Shenandoah Park struggles to juggle visitors and social distancing amid COVID-19

Numerous motorists on March 22 ignored this road closure sign on the Rappahannock County side of Route 601 leading to Old Rag Mountain, only to be turned around at a second road block a short distance away by Madison County Sheriff's deputies and rangers from Shenandoah National Park.

Amid concerns surrounding the coronavirus outbreak, visitors by the thousands flocked to Shenandoah National Park both Saturday and Sunday, causing local authorities to close access to two of the park’s most popular attractions.

“Due to overcrowding,” Shenandoah Park Rangers and Madison County law enforcement shut down access roads to Old Rag Mountain and the Whiteoak boundary trailhead for the foreseeable future.

“We are concerned… visitation patterns were in violation of CDC recommendations,” explained the park, pointing out that Centers for Disease Control guidance for the pandemic “includes social distancing.”

So many people descended on Old Rag on Saturday that at least one nearby resident could not get out of her own driveway because vehicles had blocked her in, a Madison County Sheriff’s deputy told the Rappahannock News today while posted at a designated roadblock that shut down access to the popular hiking destination.

Numerous motorists on Sunday ignored a “Road Closed to Thru Traffic” sign placed on the Rappahannock County side of Route 601, driving around it until encountering sheriff’s deputies and a park ranger at a second roadblock, where they were all turned around.

Motorists from states as far away as California, Montana and Texas were denied entry, said one Madison deputy, albeit most appeared to be from the Washington, D.C., region.

Shenandoah Ranger Ray Drutis, who arrived at the park six months ago from Yellowstone National Park, was being as helpful as possible to the hampered visitors early Sunday afternoon, providing directions to other park access points and suggesting less-traveled trails.

Stressing that the health and safety of visitors, employees, and partners is its number one priority, Shenandoah requested of hikers visiting today and beyond: “If you are coming to the park, please choose to visit areas that are not crowded to allow for adequate social distancing. 

“This would include NOT hiking at Old Rag, Whiteoak Canyon, Dark Hollow Falls and other high-use trails.”

The Berry Hollow area was also so congested on Saturday that local authorities had to close the road.

For safety’s sake, the park advised: “If you encounter a crowded trailhead, go elsewhere.”

In the meantime, Shenandoah said it would be “closely monitoring COVID-19 with the federal, state and local authorities.”

This past week, the national park system waived entry fees. 

There was a steady stream of vehicles entering the Thornton Gap Entrance above Sperryville today, where signs direct motorists to proceed without stopping.

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