Watching the sunrise from the top of Old Rag Mountain

Old Rag Mountain (summit elevation 3,291 ft) is one of Shenandoah National Park’s most challenging and well-known hikes. Located in the Blue Ridge a mountains about an hour and a half west of Washington, D.C., it is a popular day trip for city-dwellers to challenge themselves physically, reconnect with nature, and enjoy unspoiled views in all directions from the summit.

There’s plenty that hikers should know in advance before attempting to scale Old Rag. But before I get into boring lists, let me tell you about my first experience on the mountain.

My Old Rag Experience

The alarm went off at 1:45 a.m., startling me. I had just fallen asleep, but it was already time to wake up.

I grudgingly laced up my shoes, put on my head lamp and stepped out of the tent into the chilly night. Rachael heated up some water for coffee and we each gulped it down in the darkness to give us some artificial energy.

After piling into cars, we began the hour-long drive from our campsite into Shenandoah National Park to Old Rag Mountain.

The reason for the extremely early morning was to attempt to make it to the top the mountain for sunrise. It was our friend Rachael’s last weekend in her 20s, and we wanted to do something memorable. Most of us had never hiked Old Rag, and none of us had summited for sunrise, so we knew everyone would get something out of the experience.

I think we all regretted it the minute our alarms went off.

After forcing ourselves awake, we stuck to the plan and eventually pulled into the parking lot near the trailhead.

There were others in the lot, but we stood out. Aly, who organized the trip, had brilliantly 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.

The hike began simply enough, with a paved road leading to the trailhead. It was longer than I expected, but with a low grade. Then the real fun began when we made it to the trailhead.

Or, should I say, the panic.

To be fair, it wasn’t really panic, but the trail was rocky and had enough of an incline that I became tired quickly. It didn’t help that I was wearing a day pack stuffed with a tripod, water, food and extra layers, so it wasn’t exactly light.

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

This portion of the trail seemingly went on forever, and I quickly ran out of gas. All I could think about was how heavy my heart felt, how my lungs seemed to never fill with enough air, and how my quads were becoming more fatigued with each step. This, while the rest of the group was maintaining a brisk pace in order to ensure we made it to the top in time. I was worried I would need to rest for a while and catch up with everyone at the summit.

I was able to keep going, however, and after an hour of walking uphill, I was feeling like we must be getting close to somewhere. I asked Rachael how much further we had to go. “Another couple of hours,” she said.

You have to be f***ing kidding me.

My only comfort was the knowledge that we would be reaching a rock scramble at some point, and things were supposed to slow down significantly from there. I would at least have the opportunity to catch my breath.

But on we went, up and up and up, one foot in front of the other, with periodic breaks for sips of water, and then on again. One bright spot was that Aly’s speakers were playing an amazing Spotify playlist aptly titled “Feeling Good” the entire way up the mountain. We sang and marched to old favorites throughout the hike, which helped to keep my mind off of how miserable I was.

Then, finally, we stopped. We had reached the rock scramble about an hour and a half into the hike.

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. “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.

Hiking Old Rag Mountain in Shenandoah National Park

Rachael and Chris show us their brute strength.

Did I mention we also had a dog on the hike? Yeah, not recommended by the Park Service. But Princeton held his own, and the men skillfully (if awkwardly) passed him from hiker to hiker when he couldn’t make it up and over the boulders himself.

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

Hiking Old Rag Mountain in Shenandoah National Park

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.

Our friend Matt immediately fell asleep while the rest of us began taking a million photos of the ever-lightening sky. We reflected on the hike and how much fun it had been, 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 plain, basking in the glow of the sunrise.

Aly began to play “The Circle of Life” on her speakers – fitting for a sunrise like this. Of course, we couldn’t resist holding up Princeton like baby Simba. People two and three boulders over caught sight of it and cheered us on.

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 Rachael’s upcoming birthday. Her smile in that moment was one that I’ll never forget, followed by a million thank-yous and gratitude for how perfect the morning had been.

Despite the difficult first part of the hike, it really was perfect, because it was a challenge and an experience and a downright good time that we all got to share together.

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.

The hike back down the mountain was much easier and more scenic in the sunlight, though it was long. Our feet were killing us by the time we got 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

  1. What to pack:
    • Water (I drank a liter)
    • Layers
    • Food/granola bars
    • A head lamp if any part of your hike will be in the dark or at dusk
    • 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 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.
  5. The trail is rocky, so your natural tendency will be to look down the whole time. BE SURE TO LOOK UP. I nailed 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 have your head on a swivel.
  6. Expect to need to rest frequently. We didn’t because we were on a schedule, but you should, especially those who are not in great physical shape or experienced hikers. Don’t forget to hydrate before the hike.
  7. The summit is cold, windy and exposed. See #1 — bring layers!
  8. Go with a friend. The rock scramble is technical in parts and requires a hand or a boost for anyone but very experienced hikers.
  9. Be prepared for a long hike – the circuit is over nine miles in total. The road down from the summit is much easier than the hike up, and is actually a good alternative for those who have mobility issues or would struggle on the rock scramble. There is no rock scramble on the way down, just a rocky trail.
  10. 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.
  11. There is not a lot of camping near Old Rag. Expect to stay an hour or more away from the trail, unless you rent an Airbnb cabin close by.
  12. Take everything with you that you bring up. This is common sense, but it’s important to leave the trail the same way you found it.
  13. 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. However, I would caution anyone without a hiking partner or who is inexperienced at hiking not to attempt this. It is challenging in the dark.

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 in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia, USA

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