Each year, thousands of hikers pass right by the top of Whale's Lip, and many of them step off the trail to take a rest and admire the views from the huge open slabs that are its summit. What almost all of them (myself included until about a year ago) do not know is that the smooth faces that drop off suddenly from the edge of these slabs hold challenging and high-quality sport and trad routes on granite comparable in quality to that found in California, New Hampshire, New York, and North Carolina. Routes can be from 100-150'.
Some of the climbing crags on Old Rag Mountain are difficult to access due to thick undergrowth from spring through fall, but Whale's Lip, although not devoid of bushwhacking on the approach, is close to a well-maintained trail and offers reasonably easy access year-round. Because it faces east-southeast, it is a nice place to climb on sunny winter days; it can be a nasty place to climb in the hot, humid Virginia summer. Although Whale's Lip is not the most extensive crag complex on Old Rag and does not have as many routes as most of the other crags there do, it is still the largest single crag on Old Rag and is easily seen from both SR 231 to the east and from the Ridge Trail.
Many crags on Old Rag have a lot of Class 3, 4, and easy 5 stuff that appeals to people like me who want more than a hike but something less than true technical climbing. This is not the case with Whale's Lip; it is pretty much a giant slab that is hostile to any but the most experienced (or craziest) free soloists. Nevertheless, because the crag is so close to the trail and is relatively easy to reach, it is worth a visit just to see something different on this very popular mountain.
This page will, in addition to providing overview information, describe how to find the crag and will photographically represent some of its routes and other features. For more information about the routes, use Eric Horst’s Rock Climbing Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland, the first chapter of which is devoted to the climbing on Old Rag, or visit the rockclimbing.com page for Whale's Lip. If anyone who has extensive experience climbing here would like to take this page over or make additions concerning routes, please send me a PM.
The routes here are mostly slab climbs and not for beginners, but a few mix in some crack and flake climbing.
From left to right, you get the following (better commentary than I am qualified to provide from personal experience can be found in the resources noted above):
Autumn Harvest (5.10c)
Thar She Blows (5.11b)
Crab Walk (5.8)
Pincer Perfect (5.9+)
Artful Dodger (5.9 X)
Another Green World (5.7 R)
Sold to the Highest Buddha (5.6)
You can start from Weakley Hollow on the north side of Old Rag or from Berry Hollow on the west. The Berry Hollow approach involves about 3.3 trail miles as opposed to 3.1 via Weakley Hollow, but consider the following: the Weakley Hollow approach involves about 500 more feet of elevation gain than the Berry Hollow approach does, and the Weakley Hollow approach is via the Ridge Trail, a route both scenic and fun but also tiring because of the many Class 3 sections (not hard, but still tiring, especially if you are hauling climbing gear).
Getting to Berry Hollow
At Sperryville along U.S. 211, look for signs indicating 522 and 231 and follow the directions to them. Turn right on 231. You can also reach 231 via 522 from Culpeper, and you can take 231 all the way from Charlottesville. After about 10 miles along 231, you reach a tiny town called Etlan. Look on the east side of the road for a small convenience store. Directly across the road from the store is SR 643. There should be a sign indicating access to Whiteoak Canyon. Follow this road for about 4 miles until you reach a stop sign. Turn right (a sign for Whiteoak Canyon should confirm this). You are now on SR 600, and it takes you all the way to the signed parking area and trailhead, almost at the very end of the road. Instead of turning into the parking area, continue straight for about 0.8 mi to the end of the road, which is where the Berry Hollow Fire Road begins. It is about 5 miles from the junction of 643 and 600 to the trailhead, and the drive takes about 15-20 minutes.
Getting to Weakley Hollow
At Sperryville, located along U.S. 211/522 east of Shenandoah National Park and in the park's shadow, turn south onto US 522 where it splits from 211 and turn right onto Virginia 231 shortly afterwards. There is good signage for these intersections. You can also reach 231 via 522 from Culpeper, and you can take 231 all the way from Charlottesville.
A little over 8 miles from Sperryville, watch for the signed turn to Old Rag at Route 602. The road becomes Route 707 at an intersection (stay left on the south side of the river). At the next fork bear left again, now on Route 600. Follow this road for 4 miles to its end at the parking area, which accommodates 200 cars. Park here and walk 0.8 mi to the upper parking area at the end of SR 600. Trails begin here.
Update: As of August 2010, the upper lot is closed to vehicles and parking along the road to it is illegal. This is a permanent closure.
Finding the Crags
This section covers how to find the crag and what you will find there. The descriptions are based on starting from Berry Hollow as opposed to Weakley Hollow since starting from Berry Hollow makes more sense.
This page has photos and links to others that help identify major landmarks that will assist you in accessing the crag.
Hike 2.8 miles to the summit area and continue on. About 5 minutes east from the summit you cross an open area of slabs and boulders; the cliff edge here is the top of Skyline Wall. In about five more minutes, pass the "balanced egg," a huge, obvious boulder that marks the eastern access point for Skyline Wall. Continue about 0.2 mi more to a section where the trail passes an obvious bowl on the eastern face of the mountain. My guidebook says that a cairn is here, but there was no cairn in January 2009. Just beyond this spot is a tree with three trunks, just beyond which is an open slab facing east. If you reach a larger open slab that drops off precipitously and which has a lone pine tree growing on it near its northern end, you are actually atop Whale's Lip but have gone a little too far.
Walk down the gently sloping slab (the one just past the tree with three trunks) and look for a faint trail heading into the woods. Almost immediately, the "trail" splits. Head left and downhill between a large slab on your left and a smaller one on your right. The rock on your left is Whale's Lip. Keep heading downhill, staying close to the crag for easier passage. Soon the rock overhangs the "trail," creating a cave-like atmosphere. As you head down, the crag gets taller and taller, and you will know you are where the climbing routes are concentrated.
March through November, there is a per-person entry fee of $8; December through February, the fee is $5 (the maximum for family groups is $15 and $10, respectively. Payment is mostly on an honor system, but rangers do collect fees on weekends at Berry Hollow.
No pets allowed. Remember that as much as you love your dog, it is still considered a pet. People routinely violate this restriction; please don't join them.
Be prepared for poison ivy, and be wary of rattlesnakes.
There are no campgrounds at or near Berry Hollow and Weakley Hollow, but people do sleep in their cars at the trailheads. Backcountry camping is not allowed on Old Rag above 2800'. Free backcountry camping permits are required, and they are obtainable by self-registration at the trailheads.
Don't show up the night before and set up a tent at the TH or within sight of it. Rangers look for people doing this, and I have seen people ticketed for it.
Shenandoah National Park Telephone: (540) 999-3500
Official park site