SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK, Va. — The only medication Moji Moshaashaee needs is Old Rag.
The mountain keeps him young and healthy, he says.
But starting March 1, he’ll need a permit every time he goes.
Like so many other treasured outdoor spaces across the country, Old Rag — a crown jewel of East Coast hiking and the most popular destination in Shenandoah National Park — has been overrun during the pandemic.
Nearly 80,000 hikers pack the 9.2-mile trail annually, including as many as 1,200 hikers on weekend days. In the spring of 2020, people in search of an escape from lockdowns overwhelmed the area so often that the local sheriff’s department had to temporarily shut down access roads to the trailhead, along with nearby Whiteoak Canyon.
Now, in an attempt to thin those 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’s superintendent, Patrick Kenney, said in a Jan. 31 news release. “This pilot project will allow us an opportunity to test a strategy for managing this area to ensure Old Rag is preserved.”
Last year, park managers commissioned a study, which found that hikers longed for more safety and solitude on the trail — even if that meant limiting the number of people who could reach the peak. As one popular website, Hiking Upward, jested of Old Rag: “This hike gets a zero-star rating for solitude.”
The pilot program will run through Nov. 30, when a permanent system will be considered. Until then, 800 permits will be released per day — 400 of them 30 days in advance, plus another 400 five days before — on Recreation.gov. The permit, though, doesn’t guarantee a parking spot in the lot, which only holds about 300 vehicles. As of Friday, tickets were still available online for every weekend in March.
Moshaashaee — perhaps the trail’s most loyal zealot, a man who burns through a pair of hiking boots a year — finds the permit system to be a nuisance.
“I don’t like it,” he said on a recent February morning, clambering over a pile of granite boulders. “I come here on the weekdays, so why do I need a permit? That doesn’t make sense. Weekends, I understand, because there’s 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 paused, gesturing toward the trail, where a hiking group was filing past, the women’s ponytails swinging 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.”
Included in Outside Magazine’s list of 25 best hikes in the world, the loop of Old Rag is a bucket list item for many. The trail begins with steep switchbacks — loose with gravel and shaded by pine — until hikers are delivered onto the mountain’s exposed spine. The last two miles are more akin to rock-climbing than hiking. That’s where the bottlenecks typically happen, with people piling up in cracks and gullies, sometimes waiting more than an hour for their turn to heft themselves up onto the next section of trail.
“The last time I was here — which was a January day about three years ago — it was a nice day, and everybody had the same idea, and it was insane,” said Greg Griswold, 56, who lives in Fairfax County. “It took me two hours to get the last half-mile to the summit.”
Griswold and his 19-year-old son, Owen, had decided to venture onto the trail on the same morning as Moshaashaee, in the hopes of bagging the peak one last time before the permit system went into place. They’d taken the day off work for the endeavor.
“It was just awful, just too many people, hence the need to put in the trail passes,” Griswold said of his previous experience on Old Rag. “It has been a pretty popular spot since the pandemic. I get the need to do something.”
The view from the 3,284-foot peak makes the reason for the hike’s popularity apparent. For miles, the soft green slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains undulate, fading into a honeyed patchwork of farmland and forest that kiss the horizon. The top of Old Rag, the National Park Service says, presents “360-degree views that make you feel like you’re on top of the world.”
In the weeks before the ticketing system went into place, myriad signs warned hikers of what was to come March 1. At the Corner Store in Sperryville, a poster about the permits was taped to the wooden countertop near the scale and the cash register.
And near the Old Rag trailhead, an even larger sign was propped near the bathrooms. “Tickets must be purchased in advance,” read the bolded font.
The Park Service doesn’t want hikers to arrive unaware — by the time they reach the lot, it will already be too late, as there’s no cell service available to grab a last-minute permit, if any are still available.
On the Friday in mid-February that had lured Moshaashaee and so many others onto the trail, a sunny forecast offered some reprieve from winter’s chill, and the parking lot was crowded. One man laced his leather hiking boots, the doors of his red Subaru thrown open. A woman in a blue puffy jacket drained the last bit of coffee from her thermos. On the far side of the lot, the trail disappeared into the forest.
Matted in dead leaves, it wound past snatches of green fern that spindled down the hillsides. Bare trees groaned in the wind. Robins flitted about the canopy, chirping. Around 9 a.m., two men careened around a bend in the woods. They paused as they hit a steep decline, slowing to prevent the toes of their trail runners from catching on the larger rocks. Dashes of light blue paint, adorning the trunks of pine and the occasional boulder, marked the way.
The pair were training for the Bel Monte 25K, an endurance race in Washington National Forest in March. And so they’d taken to 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 pleased about what that meant for them.
“You’re going outdoors,” he said. “Why do you have to get a ticket for that? We will probably just find other places that are not crowded.”
“I understand why they do it,” conceded his friend, Stephen Rolando, 51. “If you’re here on a weekend, you can’t get a parking space. But it’s annoying to have to book it.”
Farther up the mountain, Beth and Murry Feldstein settled into collapsible camp chairs and unwrapped their peanut butter sandwiches. They’d traveled to Shenandoah from Cincinnati for Beth’s 54th birthday. They’d chosen the national park because of the impending permit system. They usually traveled to 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 coming in place March 1, I knew that we had to do it,” he said. “We had to get it done.”
They were just taking the first bites of lunch when Moshaashaee hiked past and offered them a hot cup of Persian tea, brewed with cinnamon and cumin. He always packs a thermos of it to share at the peak, along with a Tupperware of hard-boiled eggs, avocados and Medjool dates. He told them he’d hiked Old Rag about 3,000 times.
“3,000 times?” Murry said, his mouth dropping. “So why 3,000 times? What attracts you to this mountain? That’s pretty impressive — 3,000 times. It’s our first.”
Moshaashaee explained that hiking Old Rag had helped him train for Fourteeners — mountains over 14,000 feet tall — and that he loved watching the beauty of the hike change with the seasons. He loved bringing friends to experience it, too. His phone was full of photos of people reaching the peak for the first time, posing by the wooden Old Rag sign that marked the crest or atop jumbles of rocks, arms outstretched.
They finished their tea, and Moshaashaee re-capped his thermos, slinging his backpack on. He continued on to the peak. Even after all of these times, the view never disappointed. And though he hadn’t booked any permits for March, he knew he’d be back soon. Reaching the summit, he paused.
The mountains and the land and the sky.
For miles, it stretched above and beyond him, vast and endless.