Beginning with the November ice storm and followed by a heavy snow in December, countless numbers of trees have fallen across roads around Rockfish Gap and Jarmans Gap. Trees have snapped like toothpicks. Both the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive closed their roadways due to the hazards of fallen trees.
Through hikers on the Appalachian Trail (AT) are fewer in winter months and conditions this year have brought so many trees across the path that in some areas passage is impossible.
Adding to the weather challenge was the government shutdown. On December 22, just after heavy snow on December 17, all land managed by U.S. federal agencies was deemed to be “closed but accessible” as part of the government shutdown.
Shenandoah National Park (SNP) has closed the entrance road due to road conditions and is accessible only to visitors on foot. In January, the U.S. Interior Department allowed SNP to use funds derived from entrance, camping, parking and other fees collected from park visitors to provide limited services during the lapse in appropriations. This was intended to include snow removal, sanitation services, and trash collection. Visitor centers and ranger contact stations remained closed. By the end of January, the government officially opened but the park and Skyline Drive remain closed.
Thanks to dedicated hiking and conservancy groups including the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC), many volunteer crews have been at work on specific sections of the AT. There are crews with a builder focus, as well as those known as “Maintainers.” The Cadillac Crew, a Northern Virginia chapter, is one known as a “Builder.” Volunteers do everything from removing vegetation along the path to digging out rocks. Charlottesville-area volunteers are invited to meet up with a crew at Albemarle High School to help with maintenance and new trail work. See www.PATC.net for more information.
Marit Anderson is a Crozet resident who has hiked the entire AT and now serves as vice president of the Charlottesville chapter of PATC. “The four to five miles up from Rockfish Gap are in good shape,” she said. Anderson has been working south on the Blue Ridge Parkway at Rockfish Gap but the crew has limited access to sections that need work.
Old Dominion Trail Club, based out of Richmond, is an active local group working to maintain 19 miles of the AT south of the Rockfish Gap to Reids Gap. There are eight other sections of the AT in Virginia, home to twenty-five percent of the Appalachian Trail, that are maintained by different trail clubs identified by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC). The ATC is a non-profit organization whose mission is to preserve and manage the A.T. Through the trail clubs, the ATC is responsible for most of the day-to-day work of keeping the A.T. open. Club volunteers also build and repair shelters and other structures, monitor and protect the trail corridor, monitor and manage rare plants and invasive species, and develop management plans for their sections.
The Appalachian Trail Community program is designed by ATC to recognize communities that promote and protect the A.T. The City of Waynesboro is one of eleven such communities in Virginia.
The Waynesboro Economic Development office is the sole support of the Rockfish Gap Travel Information Center located at the intersection of Route 250 and I-64 (exit #99). The city office staff includes a volunteer coordinator for scheduling the 30 active volunteers. One volunteer, Jim Parker, brings more than 13 years of experience as an interpretive ranger on the Blue Ridge Parkway to the visitor center. The center is open seven days a week and volunteers are welcome to apply for training.
Nelson County, where 45 miles of the Appalachian Trail pass, is also a recognized AT Community. Supporters in Crozet and Albemarle County expressed interest in the AT Community program several years ago, but the application process remains unfulfilled. The National Park Service is now back at work assessing many projects and the need for volunteers. Anyone interested in volunteer opportunities on the Blue Ridge Parkway now or in the future should contact [email protected] for more information about potential projects in the area.