It’s good to be popular, but for old rag mountain in Shenandoah National Park, enthusiastic visitors almost love it to death. Over 80,000 people walk through Old Rag each year, sometimes as many as 1,200 a day. That’s a lot of seed traffic for this local natural treasure, which is as ecologically fragile as it is beautiful.
To control the effects of constant crowds, Shenandoah National Park is testing a pilot project that it hopes will improve the visitor experience while increasing safety and protecting the mountain’s trails and natural resources.
Beginning March 1, hikers on most Old Rag trails (saddle, crest and crest access) will need to obtain a daily ticket in advance for visits from March to November. Ticket availability will be limited to 800 per day. During the one-year pilot project, tickets will cost $1. After a one-year trial, the park will evaluate and share the results of the pilot’s success and possibly adapt to a permanent system in the future.
Old Rag is just one of many high-traffic sites in the national park, such as Zion, Arches, Glacier, Rocky Mountain and Acadia, that are experimenting with ways to stagger and slow traffic on the trails and parking lots of the Park. The pilot project at Old Rag is the result of data collected from a park commissioned in 2020 study of attendance and visitor expectations.
One of Old Rag’s most popular trails is the Circuit of the old cloth, a 9.4 mile hike with an elevation gain of over 2,300 feet. Rated on the difficulty scale as very strenuous, it takes an average of 7.5 hours to complete the hike. Much of this time is spent navigating the section known as the Rock Scramble. “This is where dense crowds destroy the visitor experience,” says Claire Comer, interpretive specialist for Shenandoah National Park. “There are days when there is a two-hour wait along the Chute, and it’s not the positive wilderness experience that visitors expect or deserve.”
Long waits at rock pinch points and areas where shorter hikers need help climbing sometimes cause frustrated hikers to wander off the trail in search of workarounds, causing damage to fragile ecosystems and also increasing difficulty search and rescue missions when such detours result in injury. “How long before these footprints start degrading resources?” Comer asks. “Our mandate is to pass on intact resources to the next generation, so we have a responsibility to protect the area.”
In March 2019 Out article, Old Rag Mountain was actually named among “The 25 best hikes in the world right nowbut for Northern Virginians, it’s long been a spontaneous choice of destination. “Hey, the weather is nice today – let’s take a hike in Old Rag,” is a common on-site suggestion from groups of friends across the region.
Hikers in a hurry may be caught off guard by Old Rag’s new ticketing system, and they’ll have to adapt by learning to plan ahead. News of the new ticketing requirements has already reached social media websites, such as the Northern Virginia Hiking Group The Facebook page. While most responses are overwhelmingly positive, with commenters acknowledging that limiting crowds will provide a better experience for visitors while protecting the environment, others voice concerns or questions, such as local hiker Ashley Young. “I have no problem with the current plan; I’m afraid, though, that they can’t give a projected price for what happens after the trial,” Young says. “One of the good things about hiking is that it’s free…if you have to spend more money per person it quickly becomes unsustainable.”
Planning a trip to Old Rag?
The Old Rag summit run offers 360 degree views that will have you feeling on top of the world, but plan ahead for this great experience.
Old Rag is a strenuous hike, and search and rescue is unfortunately common. Determine if your fitness is suitable for this hike before attempting.
bring a trail map and keep it with you at all times. Pack lightly, but bring plenty of water and snacks. Bulky bags make it difficult to maneuver through the rock rush.
Arrive early. Parking lots fill up early and it’s a long hike. Note: No pets are allowed on the Ridge, Saddle, Old Rag Access and Ridge Access trails.
Beginning March 1, hikers must purchase their $1 tickets in advance through www.recreation.gov. Tickets will NOT be available at the Old Rag pay station, and there is very little cell phone coverage in the area. Tickets can be purchased up to 30 days in advance and are only valid on the day of arrival. Although a total of 800 tickets will be available for each day, 400 will be released 30 days in advance and the remaining 400 will be released five days in advance. A day ticket does not guarantee a parking space, and NPS entrance fees always applies in addition to the day ticket. See this NPS Video for a visual guide to the process.
Note that individuals can purchase up to four tickets in their name per day. If you have a party of more than four people, another person in your party must purchase the additional tickets. Everyone who purchased tickets must be present and provide photo ID at the ranger station upon entering the park. No ID is required from anyone other than those who purchased the tickets.
For more places to hike around NoVA, subscribe to our Parks and Recreation newsletter.