Old Rag hikers now need a permit for Virginia’s crowded mountain
The mountain keeps him young and healthy, he says.
But from March 1, he will need a permit every time he goes.
Like so many other treasured outdoor spaces across the country, Old Rag – a jewel in the crown of East Coast hiking and the most popular destination in Shenandoah National Park – has been exceeded during the pandemic.
Nearly 80,000 hikers hike the 15 km trail each year, including up to 1,200 weekend hikers. In the spring of 2020, people seeking an escape from the blockages overwhelmed the area so often that the local sheriff’s department had to temporarily close access roads to the trailhead, as well as nearby Whiteoak Canyon.
Now, in an attempt to thin out these crowds, a $1 permit will be required.
“The number of people climbing Old Rag Mountain continues to grow and congestion on the mountain is impacting resources,” Shenandoah National Park Superintendent Patrick Kenney said in a statement. January 31 press release. “This pilot project will allow us to test a management strategy for this area to ensure the preservation of Old Rag.”
Last year, park managers commissioned a study that found hikers yearned for more safety and solitude on the trail, even if that meant limiting the number of people who could reach the summit. As a popular website, Hike up, joked Old Rag, “This hike gets a zero star rating for solitude.”
The pilot program will run until November 30, when a permanent system will be considered. Until then, 800 permits will be issued per day – 400 of them 30 days in advance, plus another 400 five days before – the Recreation.gov. The permit, however, does not guarantee a parking space in the lot, which only contains about 300 vehicles. On Friday, tickets were still available online for all weekends in March.
Moshaashaee – perhaps the trail’s most loyal fanatic, a man who burns through a pair of hiking boots a year – finds the permit system a nuisance.
“I don’t like it,” he said on a recent February morning, climbing a pile of granite boulders. “I come here on weekdays, so why do I need a permit? It does not mean anything. On weekends, I understand, because there is not much parking. Or if you’re going to Mount Whitney where they need to know who’s on the mountain in case of a rescue. But here?”
He stopped, pointing to the path, where a group of hikers marched past, the women’s ponytails swaying in the breeze. They snacked on fun-sized Snickers bars.
“I think they should just get rid of the system,” he continued. “It makes a difference for a lot of people, especially young people, who might stop trying to come.”
Featured in Outside Magazine list of the 25 best hikes in the world, the Old Rag Loop is a bucket list item for many. The trail begins with steep switchbacks—loose with gravel and shaded by pine trees—until hikers are delivered over the exposed spine of the mountain. The last two miles are more like rock climbing than hiking. This is where the bottlenecks usually occur, with people piling into the cracks and gullies, sometimes waiting over an hour for their turn to climb onto the next section of the trail.
“The last time I was here – it was on a January day about three years ago – it was a beautiful day, and everyone had the same idea, and it was crazy,” Greg said. Griswold, 56, who lives in Fairfax County. “It took me two hours to hike the last half mile to the top.”
Griswold and his 19-year-old son, Owen, had decided to venture onto the trail the same morning as Moshaashaee, hoping to summit the summit one last time before the permit system was put in place. They had taken a day off for business.
“It was just awful, too crowded, hence the need to put on the passes,” Griswold said of his previous experience on Old Rag. “It’s been quite a popular place since the pandemic. I feel the need to do something.
The view from the 3,284-foot summit makes it obvious why the hike is so popular. For miles, the gentle green slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains undulate, blending into a honeyed patchwork of farmland and forest that kiss the horizon. The summit of Old Rag, the National Park Service says, features “360-degree views that make you feel like you’re on top of the world.”
In the weeks before the ticketing system was implemented, a myriad of signs warned hikers of what was to come on March 1. At the Corner Store in Sperryville, a poster about permits was taped to the wooden counter near the scale and cash register.
And near the Old Rag trailhead, an even bigger sign was set up near the bathrooms. “Tickets must be purchased in advance,” reads the bold font.
The Park Service doesn’t want hikers arriving unknowingly – by the time they reach the lot it will already be too late, as there is no cell service available to get a last-minute permit, should they still remains.
On the mid-February Friday that had drawn Moshaashaee and so many others to the trail, a sunny forecast offered respite from the winter cold and the parking lot was packed. A man laced up his leather hiking boots, the doors of his red Subaru opened. A woman in a blue down jacket has emptied the last piece of coffee from her thermos. On the other side of the field, the trail has disappeared into the forest.
Entangled with dead leaves, it meandered between sprigs of green ferns that tumbled down the hillsides. Bare trees moaned in the wind. Blackbirds flitted around the canopy, chirping. Around 9 a.m., two men careened around a bend in the woods. They paused as they reached a steep incline, slowing down to keep their runners’ toes from snagging on larger rocks. Strokes of light blue paint, adorning the pine trunks and the occasional rock, marked the way.
The couple were training for the Bel Monte 25K, an endurance race in Washington’s National Forest in March. And so they had gotten into the habit of driving the hour to Old Rag from Warrenton, Va., leaving their homes around 6 a.m. to fit in a run before work. Esteban Chavarria, 44, had read about the new permit system in his local newspaper – and he wasn’t happy about what it meant for them.
“You go outside,” he said. “Why do you have to get a ticket for this?” We’ll probably find other places that aren’t crowded.
“I understand why they are doing this,” concedes his friend, Stephen Rolando, 51. “If you are here on a weekend, you cannot have a parking space. But it’s annoying to have to book it.
Further up the mountain, Beth and Murry Feldstein settled into foldable camping chairs and unpacked their peanut butter sandwiches. They had traveled to Shenandoah from Cincinnati for Beth’s 54th birthday birthday. They had chosen the national park because of the impending permit system. They usually traveled in the southwest, but Murry, 53, was obsessed with finding the best hikes, and Old Rag had been on his list for a long time.
“When I saw the permits come into effect on March 1, I knew we had to do this,” he said. “We had to do it.”
They had just had their first bites of lunch when Moshaashaee walked past and offered them a cup of hot Persian tea, infused with cinnamon and cumin. He always packs a thermos of it to share at the top, as well as a Tupperware of hard-boiled eggs, avocados and Medjool dates. He told them he had walked through Old Rag about 3,000 times.
“3,000 times? Murry gaped. “Then why 3,000 times? What attracts you to this mountain? That’s pretty impressive – 3,000 times. It’s our first.
Moshaashaee said the Old Rag hike helped him train for the Fourteeners – mountains over 14,000 feet high – and he loved watching the beauty of the hike change with the seasons. He also liked to bring friends to experience it. His phone was full of photos of people reaching the summit for the first time, posing near the Old Rag wooden sign that marked the ridge or atop a jumble of rocks, arms outstretched.
They finished their tea and Moshaashaee capped his thermos, putting on his backpack. He continued to the top. Even after all these times, the view never disappointed. And although he hadn’t booked a permit for March, he knew he would be back soon. Arrived at the top, he stopped.
The mountains and the earth and the sky.
For miles it stretched above and beyond him, vast and endless.