Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Plan Ahead and Prepare for OLD RAG



Plan Ahead and Prepare
This may be the most important of the LNT principals. Make sure you have planned and prepared well for your trip.

There are many resources that will help with this activity. If you go to the index of this blog and pick the index item called "Advice" it will bring up this blog's numerous postings that contain various forms of advice. Just as I did above, I usually highlight my blog entries containing advice with a bold type heading that includes the word ADVICE.

There are many other resources available for your use. There are maps and guides both on-line and in paper form. For example:

Hiking Upward located located online at:

or Henry Heatwole's Guide to Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive (lower half page 138) located online at:

or Shenandoah National Park's two page map and write up about Old Rag located online at: http://www.nps.gov/shen/planyourvisit/upload/old_rag_area.pdf

Paper copies of PATC's guide and excellent PATC trail maps are available from PATC and many outdoor stores. The Old Rag area is located on PATC's Central District Map 10.

If you google Old Rag you can find lots of individual trip reports, images and even videos on line.

PATC's latest Guide

The route finding software used by car based GPS devices and online services like MapQuest or Google Maps sometimes provide erroneous route descriptions for destinations in the park. During the last couple years this has caused some visitors significant problems. If this is your first time driving to Old Rag it is best to keep to travel directions described in the guides.




If you are going to visit the park more than two times a year than a Park Pass can be the best deal.


There is a very small upper lot that fills as early as 7AM. You are not supposed to park along the roadway. There is a large 250 space parking lot eight tenths of a mile below the upper lot. Expect that you will need to park in the lower lot. Parking is free but you will need to have money to enter the Park unless you have a pass. (See below under busy Fall days for rare parking fee exception.)


I find that the temptation of the extremely limited upper lot provides for a very interesting test of a visitor's character. On several occasions I have overheard heated trail discussions indicating that the group's day was being significantly and negatively colored by a member's upper lot obsession. What if there was no upper lot? This hiker's group would have come and had a completely happy day at Old Rag despite the fact they did not get an upper lot space! How many hikers have missed the delights of the hike between the upper and lower lots because they where upset they did not get a coveted upper lot space?

Sometimes it is best to turn on your brain's Don't Worry Be Happy channel/filter and enjoy your situation the way it is.

Spare Keys
It is good to have a spare set of keys held by another member of your party or hidden on your vehicle. If your keys are misplaced and no spares are available it may take hours to get your problem resolved.
Strenuous Walk and Rock Scramble
Old Rag trails are very well maintained but they are not sidewalks. After a heavy storm expect that you may have some trees blown down on the path. Starting from the fee station this hike gains approximately 2,500 feet. An average hiker will take 4 to 6 hours to complete a circuit hike. Why not plan on extra time and enjoy taking a leisurely time on the mountain.
Ridge Trail and Rock Scramble
The popular Ridge Trail has around fifteen spots where you will need to use both hands and feet to get you up, down, or around short 4-8 foot vertical rock problems. Soles that will stick on the rock will help. The trail is designed so that whenever there is a more difficult spot, a slip or fall will be relatively short(under 8 feet). If you stay on the trail it is safe. That said, the trail runs near or past many unprotected vertical drops some of which are over 100 feet in height. If you are bringing young children have enough adults to properly watch and help them. Without knowing a lot about your individual circumstances it is impossible to estimate whether this trail is a good choice for your group. That said, I have seen parents with babies, individuals with artificial limbs, and individuals over 70 successfully negotiate this trail.

Plan for cooler mountain weather conditions that may change dramatically during your hike.

Plan for the appropriate clothing and footwear.

Plan for food, water and meds.

Consider sunscreen and bug repellent.



With 50,000 visitors a year, if each visitor donated just one piece of trash we could easily have enough trash to mark every foot-fall along the whole hike. Hensel and Gretel could keep their bread for eating.


Saddle Trail

The Saddle Trail does not require the use of hands. While most would not want to miss the fun of the Ridge Trail's rock scramble, you can avoid the challenges presented by the rock scramble if you do an up and back hike on the Saddle Trail.
Water and Bathrooms
There will be no bathroom facilities once you leave the Old Rag parking lot which only has porta-potties. Of course you will have the whole woods just make sure to properly bury or pack out any waste. The following link describes how to poop in the woods:


There is no tap water at the parking lots. Bring all the water you will need with you. On a very hot day a large adult hiker could need 100 ounces of water. Cooler days will require less water.
Cell Phones
Your cell phone will not work low on the mountain. On clear days some people can get sporadic cell phone service along the ridge. Precipitation, fog, or mist will inhibit or block cell phone reception. The Park's emergency number is:


Emergency Phones - No Pay Phones
There is an emergency phone on the outside of the Old Rag boundary/fee station. It only connects directly to the Park's 24X7 emergency communications center. There are no other public phones available.
Self Rescue
You should plan ahead and prepare for this to be a self-rescue mountain. That said, there will often be fellow hikers that can help. There may be volunteers with radios or Rangers patrolling the mountain. Once your able to communicate with the Park's communication center it can dispatch help. If you send a message by foot, make sure the messenger has complete information preferably written down. If you have enough help, send messengers in both directions. On their way to the fee station the messengers should be looking for hikers/volunteers with radios or cell phones that have reception. It is useful for emergency responders to know the blaze number closest to the victims location. (For a picture of one of these blazes check out the blog index entry for Signs.) If the victim is going to be moving, the messenger should know the planned direction of travel. Despite the urgency of the crises, the messenger should make sure not to risk becoming a second injury. You are on a back-country trail, expect that it is going to take several hours from the time of an injury until first responders can arrive. If an injured person can SAFELY move it is best to cautiously make way towards the closest fire road or parking lot. Stay on the trail. Expect non-ambulatory injuries in the rock scramble to take up to fifteen hours to be extracted. Once the furnace of exertion is turned off victims will likely need additional layers to stay warm.

Note: On the Appalachian Trail along Skyline Drive a very short bushwack will often bring you to the road. There is no place along the Old Rag circuit where going off the trail will save time. Going off trail will be more dangerous for you. Responders who would find you within hours on the trail could require days to find you if you move off the trail.


Your party should have a well communicated group management plan. Everyone should know what to do if members of the group get separated. If you are going to be hiking with children it would be a good idea to teach them about "Hug A Tree and Survive". http://www.mra.org/training/documents/HugATree.pdf

Manage your group with consideration for other visitors.

Examples of maps and navigation aids.


Old Rag can be popular and therefore crowded. Check out and expand the picture of the Chute during one of its busiest days last fall Fall at the following link: http://oldragmountainsteward.blogspot.com/2008_10_01_archive.html.

If you look in the upper right corner of the photo you can see parts of what was a 200 person line on that day.


Even on the busiest of days this can be a very enjoyable hike as long as you come mentally prepared for enjoying the community of fellow hikers and waiting in a line at the Chute. The good news is that the Chute naturally gates traffic volume reaching the summit and the summit area is expansive and comfortably handles large numbers of visitors.

During the busiest times it is best to avoid hiking downward on the Ridge Trail. Like a long narrow ladder, the rock problems only allow for hikers travelling single file in one direction at a time. Traffic flow is delayed when the line needs to be stopped until all the upward bound hikers clear the single file section after which all the downward group needs to clear the single file section at which point the line of people can resume sending hikers upward.


On at least one random Fall weekend day, a lot of factors will align and there will be a spike of 1,500 visitors on Old Rag. On this day, all the parking lots will fill and some visitors will be turned away. When the lots fill sometimes a neighbor will open their pasture in order to provide additional parking. In the past they have charged $10. This parking fee will be in addition to the Park's entrance fees. On a day when the lot is full you can expect a 100 to 200 person line and up to a one hour wait at the Chute.

Days when the parking lots fill past capacity are rare. A more typical nice weather leaf season weekend day will still have free parking available. On a more typical nice Fall day the Chute will have a 30 to 60 person line with a fifteen-twenty minute wait. Bad weather or the threat of bad weather will greatly diminish the number of visitors.

The weekdays Monday-Friday are FAR! less crowded.


  1. I realize this is over a year after the original post, but do you happen to know if overnight parking is allowed?

  2. The Old Rag parking lot is open 24X7 all year long. There is no charge for parking but there is a charge for entering the park.