The hike to the summit of Old Rag Mountain at almost 3,300 feet is one of the most popular hikes in the Mid-Atlantic and for good reasons. It is a fairly strenuous trail with a challenging scramble over and through enormous boulders, but hikers are rewarded with spectacular panoramic views.
The trail is busiest on weekends, especially in the spring and fall. If you hike Old Rag on a summer weekday or in the winter, it is a completely different and rewarding experience. When the summer days are long, begin your hike in the afternoon. Take a headlight just in case the sun sets before you finish. You’ll enjoy the evening breezes and magical light on your way down the mountain.
Winter offers another perspective on Old Rag. When the leaves are off the trees and the underbrush has died back, the forest open up revealing outstanding views throughout the hike. Through the woods you can see mountain streams, massive boulder fields, and huge rock outcroppings. Keep you eyes open for deer and bear.
The absolute best to time to hike Old Rag is on a clear winter night under a full moon. Dress in layers and bring some food and a head light with extra batteries. Begin your hike an hour or so before moonrise. When you reach the upper boulder field, the moon will be rising and it is a spectacular sight. The lights of the little towns of the Piedmont twinkle to the east and the dark mountains of the Park loom on the western horizon.
The White Oak trail is less challenging and less crowded than Old Rag. A spectacular hike up a steep gorge, it passes a series of awesome waterfalls on the Robinson River. Although it is also a very popular hike, it isn’t as well known as Old Rag. If you want a quiet wilderness experience, go in the evening during the week and you may be the only person on the trail. However the opportunity to take a dip in the clear deep pools below the waterfalls is worth sharing the trail for a primetime hike on a summer weekend.
In the winter, White Oak feels like a scene from Dr. Zhivago. The stream and rivulets freeze in bizarre ice sculptures. Veils of ice form where water seeps through the sides of the canyon. When you reach the falls, the entire canyon turns into an icefall. The slower flowing water and mist from the falls forms a shroud around the falling water. Wait until we have had a least a week of sub-freezing temperatures. Dress in layers and put on very warm, insulated, and water-resistant hiking boots. Crampons may be helpful as well. If you are lucky, you’ll be able to watch ice climbers ply their skills on the sheets of ice.