Old Rag Mountain

Nethers, Va.

"High on this mountain, the clouds far below, I'm feeling so strong and alive. From this rocky perch I continue to search for the wind and the snow and the sky." Singer/Songwriter Dan Fogelberg's lyrics wouldn't leave me as I climbed and climbed to the top of Old Rag Mountain on a recent spring day. They were such perfect words for how exhilarated I felt when I met the challenge of this 7.2-mile climb. And a climb it was. In the first two miles (and many, many switchbacks), my companions and I worked our way up 2380 feet to a 3291-foot elevation that gave enough incredible views to last a lifetime. Birds were soaring below us. Between two rainy days, we had chosen a perfect day with a welcome sun and very clear sky. There was even some ice at the top; so it wasn't warm enough to be concerned with snakes.

I had climbed Old Rag a few times over twenty years ago. Back then you could camp at the summit-so I had even carried overnight gear. This time, I was grateful to be carrying as little as possible. This time, I wondered if I could actually do it; I didn't remember it to be the struggle that it now seemed. I am proud to say not only did I do it, I was energized by it.

Living near the Blue Ridge Mountains, I have tried hard to get my kids into the woods as much as possible. This is a trek I saved until they were older for good reason-it is not just a hike in the woods. It is a serious rock climbing adventure and as close as I would want to get without using special gear. My guidebook rates it as a difficulty level of 8 out of 10. I would not recommend it for kids less than 4'6" because of the amount of reaches and stretches and squeezes and jumps. Besides, it is always good to save something new for when they are a little older. My kids (11-14) were thrilled with the challenge this mountain provided.

You may recall that in the fall of 2000, Old Rag Mountain was a part of the forest fires in the Shenandoah National Park. Along the entire circuit hike, we saw evidence of that fire as well as the regrowth of the woodlands. In many places the floor of the forest was black. This only increased our sheer wonder and appreciation of this mountain.

After hiking to the ridge top, we began the rock scrambling. Our group encountered situations where the eight of us of had to work as a team to make it. There were places where we had to remove our packs and pass them up the cliffs or through tunnels. In some spots we had to wiggle like snakes to get through crevices. At times, I had to stop and consider my strategy for proceeding. The boulders seemed endless. They were perched at incredible angles, looking as if they would roll if I blew on them (but the wind was blowing and the boulders weren't budging). Unbelievable! This mountain is a geological wonder. According the United States Geological Survey, the rocks are "what is left of an ancient dike formed when molten lava poured out of a fissure in the granite." Old Rag is made of Precambrian granite-the oldest and largest division of our geologic time.

If you are careful, are wise with your plan, and have a good team, you can do it. We chose the blue-blazed loop (a.k.a. "Ridge Trail") which is considered to be the most grueling as well as the most spectacular. Since there is no water at the top, each person should carry a minimum of two quarts. Be sure to take a camera, but have a good plan for its easy access as well as protection…mine banged into a rock a time or two-saving an elbow but risking damage. Also, note that dogs are now prohibited on this trail. This is because only dogs that are part mountain goat can make it.

The descent of the trail is a fire road offering incredible views of the mountain we just scaled. As I looked over my shoulder at what I had just accomplished, I was completely amazed. The information sign suggests you allow 7˝ hours for the circuit hike, but we completed it at a somewhat leisurely pace in 6˝ hours. The entire trail is very well marked; and maps are available in the parking area. Hikers over the age of 16 pay $5.00 to use the trail (unless they have the Shenandoah National Park Pass). This is one of the most popular hikes in Virginia. Take advantage of your homeschooling freedom and go mid-week, avoiding holidays. This is not a climb you would want to attempt with crowds. The best advice is to arrive early to park in the smaller, upper parking lot. If you have to use the overflow lot, it adds a mile to your hike. Old Rag Mountain is definitely a memory-maker.

Directions: Old Rag Mountain is in Madison County, close to the Rappahannock County border. From Rt. 29 in Madison, take 231 north (towards Sperryville). At about 7 miles, start watching for a sign that has you turn left onto Rt. 602. Follow it for 2 - 3 miles until it turns into Rt. 600. Stop in the well-marked Shenandoah National Park parking lot on your left to pay the park fee, or show your pass. Then drive the rest of the way up Rt. 600 to the little parking lot at the top to see if there's any room for you. If not, turn around and park in the overflow parking lot. Don't park in someone's driveway or next to the road. You could get a ticket.

Copyright ©2001-Mary Wilson-All Rights Reserved


Mary Wilson...
Email: mary@trailz.org

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