Shenandoah National Park was on track for a record high of visitors in 2020, surpassing January visitation rates from the last 27 years. By the time the spring season was right around corner, the effects of COVID-19 came swooping in.

When Gov. Ralph Northam started urging people to stay at home to avoid the spread of COVID-19, Sally Hurlbert, management specialist for Shenandoah National Park, said attendance to the park was high. On Monday afternoon, only a handful of cars could be seen along Skyline Drive, soaking in the final hours before Northam issued a “stay-at-home” order.

“Right now, we’re still open,” Hurlbert said Monday afternoon, an hour after Northam’s 2 p.m. announcement.

As Shenandoah National Park continues to make changes amid COVID-19, it comes during a time where park attendance rises to more than 50,000 people.

“Our park begins to get a higher number of visitors in April, partly due to spring breaks in schools,” Hurlbert said. “The numbers steadily climb through May, June, July and August.”

During a time when Shenandoah National Park is expecting more visitors, popular trails are closed to the public.

“On March 22, the popular trails in the Old Rag and Whiteoak Canyon area became overwhelmed with visitors and the Madison County Sheriff’s Office, in conjunction with park law enforcement rangers, closed access to the roads leading to these trailheads,” Hurlbert said. “On March 25, we closed the Old Rag and Whiteoak Canyon circuit hike trails.”

A day later, all the backcountry was closed to camping until April 20 to be consistent with the Virginia State Parks, Hurlbert said. Overnight camping in the park was also shut down and all restrooms in the park were closed.

“Now that public restrooms are closed, [visitors] should rethink whether visiting the park is a good idea at this time,” she said. “If they choose to come, they should practice the social distancing and good sanitation techniques as outlined by the CDC.”

Hurlbert said if visitors arrive at a busy trailhead, they should move on to a less busy trailhead.

“All the trails in the park are beautiful and they can postpone their hike on a busy trail for a future visit,” she said.

Those who decided to visit Shenandoah National Park on Monday were greeted by an unfamiliar scene of empty entrance stations and park rangers nowhere to be found except for the occasional white United States Park Ranger vehicle driving along Skyline Drive.

The Big Meadows Visitor Center had an empty parking lot and the most noise coming from outside was the frequent creaks of trees being pushed by the wind.

Close to Big Meadows is one of the more popular trails, Bearfence Rock Scramble, that leads to a 360-degree view of the Shenandoah Valley.

Natalie Hansen and Rachel Ntenda, both of Charlottesville, braved the windy conditions Monday to get outside.

“We haven’t been on a hike for awhile and we wanted to get out and enjoy the beautiful creation,” Hansen said. “This is our first stop for the day.”

Another Charlottesville resident, Chris Rogers, said visiting Shenandoah National Park was a great way to practice social distancing in “the best way possible.”

While the park remains open at this time, changes will be posted on the Shenandoah National Park website.

Changes to the park as of Monday include Albemarle County, Charlottesville and the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority closing recreational areas around Sugar Hollow Reservoir, Rappahannock County officials closing access to Mount Marshall, Little Devils Stairs, Thornton River and Hazel River and Madison County officials closing Va. 670 and 648 leading to Rose River and Dark Hollow.

On Sunday, Shenandoah National Park announced there would be no open facilities until further notice.

Due to fee collections being suspended and campgrounds being closed, Hurlbert said there would “likely be an impact” to park revenue, but the magnitude of it won’t be known until they see how long the suspension and closure lasts.

Park projects will continue to happen, including construction of the Old Rag parking area.

Contact Jessica Wetzler at 574-6279 or jwetzler@dnronline.com. Follow Jessica on Twitter @wetzler_jessica

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