Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Old Rag Mountain

The rocky east face of Old Rag above the Piedmont
8.8 miles loop, 2300 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-Strenuous, due to elevation gain and extensive rock scrambling
Access: Paved road to trailhead; $8 per person Shenandoah National Park entrance fee, or purchase an annual pass beforehand for groups of up to 4

An obstacle course-like rock scramble and sweeping views up and down the Blue Ridge and out to the Piedmont make Old Rag an extremely popular destination and a monarch among Shenandoah hikes. The 360-degree view from the summit is unrivaled and the rock scramble is a scenic, tactile, and calisthenic experience like no other; thus, crowds flock here as they might to Disney World (my PNW readers can think of this as a Virginian Mount Si). It is easily the most popular hike of its length and difficulty in the park, but the beauty and unique nature of this hike warrants putting up with the crowds; I've done so three times.

It is not an easy hike for non-hikers. Accidents are fairly commonplace but can also easily be avoided. Many inexperienced hikers run out of water on their way to the top, or overestimate their ability to do the rock scramble. Honestly, nothing about this mountain is difficult if you prepare for it; however, many visitors come without knowing what hiking the peak entails. Injuries and mishaps are common enough that there is an entire organization (Old Rag Mountain Stewards) dedicated to helping visitors resolve issues. Please understand the risks associated with Old Rag before attempting this hike.

I would advise any potential hikers to go on weekdays. Weekends are ridiculously crowded: on a nice fall weekend, you can expect over 500 hikers on the mountain in a day.

I will include detailed directions to the trailhead from Charlottesville for any UVA hikers planning on doing this hike: take US 29 (Emmet St./Seminole Trail) north past Ruckersville to Madison. Turn on business 29, a turn off to the left with no traffic light, just beyond the Food Lion in Madison. Take business 29 through central Madison, then turn left onto 231 north, which will have signs for "Shenandoah National Park." Follow 231 north for about 20 minutes to SR 602; turn left and follow the road, which eventually turns into SR 601 and then SR 600, passing Nethers, getting narrower, and eventually reaching a large parking lot with a sign for "Old Rag Mountain." Park here.

I first did this hike with my parents in high school, then returned the weekend after high school graduation with friends, and most recently came during peak fall foliage. I'll describe my most recent hike in this post.

I had trouble choosing a hike to do for peak fall foliage weekend, but finally decided on redoing this very popular hike after realizing that two of my good friends had not hiked it yet. On an early, clear Saturday morning just a little after 6 AM, three friends and I headed north from Charlottesville, driving through the pastureland of Madison County as the sun rose and making it to the trailhead slightly before 8. From the parking area, we followed SR 600 further into Weakley Hollow, climbing gently for 0.8 miles before we reached the true trailhead of the hike. This used to be a small parking area, but now it is closed to the public and used for emergency purposes. From here, we hit the soft dirt trail, which wound through a forest of tulip poplars and huge boulders slowly up the side of Old Rag.

Trail on Old Rag Mountain
The ascent was never terribly steep and was continuously scenic, passing by the rocky valley of a stream flowing from the mountain. After over a mile of climbing from the trailhead, we reached a small forested saddle on the north side of the mountain, where some campers had set up the previous night. At this elevation, the leaves were much more vibrant than they had been at the trailhead: some of trees were glowing bright yellow and red. The first views started emerging at this point in small gaps through the trees

About 1.5 miles from the second trailhead (almost 2.5 miles from the parking area), we emerged onto the rocks. The rock scramble started as a slanted granite slab with a view to the north. This section of trail gave the first taste of what was to come: Weakley Hollow was visible at our feet and there were many huge and fun boulders to play on. Here, we discovered that it was a remarkably windy day- perhaps one of the windiest days I've experienced in Shenandoah! In fact, the winds were so strong that they were lifting golden leaves out of the hollow and up into the air. The leaves sparkled as they caught the sun's rays coming over Old Rag's ridgetop, an absolutely magical phenomenon.

From the first viewpoint, we continued along the rocky ridge and its increasingly wide views and came upon the second viewpoint. This spot is, in my humble opinion, one of the most incredible in all Shenandoah.

Old Rag
Here, we rested on granite slabs facing the south and east. This spot afforded us a brief respite from the wind as we admired the incredible view and the equally incredible fall colors. The fields and forests of the Piedmont lay at our feet and directly to our south rose the massive granite face of Old Rag.

Fall colors in Weakley Hollow
When we finally willed ourselves away from the view (and back into the wind), we arrived at the beginning of the exciting part of the rock scramble. The first challenge was a descent into a dike. At this point, many other hikers had caught up to us, so this part of the scramble and many others later on involved lengthy traffic jams.

From then on, sections of scrambling alternated with sections of uphill or easy walking. Progress was slow due to the traffic at many of the scramble sections, but the scrambling remained great fun. There were consistently views throughout the scramble, so even during waits we could observe the surrounding scenery. More notable parts of the scramble included a natural rock staircase with a granite boulder wedged in, a short "cave" section, and a rather difficult scramble along a narrow jumble of rocks. There was also a large boulder seemingly hanging in space, just barely held in place on one end, that made for good Atlas-bearing-the-earth photo ops.

Natural rock staircase
At the end of the more involved scramble, we arrived at the false summit, where we sat on a massive rock cliff and marveled at the view. From here, we made our way through a last short rocky scramble section and along a wooded ridge to the true summit of Old Rag, marked by a trail sign. At the very top, we found a spot away from the wind and ate lunch. One of my friends surprised us with a bottle of sparkling cider to celebrate reaching the top.

A bit more scrambling can put us on top of the two or three big boulders at the very top of the mountain, where there were uninhibited 360-degree views. The view here encompassed the Piedmont to the east, and Hot-Short Mountain, Mt. Marshall, and the Peak to the north. The crest of the Blue Ridge lay to the west: Mary's Rock, The Pinnacle, Stony Man, and Hawksbill were visible in a row. The pyramidal summit of Robertson Mountain lay right across Weakley Hollow and in front of Stony Man. To the south were the granite summits of Doubletop, Fork, and Jones Mountains. To the south, we could see as far as Carters Mountain, which rises near Charlottesville.

Hawksbill Mountain and Old Rag's granite
View north to Mt. Marshall and the Peak in June

View toward Doubletop Mountain from Old Rag
View south
View north
After a well-earned lunch, we began the descent. To complete the loop, we took the Saddle Trail down the south side of the peak. This trail descended quickly, first passing Byrd's Nest No. 1, then passing a rocky outcrop with a good view of Hawksbill and Robertson, then finally dropping down to Old Rag Shelter. Both Byrd's Nest No. 1 and Old Rag Shelter are good rest spots on the way down. Past Old Rag Shelter, the trail widened out to a fire road, and not long after we arrived at a junction with the Berry Hollow Fire Road.

We headed to the right and quickly joined the Weakley Hollow Road, which we followed the rest of the way back. Before the park was established, this area of the park was heavily settled. What are fire roads today were once the roads that led to the numerous mountain settlements in Weakley and Berry Hollows. After the park was established, the residents here were relocated- many unwillingly so- to Syria, Ida, and other spots outside the park in surrounding counties.

The Weakley Hollow Road is often described as the boring part of this hike. I disagree. The fire road is a gentle downhill through beautiful woods of tulip poplars and mountain laurel, which bloom beautifully in spring. There were also views through the trees to the rocky crags of Old Rag. After a fairly long stretch on the fire road, we heard Brokenback Run coming into the hollow from our left.

Brokenback Run in May
The fire road crossed Brokenback Run on a bridge. For the remainder of the way, the hike was pleasant, with beautiful skies, no wind, and falling leaves. After crossing two streams at the end of the trail by bridge, we found ourselves back at the start of the trail; from there, we followed the road back to the parking area and stopped at Dunkin Donuts on the way back to Charlottesville to reclaim some of our lost calories.

Old Rag has some of Virginia's more interesting geology. Old Rag itself is formed of Old Rag Granite, one of the oldest rocks in the park. Old Rag Granite was formed in the Grenville Orogeny around 1.2 billion years ago as a pluton, a molten mass of igneous rock that cools below the surface of the earth. Many of the fun parts of the rock scramble involve going up or down dikes in the granite. These dikes, which include the natural staircase and the drop down at the beginning of the scramble, formed when magma intruded into the Old Rag granite vertically. They've been exposed because the diabase (the volcanic rock making up the dike) is less resistant to erosion than the Old Rag Granite. The rounded, spherical shape of the granite here is very much different from the more uneven, jagged greenstone found at Stony Man or the block-like Hampton-formation talus blocks found at Blackrock in the South District.

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