Old Rag: What to Know Before You Tackle This Bucket List Hike

The Old Rag hike at Shenandoah National Park makes many lists, including Outside Online, which ranked the hike among the 25 best hikes in the world.

Yes, the world. Not just the U.S. Meanwhile, Insider gave Old Rag top honors as the most scenic hike in Virginia. Honestly, the accolades for Old Rag go on and on.

However, the Old Rag Mountain hike is not for everyone.

In mid-October 2020 – two days in a row, mind you – hikers had to be rescued from atop Old Rag. It’s not as easy as a medevac. Not that a medevac is easy.

In both cases, hikers were reported as injured late in the day, too late for a same-day rescue by helicopter. Both had to wait until morning.

Shenandoah National Park later warned visitors that you may be charged with “disorderly conduct” if you require a rescue due to a series of bad decisions.

Bad decisions can include improper footwear (e.g., flip-flops), not carrying a flashlight or first-aid kit, and not setting off on a hike with enough water.

Know your limits and do not overestimate your physical abilities. The rock scrambling at Old Rag require knees, elbows, hands and feet. 

If you are up for the challenge, however, it’s an amazing hike to the top of Old Rag Mountain. Read on for what to know to complete the Old Rag Mountain hike.

Trail Stats 
Length9.8 miles
DifficultyStrenuous
Trail TypeLollipop
Elevation Gain2,608 feet
Duration5.5-6.5 hours
TerrainMostly dirt, rock & gravel trails, plus intense rock scrambles
Dog-FriendlyNo
Fee$30 per vehicle (good for seven days)
Driving DirectionsClick Here

Old Rag Day Hike Tickets

But first, there is news. As in, a pilot day hiking ticket program goes into effect on March 1, 2022 that applies to anyone interested in hiking Old Rag. 

Under this pilot program, which will run through November 30, 2022, all Old Rag hikers will be required to have a day-use ticket to complete this day hike. 

A day-use ticket is required to hike the Saddle Trail, Ridge Trail and Ridge Access Trail – the three trails that make up the typical Old Rag hike. 

old rag hike

This is a reservation system to ease crowding by limiting the number of hikers on Old Rag. Each hiker or backpacker will be required to pay a $1 fee.

A cap of 800 hikers will be set per day. Half of the tickets (400) will be available for purchase 30 days in advance at www.recreation.gov

The other half (400) will be released for purchase online five days in advance. The pilot program will be evaluated at the end of the nine-month period. 

Got questions? I’ve got answers. Here are the top questions right now as they relate to securing day-use tickets to hike Old Rag on or after March 1. 

How Do I Get a Day-Use Ticket?

Go online to www.recreation.gov. You will need create and log in to a free account. Then, search for “Old Rag Mountain Tickets.” 

Old Rag Ticket Calendar

Select your preferred date (up to 30 days in advance) and number of tickets. You may reserve up to four tickets per Recreation.gov account holder per day. 

Once you select your date, you will see how many tickets are available on that date. Click, “Request Tickets.” 

You will have 15 minutes to type in your name and location. Review the “Need to Know” section at the bottom of the page and check the box to proceed. 

Old Rag Proceed to Cart

Click the blue “Proceed to Cart” button to reach a Shopping Cart page. If all looks correct, click the blue “Proceed to Payment” button.

Enter your credit card details (no PayPal), then click the blue “Next” button. Next, click the blue “Confirm” button. A confirmation will be sent to your email account.

Old Rag Payment Info

Your ticket will be attached to the email as a PDF with a QR code. You can also access the QR code ticket online at www.recreation.gov or in the mobile app

I strongly recommend that you screenshot your ticket or print it out as there is no cell service at Old Rag

What Do I Need to Know When I Arrive?

There are several key need-to-knows on arrival. Parking is still free, but a day-use ticket to hike Old Rag does not guarantee a parking space. 

You also still need to pay to enter Shenandoah National Park. At the ranger station, pay for a seven-day pass ($30) or show your annual pass.

Have your day-use ticket available. A ranger will scan the QR code at the trailhead. The ticket purchaser must also show the ranger a photo ID. 

Below is the map of the area that requires a day-use ticket. You must have a ticket to hike in the pink shaded area.

There will be rangers with hand-held scanners at three entry points to Old Rag, including the Ridge Trail access point to the left of the ranger station.

Rangers will also be at Post Office Junction (where the Weakley Hollow Fire Road meets the Saddle Trail) and the trail kiosk at the Ridge Access Trail. 

What If I Do Not Have a Day-Use Ticket?

If you do not have a day-use ticket when you arrive, and tickets are available, you can buy a ticket the day of your hike. However, this is not as easy as it sounds.

You cannot buy day-use tickets on-site from a park ranger. Not with cash or with any form of payment. You can only buy tickets from www.recreation.gov.

To buy a day-use ticket, you must go online or use the app, and only with a credit card. However, as I noted above, there is no cell service at Old Rag. 

You will need to drive to a location with cell service. I need to drive at least 20 minutes away from Old Rag before I can re-gain cell service with AT&T. 

What If I Have No Ticket But Want to Hike? 

The Old Rag parking lots are also where to park to hike Robertson Mountain, the sister mountain to Old Rag. This hike is also 9+ miles and inspires with big views. 

Robertson Mountain
Panoramic Views from Robertson Mountain

This hike begins to the right of the ranger station. Just north of lot two. You do not need a ticket for this hike. It’s also a lovely hike and is less-trafficked. 

What If I Need More Than 4 Day-Use Tickets?

As I noted above, each account user on www.recreation.gov may only buy four tickets per day. If you are planning a group hike, for example, you have options. 

You can task more than one person with arranging day-use tickets in order to secure more than four day-use tickets for a given day.

Alternatively, you can re-visit www.recreation.gov the next day (or another day) to purchase another block of day-use tickets for the same day. 

Old Rag Parking

If you haven’t hiked Old Rag in some time, it’s worth noting that there is a relatively new parking situation. Instead of just one lot, there are three parking lots.

The National Park Service opened two extra parking lots in June 2020. The trailhead is now located at the front of the new lot one.

There’s no longer a need to park, then walk along Nethers Road to the trailhead. As you drive Nethers Road, you’ll see the overflow lot, then lots one and two.

The grassy overflow lot is only open when the other lots are full. Lot one (lower lot) is the main parking lot. Lot two (upper lot) is for RVs, horse trailers and cars.

It will make sense when you drive along Nethers Road en route to the parking lots. On your GPS, enter 3577 Nethers Road, Etlan as the Old Rag parking lot address.

The trailhead is to the left of the lot one ranger station. Show your annual park pass or pay the entry fee for a receipt for your dashboard to show you’ve paid.

Hiking Old Rag

Walk past the trail kiosk and over a footbridge to begin your hike on the Old Rag Trail. This switchback-laden trail skirts on and off private property for .8-miles.

You’ll reach a concrete trail marker and an intersection. Stay left to take the blue-blazed Ridge Trail to the rock scramble that leads to the top of Old Rag.

If you turn left, you’ll reach the summit at the 3.8-mile mark. Since this is a loop hike, however, you can turn right to skip the rock scramble (counter-clockwise).

You’ll arrive at the summit at the 5.2-mile mark. This makes for a longer out-and-back hike, but allows you to bypass the strenuous rock scramble section.

Back to the clockwise route. Ahead of the Old Rag rock scramble, you’ll reach a rocky outcrop, probably at the 2.6-mile mark. The far-reaching views are fantastic.

The rock scramble begins in earnest at the 2.8-mile mark. From here, it’s a solid mile of climbing, gripping, pulling and scrambling to reach the top.

You’ve got to navigate tight spaces, strategize rocky passages, slide down granite surfaces and use all your strength to pull yourself up onto rocks and boulders.

It’s fun, but it’s not always easy. Several times I just stared at the next rocky section, wondering how I was going to proceed to make it to the summit.

Early on in the rock scramble, you’ll reach a narrow crevasse. It’s maybe six or seven feet deep. You’ve got to find your footing and get down into it to proceed.

This particular section causes a lot of pause and hesitation. On warm sunny days, the wait time to get through this passage can be 60 to 90 minutes.

Since I hiked Old Rag on an ice-cold January day, there was thankfully no wait to complete this harrowing section of the rock scramble.

At the 3.0-mile mark, you’ll reach a staircase that goes right through a boulder. It’s actually pretty cool. At the 3.8-mile mark, a trail sign for the summit. Success.

Climb up on to the rocks atop Old Rag. There’s a lot of space to sit, snack and savor all the far-reaching views of surrounding mountains.

Re-trace your steps to the trail sign. Turn right to complete the loop. An out-and-back hike would be shorter, of course, but no thank you to scramble back down.

At the 4.5-mile mark, you’ll reach Byrd’s Nest Shelter. This is a day-use shelter with a picnic table. Turn right here to connect with the blue-blazed Saddle Trail.

In less than one mile, at the 5.4-mile mark, you’ll reach Old Rag Shelter. This is another day-use shelter with a picnic table. There is also a vault toilet.

From here, turn right onto the Weakley Hollow Trail. This is a wide dirt hiking trail. It’s also a relaxing break from the strenuous rock scramble earlier in the hike.

At the 6.0-mile mark, turn right at the large trail kiosk. From here, it’s an easy walk along the gravelly yellow-blazed Weakley Hollow Fire Road.

Some may say it’s a boring walk along this fire road, especially after the challenging and strenuous rock scramble. But, this fire road has a few surprises.

At the 7.3-mile mark, cross over Brokenback Run. You’ll walk alongside cascading waters for the next mile. Several spurs allow you to get close to the water.

You’ll cross back over Brokenback Run at the 8.3-mile mark. You’ll actually cross over four different footbridges.

At the 8.5-mile mark, you may recognize the paved traffic circle from the previously routed hike. On the new route, you’ll turn right at the trail kiosk.

From here, you walk uphill until the 9.0-mile mark when you close the loop. Turn left at the marker for the final descent along the Old Rag Trail to the parking area.

Old Rag Mountain Hike Options 

From the Old Rag Trailhead, there are at least three alternatives to the rock scramble summit hike.

#1: No Rock Scramble + Summit Views

This out-and-back hike clocks in at 10.4 miles. It’s longer, but it’s a good option for those who want to reach the top but are not sure about the rock scramble.

Begin at the trailhead. Turn right at the marker at the .8-mile mark. At the 1.2-mile mark, turn left on Weakley Hollow Fire Road, then left on Saddle Trail.

#2: No Rock Scramble + No Summit 

I know, this sounds like nothing with no rock scramble and no summit views. Yet, there is a tremendous vista at the 2.6-mile mark, just ahead of the rock scramble.

Start at the trailhead, then turn left at the marker at the .8-mile mark. Continue until the vista, then re-trace your steps for this 5.2-mile out-and-back hike.

#3: Rock Scramble + Summit + Extra Mountain

I’ve not (yet) done this hike, but it’s on my list. Scramble the rocks, savor the views, then hike the fire road until you reach a concrete marker at the 7.1-mile mark.

Turn left here onto the Robertson Mountain Trail. From here, the summit of neighboring Robertson Mountain is just 1.6 miles away.

Continue looping until you again reach Weakley Hollow Fire Road. Turn left to proceed to the parking area. This would be a 13.5-mile hike.

Wine Pairing: DuCard Vineyards

It’s hard to beat a glass of wine to celebrate a hike well done, especially when that hike is Old Rag, one of the more strenuous hikes in Virginia.

Thankfully, DuCard Vineyards is an easy 15-minute drive from the start of the Old Rag Trail. Can you already hear the outdoor patio calling your name?

DuCard Vineyards, Tasting Room, Etlan, Virginia

Plan to pair the Old Rag hike with Triskele, DuCard’s top Bordeaux-style blend. It’s also a wine to choose to reward yourself for a job well done.

After climbing to the top of Old Rag, you deserve a wine worthy of a celebration. Another top pick for merrymaking is XOXO, the winery’s sparkling wine.

XOXO is ideal for any celebration or just because. There’s no need to climb Old Rag to reward yourself with XOXO.

Glass of Wine at DuCard Vineyards

Both wines feel just right in your hand as you clink glasses to mark a successful hike. Settle in to enjoy an afternoon at this Shenandoah vineyard

On weekends, look for live music, even the occasional food truck, as you take in the scenic mountain views from the patio at this dog- and kid-friendly vineyard.

Old Rag Camping & Overnight Stays

The Old Rag hike is unquestionably one of the best Shenandoah hikes. Thanks to 360-degree views, some hikers opt to tackle an Old Rag sunrise hike.

Many also choose to overnight by camping near Old Rag or by staying at local bed and breakfast, lodge or hotel. Here are a few Old Rag overnight options:

#1: Graves Mountain Lodge

A short 20-minute drive from the Old Rag Trailhead, Graves Mountain Farm & Lodges in Syria is a nice full-service option.

Here you’ll find a spacious campground for tents and RVs, as well as cabins and lodge rooms. There is also a restaurant that serves breakfast and dinner daily.

#2: Skyland

Overnight in a rustic cabin or modern guest room at Skyland. Located at milepost 42.0 on Skyline Drive, it’s a 45-minute drive from the Old Rag parking area.

Skyland is not as close as the other options, but it is a good choice when you want to tackle several hikes. A favorite hike close to Skyland is the Millers Head Trail.

#3: Days Inn

A budget option in Luray is the Days Inn, though it’s still about a 40-minute drive to the parking lot for Old Rag.

Make it a weekend with an exploration of Luray Caverns, which is less than five minutes by car from the Days Inn. 

#4: Backcountry Camping

Tents

There is the option for backcountry camping near Old Rag, but note that a) you do need a permit and b) you must camp at an elevation at or below 2,800 feet.

Old Rag Mountain camping is not allowed at the summit. However, Shenandoah National Park has an Old Rag trip guide.

This guide suggests pitching a tent for a backcountry camping experience off the Berry Hollow Fire Road or Saddle Trail.

Wrap-Up Notes

From the parking area, it took me just over five hours to hike Old Rag, including time spent enjoying a snack with a view from atop Old Rag.

Hiking Old Rag is amazing in late-fall and winter when you can take in the mountain views through the leafless trees. It’s also far less crowded.

I did this hike with a MeetUp group of about seven or eight people. Given the strenuous sections of rock scramble, I don’t recommend doing this hike alone.

Disclosure: This post was sponsored in part by DuCard Vineyards. All views and opinions expressed here are my own.