I had just fallen asleep, but it was already time to get up.

I grudgingly laced up my shoes, put on my head lamp and stepped out of the tent into the chilly night. A friend heated up some water for coffee and our hiking group gulped it down in the darkness to charge us with some artificial energy.

We chose to camp an hour away from Old Rag in a spot we frequent every year, partly due to the limited camping options near the mountain.

Backcountry camping is allowed below 2,800 feet with a permit. The nearest campground is Big Meadows Campground about 45 minutes to the southwest on Skyline Drive.

After piling into cars, we began the hour-long drive from our campsite toward the mountain. This was the first time most of us were climbing Old Rag, and nobody in the group had summited for sunrise, so it was bound to be a memorable experience.

After a long, quiet ride filled with switchbacks, we finally pulled into the parking lot near the trailhead around 3:00 a.m.

A few other cars were in the lot, but we stood out. Our friend who organized the trip had packed dozens of glow sticks that we used to adorn ourselves for the hike. As fun as they were, they were also practical: We could see where everyone was in our group of ten at any time.

What to Expect on the Old Rag Trail

The hike began simply enough, with a mile-long paved road that led from the parking lot to the Ridge Trail trailhead, an 8.8-mile roundtrip hike.

The incline and difficulty rapidly increased once we set out on the trail. My day pack, which was stuffed with a tripod, water, food and extra layers, might as well have been full of rocks as I willed myself up the mountain.

Hiking with a day pack up Old Rag Mountain.

Did I mention the tripod was too big for the backpack? So, yeah, it wouldn’t zip shut. Awesome.

The initial ascent seemingly went on forever, with switchback after switchback taking us slowly and steeply up the side of the mountain. It was challenging to get my bearings in the darkness despite wearing a headlamp.

I found myself concentrating on how heavy my heart felt, how my lungs seemed to never fill with enough air, and how my quads became more fatigued with each step. We had to maintain a brisk pace in order to make it to the summit in time for the 7:00 sunrise.

After an hour of walking straight uphill, I knew we must be getting somewhere. I turned to my friend and asked how much farther we had to go. “Another couple of hours,” she said.

You have got to be kidding me.

On we went, up and up and up, one foot in front of the other. We took the period water break, but mostly kept moving.

Then, finally, we stopped. We had reached a rock scramble about an hour and a half into the hike. The scramble would take us the rest of the way to the summit.

Before I go on, let me level-set with you: The word “scramble” is actually a silly word to describe this part of the hike. “Rock scaling” might be more appropriate for the work we were doing to hoist ourselves over, around and under these giant granite boulders.

Thankfully, our faithful leader, Chris, had completed the hike multiple times and showed us the best approaches to some of the more technical parts of the climb.

After about an hour of teamwork on the boulders, we found ourselves at the summit marker.

Old Rag Mountain summit marker.

Less than half a mile to go! Which in rocky trail terms means 20 minutes.

As you can see from the picture, it was still dark outside! We had made it in time, everyone intact, and more importantly, together.

Experiencing Sunrise at Old Rag

We settled ourselves on an empty rock patch on the summit facing east. As our bodies rested and cooled, we began to feel the chill in the morning air at 3,291 feet.

Our friend Matt immediately fell asleep while the rest of us began taking a million photos of the rapidly-brightening sky.

We reflected on the hike and how much fun it had been despite its difficulty, and how we would, of course, sign up to do it again in an instant. Me included.

Then, on the horizon, a bright speck of red appeared, illuminating the mist in the valley. It rose steadily with dark shadows of clouds cutting through the brilliant red. Large black birds soared across the hills that gave way to the plain, cutting through the glow of the sunrise.

We sat enjoying the early morning light, laughing and chatting, until the sun was a bright yellow orb that we couldn’t look at directly anymore.

We lit sparklers to commemorate our friend Rachael’s upcoming birthday, a perfect moment to cap off an exceptional hike.

I was grateful to get to share this experience (and challenge) with good friends.

Watching the sunrise from the top of Old Rag Mountain

My favorite photo of our group, despite the blurriness. There’s some serious band photo cred happening here.

Descending Old Rag

The hike back down the mountain was much easier and more scenic in the sunlight, though it was long.

The descent initially follows a rocky path on the Saddle Trail, which eventually gives way to a wide fire road that you follow the rest of the way to the parking lot.

Hikers with limited mobility or who simply don’t want to brave the rock scramble can take this path as an alternative route to the summit.

My feet were killing me by the time we to our cars about five miles later. A 9:30 a.m. beer never tasted so good in my life.

What You Need To Know to Hike Old Rag at Sunrise

  1. What to pack:
    • 2 or more liters of water
    • Layers – you’ll warm up when you hike, but the summit is cold, windy, and exposed
    • Hiking shoes or boots
    • Hiking poles if you may be unsteady on the rocky trail
    • Food/granola bars (no littering!)
    • A head lamp for hiking in the dark
    • A camera
    • A first aid kit
  2. Budget 7-8 hours for the hike. It’s worth it to spend time at the top – you worked for those views!
  3. Take as small of a day pack as possible. My day pack got in the way multiple times during the rock scramble and had to be passed through the rocks.
  4. Wear good hiking shoes or boots. The entire path is rocky, and the boulders can be slippery during the rock scramble. Shoes with good traction and support are a must.A rocky hiking trail at Old Rag Mountain in Shenandoah National Park.
  5. The rocky trail will make it your natural tendency to look down the whole time. BE SURE TO LOOK UP. I scraped my shoulder on a huge log jutting out into the trail on the way up, and knocked my head on more than one big boulder during the rock scramble. You’ll literally save yourself a headache (and bloody shoulder) if you keep your head on a swivel.
  6. Take frequent rest breaks. I didn’t rest nearly as much as I usually do on long hikes because of our time crunch, but stopping frequently for water and rest is best practice. Also, don’t forget to hydrate before the hike.
  7. Go with friends. The rock scramble is technical in parts and requires a hand or a boost to get through some sections.
  8. There are only one or two spots on the trail with facilities. If you need to relieve yourself at any point, expect to go in the woods.
  9. There are few camping options near Old Rag. As I mentioned before, the nearest campground is about 45 minutes away by car. Backcountry camping is permitted under 2,800 feet, and there are hotel and Airbnb options in the area that will enable you to stay closer to the trailhead.
  10. Leave no trace. This is common sense, but it’s important to leave the trail the same way you found it.
  11. Sunrise (and I assume sunset) is brilliant. GO if you can handle waking up early and hiking in the dark. It is an experience you will never forget.

Have any of you hiked Old Rag? Any other helpful recommendations? Were these recommendations helpful for any first-timers? Let me know in the comments!

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Hiking Old Rag Mountain at sunrise is an unforgettable experience. The climb is challenging but rewarding, and requires some advance planning. Click through for a first-hand account of an Old Rag sunrise hike and what you need to know before you go.