Hiking Old Rag Mountain by Moonlight

Supermoon Old Rag Mountain hike

by Andreas A. Keller

Who doesn’t love Old Rag Mountain? With its mass of exposed granite resembling alpine mountains, it is considered the most impressive mountain in Virginia, if not the entire Southeast.

As the most popular hike in the Shenandoah National Park, over 100,000 hikers visit Old Rag each year looking for the adventure of scrambling on rocks, through crevices, and over boulders. At 3,268 feet the mountain’s summit rewards its hikers with the most spectacular panoramic views of the Blue Ridge to the north and the rounded peak of Hawksbill Mountain to the west.

The Trails of Old Rag

Reaching the summit of Old Rag can be done in three ways:

  • The most popular route is via the Ridge Trail, an 8.7 mile loop with 2,300 feet elevation gain. The Ridge Trail hike is recommended because the scrambling to go uphill is easier and more enjoyable.
  • A second route, mostly known only to climbers heading for the cliffs on the mountain, starts from the Berry Hollow trailhead, which shortens the distance to the summit to 2.8 miles one way, with about 1,800 feet of elevation gain. Old Rag has over 100 established routes scattered at various crags which offer some outstanding climbs.
  • A third route of about 15 miles starts from the Skyline Drive and involves significantly more elevation gains to reach the summit than the other two trails and is only chosen by some of the tough hikers who are looking for a hard workout.

Adventures Of Hiking Old Rag

Each season offers a different view and distinctive characteristics of this magnificent mountain. Spring awakens new life with pink mountain laurel greeting the hiker, while summer in its fullness presents the trails with the melodies of songbirds. With fall comes the changing of the colors, and in winter the stillness covers trees and rocks with snow and ice.

Is there a best time to visit Old Rag? On a picture-perfect summer or early fall weekend there are crowds of visitors to Old Rag, imposing waits on the trail and congestion at the outcrops. Due to the popularity of this hike you are rarely alone on this rugged trail, even at night. Some people hike up in the early morning hours to watch the sunrise, and some people, like the Boots ‘n Beer club, like to hike Old Rag in moonlight.

Photo courtesy of Boots 'n Beer

For six years Boots ’n Beer has been hiking Old Rag in moonlight. This hike must be accomplished during a full moon in order to have sufficient light on the trails, and is only possible when all the leaves are off the trees. Unfortunately, in the late fall of 2015 and in early winter months of 2016, not one of the full moon nights was conducive to such an adventure, due to either heavy clouds or icy conditions. This fall, however, bestowed us the gift of the Supermoon!

Hiking Old Rag in the Supermoon

Astrologer Richard Nolle coined the name Supermoon in 1979. He defined it as “a new or full moon which occurs with the moon at or near its closest approach to Earth in a given orbit.” In short, the earth, moon, and sun are all in a line, with the moon in its nearest approach to earth.

The most recent Supermoon occurrence was on November 14, 2016. This was the first  Supermoon occurrence since January 26, 1948, and will not occur again until November 25, 2034.

The weather forecast for Saturday, November 16, promised the clearest night with seasonal temperatures and a 96 percent visible moon. It was the rare, perfect night for a bunch of Boots ’n Beer hikers to tackle Old Rag. Around eight o’clock at night we started uphill through the dense hardwood forest on the moonlit trail, the youngest of our eight hikers being 31 and the oldest being 74 years of age.

Our chatter, mixed with the initial fast hiking pace to warm up, hid the frequent stubbing of our hiking boots on roots and rocks until our eyes adjusted to different shades of the moonlit trail. The moon itself was hanging like a large, unpolished silver disk right over the horizon. One hiker wondered aloud, “You think we’ll encounter bears?” There is certainly a lot of wildlife in the Shenandoah National Park.

On the lower slopes of Old Rag mountain you may encounter black bears, deer, fox, chipmunks, squirrels, and, on rare occasions, a bobcat. But on this night, our chatter, laughter, and clanking of the hiking sticks must have signaled the bears to run. We only spotted one white-tailed deer the entire night.

When we reached the first switchback, our talking subsided as we began the zig zag up the mountain. Our breathing became heavier. Hiking in silence, we only rested once at an outcrop before entering the world of rocks and boulders.

Soon after crossing half a mile of rock, the trail descended into a narrow crevice about 8 feet deep. We found ourselves hiking through a huge crack in a granite wall which resembled a cave. Later, we came up to a natural rock staircase only to be greeted by a large granite boulder wedged in the middle which we all had to crawl under.

In some of the more difficult passages, we needed the additional help of our headlamps in order to see where we could locate rocks to grip or where to pull or place a foot to push ourselves onto the trail. On those occasions, hikers lent a hand and helped one another over boulders, through crevices, and sometimes with the simple push from behind that can get a hiker unstuck. Knowing you can depend on each other builds great teamwork and camaraderie!

Photo courtesy of Boots 'n Beer
Boots ‘n Beer hiking members enjoy the Supermoon.

We continued the moonlit trek, passing dark silhouettes of huge round boulders rising up against the starry night before finally stepping out onto the mountain’s summit. There it was! The gigantic, breathtaking Supermoon, so bright we could have read the headlines of the newspaper. Bathed in its glow, unhindered by wind or cold, we thoroughly enjoyed a well-deserved midnight snack under the stars.

The Old Rag Saddle Trail, leading into Weakley Hollow and down the fire road, was the return route. We arrived back at the parking lot around three in the morning where we all enjoyed a crisp beer out of the cooler. By the time we arrived back in Warrenton we decided on a hearty breakfast at the diner, and that first cup of hot coffee never tasted so good!

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