Old Rag mountain in Shenandoah National Park is the hiking rage in the Mid-Atlantic. Each and every weekend, the 200-car parking lot reaches capacity by early afternoon with no option of parking alongside the road. For this reason, I never hike it on the weekend, always choosing a weekday for the challenge of a 9-mile circuit hike with 2,200 feet of elevation gain and over a half mile of intense rock scrambling.
I purposefully didn’t write about Old Rag mountain in my book Best Hikes with Kids: Washington DC, The Beltway & Beyond because this is a strenuous hike for children. Old Rag is not appropriate for all kids. As a parent with kids who has experienced hikers, Old Rag gives me pause and requires complete preparation than just a three mile hike on a trail in the DC metro area (see recommendations below).
This summer, I felt my son, age 10, was old and experienced enough to complete this strenuous circuit. My daughter had perviously done it around the same age. Therefore, he and I set out together for this adventurous challenge on a steamy day. When rechecking the forecast before leaving Silver Spring, the new prediction of scattered thunderstorms in the late afternoon rattled me and my intuition was to stay home. But I listened to my husband and we drove west to reach the parking lot by 8:45 am. After checking in with the ranger, we hiked the .8 miles up the road to the trail head at the old parking lot.
A half mile into the uphill walk on pavement, my son said, “my legs hurt.”
“Already. We haven’t even made it to the trail yet.” I replied.
For the next half mile, one complaint after another was expressed along with the body language that matched each complaint. I first tried the drill sergeant approach and then the cheerleader but neither worked. For me this wasn’t a question of his physical capabilities because I knew he could. He had backpacked in Sequoia National Park the previous summer on a strenuous trail. So tactic #3 was deployed – distraction. For the next almost two miles as we switchbacked to the scramble, we peppered each other with the “best” and “worst” questions, such as “where would you most like to visit in the world?” or “what would be the three worst bugs to eat?”
The best part was that before we reached the car I asked, “What did you like most about today’s hike?”
He replied, “Hiking the rock scramble and asking and answering all the best and worst questions.” Little did he know that there was a method behind my madness!
The rock scramble was hard, even for me, made even more challenging with worn-out treads on my son’s hiking boots (note to self, check this before hiking Old Rag) and his desire to remove his pack a few times to maneuver the rocks easier. To reach the top we needed to slide, belly shimmy, squeeze and duck – basically whatever body contortions needed to follow the blue blazes.
One experience we didn’t anticipate, even though my son asked, “Do you think we will see a bear today?”
“Maybe, more likely today than on the weekends.”
Sure enough, we did – a mama and her cubs. While the cubs (about a year old) were super cute, the mama was NOT happy to see us and expressed her feelings with a snorting grunt and a fake charge. After two attempts to pass and needing to retreat, we had gathered enough hikers to try again. This time our group of 14 hiked towards the summit without incident as she had decided to retreat with her youngsters.
I was so thankful that it didn’t rain until we were hiking down the Saddle trail which felt so good on the hot, humid day. As we scrambled on the boulders, I watched the sky like a hawk and prayed for no rain or thunderstorms because I didn’t want to be on the slippery, injury-inducing rocks when they were wet. Furthermore, our survival depended on us not being on the rocks during a thunderstorm.
On our descent, the Saddle trail and Weakly Hollow fire road were a piece of cake compared to the Ridge trail. The Saddle trail descends from the summit for a bit over 1.5 miles on rocky tread while the fire road is a wide, easy trail with gentle elevation. If you decide not to hike the rocky Ridge trail, the summit of Old Rag can be reached with this 8-mile out-and-back hike (and 2,200 feet of elevation gain) on the fire road and Saddle trail.
Before completing the circuit, we found a large boulder in Brokenback Run just off the fire road. We took off our shoes to soak our feet in the cool mountain water. We were treated to a cascading massage and a tickle by fish.
Waiting in the car were two big bottles of ice water in a cooler as our 2-litters of water for each of us were demolished way before we reached the end. We celebrated our time together and the competition of our hiking challenge with a large pizza at Rudy’s in Sperryville.
Recommendations For Hiking Old Rag With Your Kids
- This 9-mile, 2,200 feet elevation gain circuit hike (via the Ridge trail) is strenuous for children. Shenandoah National Park doesn’t make any age recommendations for parents. Therefore, it is important to know your child’s physical and mental limitations and abilities.
- Be prepared and pack the 10 Essentials: water (at least 2-litters per person), food to last 8 hours, whistle, headlamp, rain gear (layers in cooler temps), map, hiking boots with good tread, knife or multi-purpose tool, sunscreen and a first aid kit, all put into a backpack (one preferably with waist and chest straps as it becomes one with your body which is important when rock scrambling). I also packed baseball caps to keep rain off our faces, a cell phone for photos (I got cell service at one view, otherwise there is none on the hike or drive), a garbage bag to pack out trash and a poop kit (there are privies at the Old Rag Shelter and parking lot but with kids you never know when they need to poop; therefore, I always carry this homemade poop kit on hikes with my kids).
- Look at the weather before you drive to Old Rag. I never recommend rock scrambling on trails (Billy Goat Trail included) while or after it rains – the rocks are slippery and kids often don’t know the physics of reduced friction and their body mass. Never hike Old Rag when a thunderstorm is predicted for the time during your hike. Your family is a sitting duck on the rocks during a thunderstorm.
- Read Shenandoah National Park’s Old Rag webpage and watch the safety video.
- Practice Leave No Trace – the most important being “Plan Ahead and Prepare” for your Old Rag hike. This is the most important principle to follow for your family’s safety and to reduce the impact on the mountain’s natural resources which are affected during a rescue (many occur each year).
- Have cold water, gatorade or sodas plus a fun snack waiting in the car for your return.
- Be flexible, always have plan B (and sometimes plan C). You never know with kids, the unexpected always happens. Therefore as parents, fast thinking and problem solving are the name of the game for a successful adventure (success defined differently for each family).
- Pack your patience, check your attitude and enjoy the journey. Plan for this hike to take all day – start early. The hike is not about the destination, the summit of Old Rag, but about the challenge and discovery enjoyed by everyone during the hike.