IT’S NOT UNUSUAL to find throngs of visitors crowding into Shenandoah National Park to see the striking fall foliage during the last two weeks of October.
But toss in folks looking to find a safe getaway in the midst of a pandemic and a pleasant weekend of leaf peeping can become a traffic nightmare.
While the park has been able to cope with the crowds, visitors trying to salve their pandemic-weary souls with the brilliant oranges, reds and yellows on the horizons have caused some unprecedented problems.
They’ve ranged from miles- and hours-long backups on weekends at some park entrances to vehicles spilling out of overfull parking areas and overlooks to sporadic troubles with trash collection and traffic control.
Though the park doesn’t quiz visitors on why they come to Shenandoah, staffers say anecdotally that they believe a good number are turning to the park as a safe destination during the pandemic.
I visited the park last Thursday and talked about the busy year there with Claire Comer, an interpretive specialist for Shenandoah, as well as a dozen visitors on the colorful fall day. All but two of those 12 families said the relative safety of an outdoor visit to the beautiful spot played a big part in making it their destination.
Clark and Debbie Haver were taking in the striking colors in the distance at the Bald Face Mountain Overlook when they spoke briefly about their week-long visit to the park.
“We live near Charlotte, one of the real hotspots for COVID in North Carolina, and we haven’t really been going out to places much,” said Clark Haver. “But we wanted to have a getaway and we were interested in seeing Shenandoah National Park.”
He said that being able to have a safe trip where their activities were all outside was the clincher for them. They found great joy in completing a Bible-study unit while seeing such natural splendor.
Emily and Greg Marcinski of Baltimore said their attempt to catch fall foliage at its peak was what brought them out and added that they also thought it would be a safe outing in the midst of rising coronavirus numbers.
Ditto for Katy Brittingham of Alexandria, who arrived with her Lab and a desire to see dazzling fall colors in a location as safe for an outing as there is these days. Beverly Sowers of Richmond said for her it was all about seeing brilliantly changing leaves, though she added that it didn’t hurt that she felt safe doing it.
I caught up with Comer at the park’s headquarters, where she addressed the crowds Shenandoah has been seeing this fall.
“The week before last, there was a two-hour wait to get into the park through Front Royal, and at one point, Front Royal shut down the entrance for hours,” she said.
The longtime Shenandoah staffer, whose family lived on land there before it became a park, said she’d seen a video on a recent weekend that highlighted backups at another spot.
“There was talk last weekend about the traffic backed up at the Thornton Gap entrance,” said Comer. “I saw a video on Facebook that a local woman did where she came off the drive and went east on [U.S.] 211. Backed up all the way down to Sperryville, traffic was at a standstill.”
Comer said park officials have been working on ways to prevent overcrowding problems (see Tips for Visiting Shenandoah). Two of the recommendations are pretty simple.
“First, if at all possible, come during the week when our visitation is much lower,” she said.
And if you do come on the weekend, Comer said visitors should think about the reality they’ll face right now.
“That way, if you sit in line for two hours to get into the park, you’re not surprised,” she said. “You had the opportunity ahead of time to make the decision that it was worth that wait to get onto Skyline Drive.”
Comer said that the most recent data shows the park, which encompasses nearly 200,000 acres stretching across eight counties, has hosted well over a million visitors this year, an increase of more than 30,000 over last year at this time.
“And that doesn’t take into account the fact that we were closed for six weeks at the start of the pandemic, or that all the most recent numbers haven’t been added to the total,” she said, noting that visitors started coming in larger-than-normal numbers by the summer, with July visitation more than 232,000 for a 38 percent increase over last July.
“Two weekends ago, we had 14,000 cars coming into the park on the weekend,” Comer said. “On that same weekend in 2019, we had 7,000. And that’s just cars, not people, and very few people come to the park alone. It probably averages three times that number of people visiting.”
Neal Lewis, a visual information specialist for the park who works with Comer, spends a lot of time taking photos and videos of the park at all hours of the day and night.
“I go up the mountains before sunrise, and before COVID, I never would see another soul up there at 5 a.m.,” he said. “Now I see people all the time at that hour. By 9:30 or 10, even on the weekdays, the overlooks and trail heads are packed with cars spilling out onto the drive. And on weekends it’s even busier.”
While staffers have been able to serve most of the visitors’ needs, there are strains that big crowds put on the systems at a time when COVID has also been requiring more sanitation of facilities.
“In a national park, you have to work a little harder on some things, like trash. In a city park, there will be trash cans every 50 feet. We don’t do that, because it impedes the view and because of the challenge of picking up trash along 105 miles,” she said.
“It hasn’t always happened, but what we’ve seen at times is an awful lot of trash where we wish it wasn’t,” she said, noting that visitors don’t always seek out the bear-proof trash cans that prevent problems with the four-pawed park residents. “We ask them to look a little longer if a trash can isn’t right next to where they’re camping or picnicking.”
She noted that people parking on the side of Skyline Drive when parking areas are full creates safety problems.
Comer said more visitors also means more folks are out hiking, especially on popular spots such as Old Rag Mountain. That raises the chance of someone taking a fall and needing to be rescued.
She noted that park crews spent two weekend evenings on the mountain recently helping injured hikers until helicopters could be called in to fly them out the next morning.
Comer closed by noting that something President Franklin D. Roosevelt said when he dedicated the park in 1936 may be especially apropos this year. In his dedication, FDR talked about the fact that people would come to Shenandoah to recreate, but also to “re-create” by communing with nature to combat the toll taken by modern life.
“He talked about how people would come to feel the wind on their faces and hear the sounds of a running brook and their souls would be better for it,” she said. “In all the years I’ve been here, that’s never been truer than right now.”
Rob Hedelt: 540/374-5415