Hike (and Bouldering!) at Old Rag Mountain

My friend April and I had plans to camp in Shenandoah National Park last Saturday and to hike nearby Old Rag Mountain on Sunday.  Unfortunately, April was recovering from a cold and so I advised against camping in 45 degree weather. I gave away the campsite on Craigslist and decided to camp on the balcony of my apartment Saturday night instead.  What? It’s not like I built a campfire; I just thought it’d be fun to sleep in my sleeping bag outside.  Yeah, yeah, I am a total goofball.  I know this.  Well, after about an hour of silliness, I realized that my living room – filled with art of trees and other landscapes – was more outdoorsy than my balcony – with a view of bright street lights and the sounds of passing cars.  So, I slept on the couch instead.

On Sunday morning we left at 6am to drive to Old Rag.  April was feeling well enough for the hike after a good night’s sleep.  In typical Sunday morning fashion, we gloriously hit no traffic and made it to the Old Rag parking lot before 8 (after barely avoiding fresh roadkill and quickly swerving to avoid a large tree branch in the road).  The weather was a crisp 45 degrees and eventually warmed to 65, a beautiful crystal clear day.

According to the National Park Service website, Old Rag is Shenandoah National Park’s most popular hike, so I wasn’t surprised to see at least a dozen other cars in the lot that early on a Sunday.  (By the time we returned almost 6 hours later, the large parking lot was almost completely full with dozens of cars, and more were still arriving.)  We paid the National Park entrance fee ($8/person or $15/car) and walked 8/10 of a mile to the trailhead.  From there, the hike is a 7.2 mile circuit (so 8.8 miles total) with 2,200 foot elevation change.

This is where I have to mention that Old Rag is also the most dangerous hike in Shenandoah.  We were warned by park rangers before we hit the trail that we would face over a mile of bouldering (also known as scrambling) after two miles on the trail.  I’d never been bouldering before, so I thought, “Yeah, big rocks. Got it.”

Point of no return: This blue arrow leads to the first drop, after which you’re in for a 1.1 mile world of…[you pick your adjective here]

And here’s the punchline: Jordana and her 5ft 3in self are not made for bouldering.  This was the hardest hike I’ve ever done in my life, bar none.  Even accounting for the fact that about 7.5 miles of the hike were pretty darn easy, this was still my hardest hike to date.  There were points during the bouldering portion that I just stared at the area around my feet having no idea what my next move could be.

Some of the rocks were slick but didn’t look it (and it was a perfectly clear day…so not from moisture/rain), which meant I couldn’t rely at all on my instincts to gauge my footing. And there were narrow crevasses combined with no hand- and footholds and large drops, which intensified the difficulty.  At points, I took off my (relatively small) Camelbak just to squeeze through a slice in a rock.  I’m pretty cool/collected under pressure, but (and I’m a little embarrassed to admit this since other people seemed to be bounding confidently around and through the rocks) there were a couple of moments that I was approaching panic.  If it weren’t for April, I believe I physically wouldn’t have been able to finish the hike.

April, on the other hand, fell thoroughly in love with this hike.  In fact, I’m pretty sure she bought a ring and is going to propose to Old Rag (she’s a modern woman).  It helps that April is 1) 5 ft 8 in and 2) much stronger (upper body) than I am.  She’s already asking me when we can go back together, and – like childbirth – I think it’s going to take time for me to forget the pain before I agree to a repeat.  (Maybe I’ll be up for it by the time I’m passing through nearby on the A.T. next late Spring/early Summer.)

When I say that I physically couldn’t have finished the hike without her, this is what I mean.  We got to a point that I turned around and said, “April, dear friend, will you please put your hands on my buttocks…and push with all your might? There’s no way I’m going to be able to pull myself to the other side of this jutting rock up ahead without the push.”  And this happened quite a few times thereafter.  I can’t begin to describe how grateful I am that April was behind me the whole time spotting and making sure I didn’t fall back. I was thoroughly outside of my comfort zone, and she definitely had my back (wink, wink).

To provide a frame of reference of the difficulty, it took us 3.5 hours to get to the summit, which was a 3.8 mile trip and included the 1.1 miles of bouldering.  It then took us 2 hours to finish the loop and return to the car, which was 5.2 miles.  Clearly, the challenging nature of this hike was front-loaded.

I will say that the views were amazing.  There were several times that I said, “Oh, is this the summit? This is beautiful,” only to realize that we were not yet there…but perfectly willing to take in the sight nonetheless.  And, once we actually did reach the summit, the panorama was breathtaking (and incidentally very crowded with other sociable hikers).

After we made it back to the car, on our way home, we drove through Warrenton, VA and stopped at Red, Hot, and Blue (yummy barbeque restaurant).  I’m liking this pattern of hike, get to a town, and eat a lot of food.  I had pulled pork and a delicious baked sweet potato (with delightful cinnamon sugar butter).  And since I don’t waste food, ya know, because children are starving in Africa, when April couldn’t finish, I polished off her pulled chicken, baked beans, and potato salad.

I don’t mean to scare my fellow short people off from hiking Old Rag with this post.  The hike was beautiful among the trees as were the expansive views above the treeline.  And the bouldering was certainly an adventure.  I mean, it is Shenandoah’s most popular hike for a reason.  And I’m not at all against hiking it again in the future.

Instead, to be clear, I will share the moral of this story: Never underestimate the value of a well-placed hand (giggle).

Meandering on,



14 thoughts on “Hike (and Bouldering!) at Old Rag Mountain

    • You hit the nail on the head: terrifying and exciting. From looking through whiteblaze.net, it seems like there are plenty of bouldering opportunities right off the trail in various spots for someone interested. As far as bouldering being necessary to complete a thru-hike, it looks like up in Maine (i.e. Katahdin) is the closest you’ll get. Truthfully I don’t want to dig into it that much in advance…sometimes I prefer not knowing what’s many miles ahead.

  1. Although I could never do that. I’d wimp out and turn back (unless B carried me), I wish I were there to participate in the weekly hiking adventures! The photo is AMAZING!

  2. That reminds me of the boulder fields you have to traverse so that you can get to the Enchantments (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Enchantments). All that effort is so worth it, because I don’t think that I’ve ever seen a place as beautiful.

    I’m a bit envious of you. I would love to through-hike the Pacific Crest Trail or the AT, but I cannot afford the time required to do the hike. I will definitely follow your blog, so that I can be there with you in spirit.

    Carpe’ diem!


  3. Your story reminds me of when I hiked the Chilcout Trail in Alaska, a 7 day backpack. There is one day where everyone is told to start early and if not at a certain point by noon, will be turned around and not allowed to continue. The hike after that point is a climb, large car sized boulders and a faint suggested route. My partner hiked ahead and at one point I had climbed myself into a corner. I had on my 50 lb backpack and was uncertain and certainly afraid of how to continue when my partner returned and helped me step back, down, and with verbal cues helped me to get around the wall of rock. Scary moments making the trek that much more memorable. I’m enjoying your writing.

  4. Have you ever hiked the Billy Goat Trail (Section A) on the MD side of Great Falls?

    That’s the only bouldering I’ve done and it was awesome! The trail is quite a bit shorter than the one at Old Rag, but it’s still an experience.

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