The Old Rag circuit hike in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia is the most popular hike in the park, boasting 360-degree views and fun rock scrambles, this challenging hike is worth every step of the 10 miles!

old rag circuit hike

As one of the top hikes in the area, it is pretty challenging and unique.  I was scared I couldn’t complete it, especially with the rock scramble, when I first researched this hike, but we did it!!

Keep reading for your complete guide for hiking Old Rag Mountain including how hard it really is!

How to Get to Old Rag Trailhead in Shenandoah and Parking

The trailhead for the Old Rag Circuit hike is NOT inside Shenandoah National Park.  To get to the trailhead navigate to the Ranger Station or Old Rag Parking lot on Google Maps:  2577 Nethers Rd, Etlan, VA 22719.

old rag parking lot

We parked at the Nether’s Road Ranger Station Parking lot.  There are 3 parking lots in this area and when we arrived there were already a few cars.  By the time we left all the lots were full!

How to Get an Old Rag Hiking Permit

Since 2022, Shenandoah National Park has required hikers to pre-purchase tickets for hiking Old Rag in addition to the park entrance fee. The ticket is $1 per person. 

This initiative is to control the crowds on this hike.  A total of 800 tickets will be available for each day. Exactly 400 will be released 30 days in advance of the reservation date, and the remaining 400 will be released 5 days in advance of each date. Tickets are released daily at 10:00 a.m.

Get tickets here:  https://www.recreation.gov/ticket/10088450/ticket/10088451

Each person can purchase up to 4 tickets, so if you have more than 4 in your group someone else will need to buy tickets as well.

I would either screenshot or print your ticket because cell service is spotty at best in Shenandoah!

Parking is still free but you do still need to pay the park entrance fee at the parking lot.  We filled out a form, put cash in the envelope, and stuck it in the box.

How Long Does the Old Rag Hike Take

The Old Rag circuit hike is nearly 10 miles give or take no matter the way you choose, but the length of time could vary depending on which hike you choose to take.

But generally, it takes about 6 to 7 hours to hike Old Rag.  It took us about 6 hours to do this hike.

Here are the stats on Old Rag:

  • Distance: 9.4-mile circuit hike
  • Difficulty: Very Strenuous
  • Hiking Time: 7 hours 30 minutes
  • Elevation Gain: 2,348 feet

How Difficult is the Old Rag Hike

We did the traditional loop going clockwise, starting at Ridge Trail, hiking to the top and down Weakley Hollow Fire Trail.

My husband and I are novice hikers, we hike only a few times a year during the spring and fall when the weather is nice in the Washington DC area.  

We are both in pretty decent shape, though he is pretty much sedentary unless he’s doing yard work!  And I have terrible upper body strength (I cannot do a pull-up).  But I do run regularly.  

I found the Old Rag Mountain circuit to be moderate to difficult.  The most difficult portion is the rock scramble (keep reading for more details on that).  If you are not carrying too much stuff it shouldn’t be that hard.  Although after doing this hike, I find most hikes that are at the 5 mile mark to be a breeze!

This hike is probably done best with a friend or two just in case though!

Old Rag Rock Scramble

I saw a TikTok calling the Old Rag Mountain hike the most dangerous hike on the East Coast.  This is primarily because of the Old Rag rock scramble.

old rag circuit

That TikTok is over-dramatized though!  While the rock scramble is a bit hard, it’s not bad.  This is actually the section that scared me most about the hike the first time!

The rock scramble starts about 2.8 miles into the hike if you are doing the traditional loop and lasts about 1 mile.

 

When we first started looking at this hike, I was a bit worried about the rock scramble portion, but that turned out to be not as hard as I had read. 

Again I cannot do a pull-up and had no trouble doing the rock scrambles by myself.  At each scramble there are foot holds that allowed me to use my stronger leg muscles to push myself up.  

I am afraid of heights so a few of the portions of the rock scramble look scary, but the views are epic!  We have hiked it two times since and I’ve always found a way to do the rock scamble section with no help.

One of the times we hiked, it had just rained and the rock scramble portion was a bit damp and there were huge puddles where you would normally land.  That was a bit more difficult because it was slippery and I didn’t want to step in a puddle. 

If you are worried about the rock scramble, I would check the weather for the week and make sure there’s no rain before you hike.

What to Wear for Your Old Rag Hike

We did the Old Rag hike in the fall and it was pretty chilly when we started.  Because the trail is mostly uphill we got hot and sweaty pretty quickly and started shedding clothes! 

By the time we got to the summit of Old Rag Mountain, however, we had to put all our layers back on because it was hailing, windy, and FREEZING!

On the way down I think we experienced all 4 seasons in one go!  The weather is super unexpected here so I would be prepared for anything. 

For fall I would recommend dressing in light layers, a hat, and gloves.  And shedding them if you get hot.

I had on a thermal layer, and a puffer jacket, plus a wool sweater and tights.  I cannot recommend this jacket enough for hiking because it folds up into a pouch and is super small, but keeps you ultra warm.  And these thermals keep you warm without adding weight.

Though I highly recommend hiking shoes for this hike, my husband wore his regular sneakers and was fine.  If you are wearing sneakers make sure they have some grip because the rocks can be slippery.  I bought these hiking boots for another hike in Shenandoah and they were perfect.

What to Bring

I would bring a small backpack with lots and lots of water.  We brought 21 ounces of hot tea and 36 ounces of water.  We had finished all the water by the time we got down the mountain.  If you are hiking in the summertime I would bring more water.

 

What Time Should You Start Your Hike at Old Rag

Old Rag Mountain is one of, if not the most popular hike in Shenandoah and the trails get crowded!  We arrived just after sunrise at 6:45 am and we were not the first ones here.  

I would go as early as you can.  There are also several choke points along Ridge Trail that only allow one person at a time to pass, so you could be standing around waiting in line.

The ticketing system has lessened crowds somewhat, however.

What Time of Year Should You Hike Old Rag

Old Rag is a great hike year-round, but spring and fall are the best times for this hike!  Winter is usually pretty cold so you’ll have to wear more clothes and it could be more dangerous if you get stuck out in the cold.  Summer has the opposite problem, it’s insanely hot and humid in the summertime.  You will need to bring lots of extra water if you choose to do this hike in the summer.

In Spring the weather is usually mild which makes this a great hike!  But fall is probably the BEST time to hike Old Rag!  The fall colors really show themselves on this hike in the fall.  The views are simply breathtaking and it is definitely one of the best places to experience fall foliage in the DC area.

How to Hike Old Rag

There are 3 ways you can do the Old Rag Mountain circuit hike, you can do the loop the right way (going clockwise) starting at Ridge Trail or you can do it in REVERSE (counter clock-wise) starting at the Weakley Hollow Fire Trail.  And the 3rd way is to hike either trail to the summit and back.

The traditional Old Rag circuit hike, which is through Ridge Trail, is the most difficult and includes several rock scrambles.  It is mostly also uphill.

Weakley Hollow Fire Trail is easier with more flat terrain.  And this trail will get you to the summit without the rock scramble.

You can hike either of these trails out and back instead of doing the full loop.  After doing the full loop circuit at Old Rag, however, I would recommend it!  Each trail has unique viewpoints not to be missed.  Especially Ridge Trail, right before you reach the summit, there is a plateau that is just stunning!  We originally thought this was the top, but there was more to go after this gorgeous view.

Old Rag Trail Circuit Map

old rag hike trail map

Directions for Hiking Old Rag Circuit

To hike the traditional Old Rag circuit loop (clockwise), you enter the trail at the Ridge Trail trailhead next to the Ranger’s Station.  

You will get to an intersection with a concrete trail marker, stay left to take the blue-blazed Ridge Trail.  This is the trail that will take you through the rock scramble.

Before you get to the rock scramble, you’ll pass SEVERAL stunning views! 

old rag circuit hike

Stop and take some pictures.

old rag mountain fall

At about 2.8 miles into the hike, the 1-mile rock scramble starts!  My husband and I LOVED this part of the hike. We crawled ducked and climbed around so many rocks. 

One of my favorite portions where I made my husband take a picture was this crevice that forms a window to the view behind you.

old rag circuit

Another pretty epic feature of this hike is the staircase with a boulder you have to crawl through at around the 3-mile mark.  I saw this as another great photo opportunity!

rocky staircase

You will eventually reach a plateau that looks like the summit, but it’s not.  Stop and have a snack.  We stopped here and my husband ate a sandwich while I took some pictures.  After the plateau, there’s a causeway that gets you to the summit!

The views here are indeed stunning!

top of old rag mountain

But we didn’t get to enjoy much of it since it was hailing and extremely winding when we arrived!  We hid behind some of the rocks to try to enjoy the views.

Now here you can either turn back and return the way you came or go down the other side.  

We chose to continue and not rock scramble back!  The way down was much easier with a trail mostly consisting of steps and a few more breathtaking views.  We even saw a double rainbow!  

best fall hike shenandoah

Once you reach Old Rag Shelter on the way down, you will turn right to get on the Weakley Hollow trail.  After this turn, the rest of the hike is pretty easy and flat!

weakley hollow Fire Road

Option #2 for Hiking Old Rag Circuit

If you want to avoid the rock scramble simply turn right at the intersection at the beginning of the hike and take Weakley Hollow Fire Road Trail up to the summit.  As we were going down from the summit was saw several people coming up this way.  This out-and-back hike is longer distance-wise, a little over 10 miles, but it’s much easier. 

Tips for Hiking Old Rag

  • Download the area map on Google Maps onto your phone because cell service is spotty here.
  • Bring lots of water and a snack if you tend to get hungry.
  • Bring little bags to put your trash in and take with you – we used these.
  • Hike with a friend!  I’ve hiked solo plenty of times but this is one I would probably not do by myself!  
  • Print out or take a screenshot of the trail map so you can compare it to your google maps if you get lost.
  • Print out or take a screenshot of your hike ticket.
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