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Old Rag Mountain
Height: 3,268 feet
Elevation gain: 2300 feet
Loop trail distance: 7 miles from the trail head

Old Rag is the quintessential hike in Virginia offering excellent endurance trail running up the switch backs, boulder hopping, scrambling and trail running back down the fire road—a complete workout.

Personally, I like running and hiking this route in late fall and winter when the bugs are dead, the air is crisp and cool and the lack of leaves provides unobstructed views of the surrounding mountains. Winter also reduces the amount of traffic on the trail, unlike the summer in which you may have to wait your turn to scramble up rock formations due the popularity of this hike and the proximity to Washington D.C..

One of the best experiences Old Rag offers is backcountry camping (permit required) and being on the top of Old Rag to witness sun rise and set. The night time picture (see the right column) is from a winter backcountry camping trip where we camped just below the 2800 elevation marker. There is no camping permitted above 2800 feet. Winter offers the best views of the surrounding terrain and relative solitary experience.

Back to Old Rag
As told by hike-interloper, Andrea Wuebker

Asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, George Mallory remarked: “Going to the mountains is going home.” For those who love hiking, one mountain in the West is as close to home as one in the East. And a hike with friends is, well, another home away from home. What better way to spend time on the road than coming home to Old Rag? A climb is the stuff of epics, as much as it is the fabric of family. Shakespeare, too, reminds us that “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.” Whether the first time, or 21st, a climb up Old Rag is a tie that binds.

The Day
It is the end of summer, or therabouts. October 3rd, 2005. Mike has come to run the Army ten-miler with a throng of 30,000 strong of his closest friends and friends of his closest friends in the service and friends of theirs who wish they were in the service if they weren’t doing something else for a career (who become even stronger when the ten miles extends to 11.5 based on a possible terror threat, leaving many to wonder how they wandered off pace the last mile.) Of course, this is D.C. Anything can happen, everything is longer and harder than you think it ought to be, and this is the thought I take with me as I meet a new group of friends for a new climb outside of the city.

The crew of Rex, Meredith, Dwayne, and I meet up with Mike at Tyson’s Corner to go out, or in, to the woods. Tysons, the mega shopping mall filled with teenagers dreaming of Gucci dancing over their heads in broad daylight, provides a good juxtaposition for five nature-warriors armed with a rag-tag assortment of gear, some new, some old. (I should clarify that last point: some new gear, some old gear.)

The Drive
As traffic backs up the city-bound, we seemed to be ebbing as others flowed back into the city. Even as we hit the trail-head at 3 p.m. at the upper parking lot at the base of Old Rag, a late start by most other’s accounts, we were greeted by the waning of the day and the crowd.

But driving out to Old Rag along Route 66 (I could not resist—really a combination of Routes 95, 66, and US 20), I realized this: I was with people who do not follow the crowd. They are, by all rights earned, people who lead. They are leaders of men, women, and burros, as it turns out.

This was my first time to Old Rag, and thanks to Rex, what I expected was an assortment of wild primeval Virginia dangers: snakes, and bears, and rocky cliffs (oh my!), and would worry about how I would get down if I got into trouble. As any recreational or serious climber will do, they look to expert advice and wisdom. Mt. Everest Climber Reinhold Messner said, “Mountains are not fair or unfair. They are just dangerous.” That is logic that sinks in when one is doubtful of the destination.

However, what had kept me from going overboard in my worst-case scenario thinking was the fact that I was with four, well-trained, intelligent, and very capable climbers whose lives and careers were built on leadership. “Who better to be with on a dangerous excursion?,” one may ask.

At some point on a not so distant New Year’s Day during an inaugural hike up Pike’s Peak, I believe Mike’s son may have asked that very question. Their hike was arduous, cold and an insufficient breakfast left the young 12-year old incapable of finishing the climb. This same group had answered my question as it did his: the only pickup truck that desolate morning was flagged down and Mike’s son was brought to the warming house, given some hot chocolate, and had received a commission to ride back down in that same heat-filled pickup that had anonymously taken him to the summit. He would be O.K.

But, what would an epic be without a heroic tag-line? Don’t worry, there is one. As Mike got to the top of the story, the top of the mountain, the saturation of the hikers’ clothing of cold and wet snow, and Dwayne’s and Meredith’s longing for hot chocolate to fuel the descent, Mike hit the hikers with his award-winning pitch: “Dwayne, I have a plan. But it’s gonna suck for you.” This was truth in advertising in its purest form, and as all heroes do, Dwayne accepted his fate. Riding in the same car with him to Old Rag, he tells the story well, as he has earned the right to.

The thing about epics is they are timeless, and what has come before will come again. I’m positive that a soon-to-be-purchased burro by Mike will become part of this group’s legacy. While I respect the training and the pioneering spirit of this burro-racing competition, I’m not quite sure why I would need to race 30 miles with a stubborn, hostile, malodorous, and inherently irritable creature. It was this thought, and the character of the people who planted it in my head, that made me do one last double take of this assembled crew before we got out of the car to undertake the Old Rag climb.

The Climb
In the distance, one can see the physical quality that gives Old Rag, or Old Ragged Top, its name. While still a part of Virginia’s Blue Ridge chain of mountains, Old Rag stands alone, its jagged crown is its fingerprint against the horizon.

When we arrive at Old Rag, it is quiet. We have driven up the road as far as we could, and as we step out of the rental car to prepare our gear, the surrounding trees and greenery hide the 2200 feet ascent that we are about to embark on.

No matter the number of times one has been to Old Rag, it is a new climb for all.

“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out
till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”

--John Muir

As Muir points out, a venture into the woods, or really through the woods to a top of a mountain, is a matter of perspective. Literally and figuratively, the adventure will bring new rewards and new challenges to the group and to each individual. And as we took our first steps into the quiet underbelly of the brush, it seemed for me this hike was as much about the people with whom I was hiking as it was about the hike itself. The drive has proven as much (leading me to worry a bit, I must admit.)

The beginning of the climb was a steady hike up, winding through paths of rock and tree-roots. The afternoon sun filtered through the trees and cast shadows throughout these woods mingled with new and old growth, a reminder of an inferno that had made its own path a few years before.

A small number of other climbers stood scattered at this first rocky plateau, the summit for some. The rise had been immediate and the slope generous, necessitating a water stop. The clearing of trees was my first chance to drink in the view of the valley below and beyond as well. Breaking through the shady forest for the first time since we started, our view revealed a hazy day, but the greens and blues of Virginia’s surrounding Blue Ridge valleys and peaks broke through in subdued color, merging with the white opaque sky that dipped between the peaks.

After a quick stop, we started on the second portion of the climb, the green started to recede even more and was replaced by boulders that had been welded by nature, directing us to the top of the mountain. I imagine that if we were to look at this portion of the climb from above, it would resemble a wild strand of pearls being pulled from the earth, imperfect but still in some in-line formation that would create an uneven spine of the climb.

Off-white, these rocks are time worn, shoe polished, and reflectively quiet. How many feet had slipped from ice-glazed rocks, or have camped overnight at the 2800 feet mark, only to celebrate the sunset and sunrise? How many hands had clenched and latched onto a ridge, upon whose body had to balance before breaking free of gravity? These are questions one ponders from the back of the pack, watching the movements of the line of climbers in front.

We moved at a steady pace. Ten miles seemed to have barely affected Mike’s legs, Rex’s shoulder was still able to squeeze between rocks as the walk became a scramble, Dwayne and Meredith’s minds still clear and intent on the conversation and climb as they must have been thinking they may soon get to do this everyday in Colorado when mountains graze their own back patio.

Blue arrows marked which crevices we would have to squeeze through, and rock chalk marked my body where I had scraped by. Some boulders are bigger and steeper and require more of an effort than others. Some pathways are obscure and we miss a blue arrow occasionally that marks the path. (Then again, when Mike is in the lead: who’s to say he’s not up for a different challenge?) And then there are the pathways where stairs seemed to be rolled out by the mountain itself. The saying, “You never know what you will find around the bend,” is accurate enough.

Topping Old Rag
We break through the last of the rocks and reach the summit’s perch. While I am from the plains of Minnesota and believe in the accuracy of the lyric, “amber waves of grain,” so, too, do I believe “purple mountains majesty” encapsulates the vista from atop Old Rag. Indeed, it is America, the Beautiful this day. (Sorry Rex, there may be a point to insert a phrase from O, Canada! but that may be saved for another, colder day’s, saga, and/or epic.)

After the obligatory picture taking, we settle on a rock overlooking the direction of DC. On clear days, I’m told we can see the city on the horizon. Today, the haze and fog limits our sight of the city, and I am happy enough that it limits their view of us as well.

We sit, talk, and refuel. I am fixated on the broad expanse of sky that encircles our group from every direction. Climbing, I strenuously clutch at rocks to pull myself up and free from earth’s gravity. Sitting at the top, my back hugs a large boulder top as if the mountain is an anchor and I could float away without it. All a matter of perspective. The climb was less treacherous, far fewer snakes and bears than I imagined it to be, but every bit as rewarding.

I also have a chance to see each of my climbing partners from a different angle. In the car and on the climb, I see the backs of my group. Up here, we (most likely me) get a chance to catch a breath, recall a favorite climb, and catch up on the details of lives separated from distance. Most striking in the grandeur of the scenery, it is the small details of life that really matter between old friends.

If ever the phrase, “time stood still” can accurately describe a moment, it is here on top of Old Rag. The quiet is as serene as that exact moment in a child’s snow globe where the last particle of the shaken snow has finally settled. There is nothing that disturbs the picturesque cut-out of Sleeping Beauty, or the New York skyline, or this group of five that linger on Old Rag’s top. Suspended here, one minute could easily be one hour, and within the span of a short climb, we join the seamless history of this mountain’s peak that has been and will be for centuries to come.

The time has come where we need to start back down the mountain. We continue on the circuitous route to finish by the Fire Road. It is the escape route, and much less graceful than a burro would, I’m sure, I take any footstep I can find that will lead me to the base of the climb unscathed. The fire road in the valley is wide and fast, and Mike and Dwayne’s natural gait quickly take them out of sight, ahead of Rex, Meredith, and myself.

The light filters through the trees, and I enjoy the different hush that has come through the woods. We are nearing the end of the day and the end of the hike. The last 2.5 miles on the Fire Road were flat and fast, but in the shadows of the trees and the infused light of late afternoon, it is still an interesting and restful part of the hike.

We arrive back at the car, and we are perhaps one of the last signs of people by this point of the day. While hungry and thirsty, the group arrived satisfied with the hike. I feel slightly as Hillary Edmunds did on his return from the first ever expedition to the top of Mt. Everest, exclaiming rather anticlimactically, “Well, we knocked that bastard off!” In Colorado, I can only hope Mike’s ass will feel the same way.

Toward Town
As we leave day and Old Rag behind, our own animal instincts kick in: we are hungry and head back to the mega mall at Tyson’s Corner to find Chipotle (Funny, things can be purchased at the mall that do not contain designer labels and RFID tags.) And for this find, I must give slight praise to the Blackberry™, which has at this moment, trumped the phone, the map, and everyone’s memory.

But like all great endings, we consider the beginning of other adventures, which in the world of this group, is never far off. Eating my favorite burrito at the end of the climb, I think I have been lucky to do this climb, this day, with these people. However, given a different day, an accumulation of snow and a lack of hot chocolate, the day could have sucked burro, at least for one of us.

More pictures from Old Rag Mountain, Virginia>>

Mere, Dwayne, Mike and Rex on the top of one of the many boulders on Old Rag


Winter camping below Old Rag Mountain

Above: Nick and Jake waiting for sun rise during winter camping below Old Rag Mountain.  Below: The Stairs are just one of the cool geological formations hikers encounter

Getting there: From the I-95 corridor, follow I-66 west and exit westbound onto US 29 at Gainesville. Leave US 29 at Warrenton by exiting onto US 211. At Sperryville turn south onto US 522 and shortly turn right on Virginia 231 toward Madison. A little over 8 miles from Sperryville, watch for the signed turn to Old Rag at Route 602. The road becomes Route 707 at an intersection (stay left on the south side of the river). At the next fork bear left again, now on Route 600. Follow this road to its end at the parking area. There are two parking areas: a 6-8 car parking area at the trail head and a 200 car parking area approximately 0.8 miles before the trail head.

Home>>Old Rag Mountain, Virginia Trail Report