Old Rag at Sunrise

Backpacking White Oak Canyon, Stony Man, and Old Rag at Sunrise

Saturday morning three of us from DC UL Backpacking headed out to Shenandoah National Park for waterfalls, some strenuous climbs, and absolutely stunning vistas over the course of 19 miles. But the highlight of the trip was a bright and early alpine start in order to climb Old Rag to catch the sunrise from the summit.

Chris and I rendezvoused with Shinyi at the White Oak Canyon trailhead at around 11am.

The parking lot was absolutely packed—it’s good to see folks getting out on National Trails Day and spending time outdoors in some of America’s most treasured natural landscapes.

white oak canyon old rag-10

White Oak is also one of the most popular trails in the park as it travels alongside a roiling stream which cascades down a couple thousand feet through the canyon over the course of three or four miles. There are a number of spectacular falls in both the upper and lower canyon and it never fails to impress.

We took our time ascending up and out of the canyon, frequently caught behind large groups of dayhikers and otherwise jumping off the trail at the vistas to admire the falls as well.

white oak canyon old rag-9

We eventually gained the upper reaches of Shenandoah and crossed over Skyline Drive where we hopped north bound on the AT.

Before too long we reached the junction for the short side trip to the vista at Stony Man (4,011 feet—the second highest peak in Shenandoah) and nearly 2,800 feet above the White Oak Canyon parking lot.

The vista from Stony Man is absolutely spectacular—the last time I was here was a winter hike in which we were completely enveloped in clouds—with a wide panorama to the west.

You can see the entire Massanutten Range, from Signal Knob in the north to Duncan and Strickler Knob where I was just a few weeks ago, as well as the furthest reaches of the southern section. We had a late lunch on top and took plenty of photos.

Stony Man Summit Shenandoah Virginia

Back on the AT now, we continued north bound and soon reached Little Stony Man, a popular rock climbing destination in the park and another outstanding vista.

View from Stoney Man

View from Stony Man

Chris stepped off the trail and told us not to wait for him, he’d catch up. But the weather was so great and the view so good, that we decided to just hang out for bit.

View from Stoney Man

View from Stoney Man

After some time we realized that Chris had probably actually gotten out ahead of us and was trying to catch up to us when in fact we were behind him… I wasn’t too concerned though as I knew he was aware of the plan and had been on this set of trails before.

Shinyi and I continued hiking along the AT until we reached the junction for the Nicholson Hollow Trail. We crossed over Skyline Drive once again and then descended back into the valley. Besides White Oak Canyon and the summit of Stony Man, we really didn’t see many other people on the trail throughout the trip.

Bird bathing atop Stoney Man

Bird bathing atop Stoney Man

Back in the valley we passed by Corbin Cabin and there were actually some people in the cabin—one guy shouted out to us that our friend had just passed by and was asking if he’d seen us.

We quickened our pace to see if we might be able to catch up to Chris in the few miles before our intended camp site. But I also figured it was probably futile if he’d been hiking fast for the past couple of hours anticipating that he’d be able to catch up to us.

Upon arriving to our intended camp near the junction with Hot Short Mountain Trail, we saw another group of campers in our intended area… They also had an open fire going, a flagrant violation of park policy and pretty clearly articulated on backcountry permits, trail signage and intersections, and by the rangers themselves.

Thankfully we did run into Chris at this point. We back tracked slightly and found a small site where we could all squeeze in. It was a little after 6pm at this point, so we hung a bear bag line, refilled water, and cooked dinner. The goal was to wake up at 2am for the hike to Old Rag, so we were in bed by 9pm that night.

Alpine Start for Old Rag

My cell phone alarm jarred me awake only five hours later.

I began stirring and packing up camp without a word to my other camp mates. It sounded like they were awake and beginning to pack already.

I’m not a morning person, and these early starts are always challenging, but it’s worth noting that when the alarm goes off I always pop right out of my sleeping bag in anticipation of summit day, whereas I hit the snooze button at least four or five times on a normal work day.

What does that tell you? I went without coffee at this point and just decided to drink a bunch of water and eat a Bobo’s Oat Bar.

It’s always hard getting multiple people packed up and ready at the same time, and we didn’t end up leaving until 2:50am, about 20 minutes later than I had hoped.

Sunrise would be at 5:50am, exactly three hours away, and the summit was four miles away with a couple thousand feet elevation gain, and a good half a mile or so of fun scrambling. Headlamps donned, we proceeded to hike out along the river.

Arriving at the trailhead to Old Rag, I began to push ahead on my own at a faster pace.

Sunrise waits for no one, and I didn’t want to miss it!

The trail is pretty moderate, not overly rocky, and lots of switchbacks up the mountainside, so you can make pretty good time.

I eventually caught up to a small crew from DC Mountain Madness who had driven in from DC to arrive at the trailhead at 2:45am. I chatted with them briefly before continuing on my way.

The hiking trail covers the majority of the elevation gain, and then the fun starts—lots of rock scrambling and tight little spaces to squeeze through!

There are a few moves where you would definitely want a rope if there were exposure below you.

Passing through it all at night was a lot of fun and made the route finding a little more challenging. I backtracked and had to do a double take a few times as I scrambled through. My headlamp is not exactly the brightest either, which also made finding blazes challenging at times.

Up the famous staircase with the hanging chockstone, past the hanging rock, through a couple tight and narrow cracks (squeezing through with your pack on and poles in hand), and up a couple committing moves where the remnants of a cut hand rope are still visible.

The predawn light was beginning to glow over the horizon and I wasn’t sure whether to stop and just watch from there or to keep pushing on for the summit.

I didn’t want to miss the first sliver rising.

I decided to push on for the summit and made it before too long. There were two other guys on the summit awaiting the sunrise.

Sunrise from Old Rag

Sunrise from Old Rag

I quickly setup my GoPro camera to take a timelapse and then started boiling some hot water for my morning coffee. It was another 15 minutes before the sun poked above—and Chris arrived just as it began, perfect timing.

white oak canyon old rag-8

We hung out for quite a while on the summit, drinking coffee, snacking, and just watching the light change in the valley below and across the expanse of Shenandoah. It was quite a way to start the morning.

Shinyi still hadn’t shown up at this point, and while I figured she had just stopped somewhere else to watch the sunrise, we did run into two groups that she and Chris had passed earlier and who now said they hadn’t seen her in the interim.

Chris and I packed up our bags and began to backtrack and sure enough in about 10 minutes we ran into her.

She had stepped off to a vista to catch the sunrise and the other groups had passed by without seeing her.

We made our way back to the summit to hang out again briefly before continuing down the other side. It was another three miles back to the cars—down the backside of the mountain which links up with a fire road and then another actual road back to White Oak Canyon.

We’d done about seven miles, caught an amazing sunrise, and we were back to our cars before 9am! Not long after that we were in Warrenton at the Frost Diner for an awesome post-hike breakfast, and then back in DC before noon—still with most of the day ahead.

Gear Comments

I split the toe box on my Inov-8 Roclite 315s during the scramble. Not sure when it happened exactly as I didn’t notice until later when it was light out.

Tore the toe box on my shoe somehow during the scramble

Tore the toe box on my shoe somehow during the scramble

There were a few cracks that I jammed my foot down into and then got somewhat stuck as I pulled it out, and the granite rock at Old Rag is quite sharp and abrasive.

It should also be noted however that I’ve been remarking for a few trips that it’s time to buy new shoes—the mesh was tore up in places, part of the sole was peeling off, other stitching was failing, etc. They’ve been well worn.

I’ve logged 400+ miles in just backpacking miles, which does not include any of the miles I’ve logged using them as approach shoes while climbing, and all the other times I just wear them around the city or travelling.

Details

Base Weight (without food or water) was 11 pounds
Trail: 19 miles total and 5,300 feet of elevation gain
White Oak Canyon > Appalachian Trail > Stony Man > AT > Nicholson Hollow > Camp near Hot Short Mountain (12 miles). Then the Old Rag hike > Berry Hollow > White Oak Parking Lot (7 miles)

Map of the Hike

 
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Ryan

Author, Writer, and Head Honcho at Desk to Dirtbag
Ryan is an author, adventurer, and wanderer. Originally from Seattle, he headed to Washington D.C. where he spent five years working for Congress before heeding the call of the wild. He set out living in his pickup truck and road tripping across the American West. Since then he backpacked through Colombia, drove across all of Central America, and also wrote a best selling book: Big Travel, Small Budget. Right now you can find him driving his old truck across all of South America -- support the adventures by visiting the D2D Shop. Follow the adventures on social media or read more.

Comments 14

  1. Hello Ryan!
    We are trying to plan a backpacking trip in Shenandoah and wanted to see your map of the hike because unfortunatly we were unable to see it from this site. We were very interested in the hike you embarked on and wanted to give it a try. I would greatly appreciate it if you could get back to me at your earliest convenience. Thanks, hope to hear from you soon.

    1. Post
      Author

      Oh no, looks like something is up with the Hillmap website… Sorry about the inconvenience. I don’t have another map, but you can piece together the trails from the description.

  2. Great report, Ryan. I’ll be using it to backpack the exact route that you did. However, we will not be trying to get to the summit of Old Rag before sunrise. We’ll probably be breaking camp at sunrise. I wanted to figure out a way to plan an overnight backpacking trip that included climbing Old Rag, and your trip description solved it for me. Thanks!

  3. Hey Ryan,

    I am hoping to do this circuit this weekend. By chance, do you know if there’s a place where I could camp out on Friday night near White oak? Also, do you happen to know water availaibility after the falls? Thanks!

    1. Post
      Author

      Sorry, you caught me during some pretty intensive travel. Camping near White Oak is difficult. Your best bet would be within the park in the area above, but that would alter the circuit a bit. Water availability really depends on the season and time of year, but as I recall, there is generally limited water availability around the Old Rag area. The exception being the area down by Corbin Cabin (where we backcountry camped) where you can reliable refill water.

  4. Hey Ryan,

    Me and my brother are looking to backcountry camp Whiteoak canyon and Ive got a few questions.

    1. Wheres the closest visitor station to get our permits at?

    2. Which parking lot should we start at?

    Thanks a million!

  5. Hi Ryan!

    Your video and article caught my attention and I am now interested in hiking Old Rag to see the sunrise myself! How difficult is the hike in the dark, including the rock scramble and finding the trail markers? My boyfriend and I both have headlamps but would you suggest any other gear (aside from the typical hiking equipment – like food/water)? Do you have any advice for us? We are planning on leaving around 4 hours prior to sunrise to give us enough time to slowly climb the mountain, as we are not regular hikers (although we do love challenging hikes).

    1. Post
      Author

      Hey Maggie, as I recall it wasn’t difficult at all to stay on trail (especially if you don’t do it in the fall when leaves cover everything), but there certainly are some interesting sections for the rock scramble, it all depends on your level of comfort with that type of hike. Have you done Old Rag before, in the day time? If it all went well and nothing was sketchy for you, I don’t think it will be much different at night. Just make sure you’ve got a strong headlamp, some spare batteries, and the normal hiking essentials including appropriate layers for the time of year you plan to do it. It is a most excellent hike, especially cool to have it mostly to yourself in the early morning light. Once you do it, please be sure to pop back in and leave a comment about your experience, perceived difficulty, time, etc. It is very helpful for others considering the trail!

  6. So my girlfriend and I are thinking about going on a weekend backpacking trip to old rag and backcountry camping. We were just gonna do the 8mi loop of old rag going up ridge trail and coming back down weakely hollow. Are there any places to backcountry camp along those trails if any, where?

    1. Post
      Author

      Hey Taylor,

      Unfortunately there are not really any backcountry campsites in that area because of the popularity of the trail. According to NPS:

      There are limited opportunities for backcountry camping in the Old Rag area. Camping is prohibited above 2800′
      on Old Rag. Park boundary limitations must be observed and neighbors’ property rights respected. Please do not
      trespass on private property.

      A backcountry camping permit is required and backcountry camping regulations are strictly enforced. The permit
      can be obtained at park entrance stations, visitor centers, or at a self-registration station. The self-registration
      station is located in the Old Rag parking area. Note that Old Rag and Byrds Nest shelters are for day use only.

      You might be able to veer off of Weakley Hollow Road toward Robertson Mountain or Corbin Hollow trail and find something out that way. I’ve never camped along those trails so I can’t comment. It was for that reason that we did that hike the way we did and camped near the Hot Short Mountain Trail.

      If you find out other information that would be helpful to others, please come back and leave a comment!

  7. Hi! My husband and I were thinking about doing this hike this week. Where exactly did you guys camp? Was it an actual campground or just backcountry? We read that there is no camping near the whiteoak canyon area, so we were curious to know where the closest camping was at. Also, do you have any ideas of where we could camp if we decided to do a big loop on whiteoak canyon + cedar run link trail? Thanks so much!

    1. Post
      Author

      Hi Kim, we camped in the backcountry along Nicholson Hollow Trail near the intersection with Hot Short Mountain Trail. There are very limited backcountry sites in the general vicinity of Old Rag/White Oak/Cedar Run. I have done a different loop involving White Oak and Cedar Run where we hiked on the AT south of Cedar Run, and while we still camped backcountry, we did end up hiking right through the Big Meadows campground… So that might be an option for you if that’s what you’re looking to do.

  8. This hike sounds great! Is it possible to shorten this hike by omitting certain trails? Also, how well marked is it so that the trails can easily connect from one to another?

    1. Post
      Author

      Hey Jon, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. It is a pretty awesome set of trails, some of the most popular in Shenandoah (and for good reason)… All the trails in Shenandoah are very well marked with concrete pilings and marked names at trail intersections, so you should be able to easily connect trails. As for shortening it, there are certainly options… Two that come to mind would be to skip the AT & Stony Man and shorten the loop via the Corbin Mountain Trail or Indian Run Trail; or to skip the Old Rag ascent (though that’s one of the highlights of the trip). If you click on the HillMap link you can see some nearby trail options.

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