National forests reopening some recreation sites for day use starting this weekend

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GEORGE WASHINGTON NATIONAL FOREST, Va. (WHSV) — After more than a month and a half of recreation sites within the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests being closed due to COVID-19, areas will begin reopening this Memorial Day weekend.

Back on March 30, the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests announced that they were temporarily shutting down all trailhead facilities and access points to the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, in addition to a shutdown of campgrounds, off-highway trails, shooting ranges, and recreation areas. The move was meant to prevent groups from congregating there as a way to protect public health and safety.

In the days leading up to the decision, both national forests and national parks were dealing with large crowds of people that made social distancing on trails nearly impossible.

Now, as we prepare for Memorial Day weekend under Phase 1 of Governor Northam's 'Forward Virginia' blueprint, parts of the national forests are gradually reopening.

On Thursday, the U.S. Forest Service announced that trailheads and access points to the Appalachian Trail would be opening up in several national forests, including the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests, on Friday, May 22.

Thursday was also when Shenandoah National Park announced a plan to gradually reopen, starting on Memorial Day weekend.

On Friday, the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests announced a plan to open many recreation sites for day use over the weekend as well.

According to the national forest, the decisions on reopening are being made on a case-by-case basis, based on all health and safety recommendations, as well as employee safety and the availability of PPE and trained personnel.

If needed, they will close sites again if public health and safety requires it.

As of right now, their schedule for reopening recreational areas is as follows:

• May 22: All trailheads providing access to the Appalachian National Scenic Trail will reopen, except for Dragon’s Tooth and Spy Rock trailheads.
• May 23: All shooting ranges will reopen. Crabtree Falls, Cascades, Pandapas Pond, and Roaring Run day use areas will reopen.
• May 26: South Pedlar ATV Trail System will reopen.
• May 28: Additional recreation sites will reopen, including Peters Mills Run/Taskers Gap ATV/OHV Trail System; please check our website for specifics.

For now, campgrounds and most facilities inside national forest campgrounds are staying closed, pending further evaluation. Flooding this week may cause additional delays.

All bathrooms will remain shut down.

Visitors to the national forests are asked to provide their own PPE, including hand sanitizer, and need to pack out everything they pack in, because trash services may not be available.

Anyone who plans to visit is asked to recreate responsibly outdoors, avoid congregating at parking areas, refrain from gathering in large groups and maintain 6 feet of distance from others, especially when passing other hikers.

Specifically, visitors are asked to avoid groups of more than ten people.

Overall, visitors to the National Forests are urged to follow the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines for preventing COVID-19.

Not all trails and roads in the national forests are open yet, and as work continues on that, Forest Service staffing may be limited to encourage social distancing. That could also result in delays in rescue operations, so visitors are also asked not to "engage in risky recreation activities at this time," including activities like rock climbing.

“We know the importance of the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests to communities and we want people to use and enjoy the forests again,” says Job Timm, George Washington and Jefferson Forests Supervisor. “We are working on phased plans to reopen sites and facilities, but protecting our visitors and employees remains our highest priority. And while we understand there may be some excitement from the public to return to beloved recreation areas, please respect site closures and continue to follow local, state, and federal guidelines on staying safe.”

National forest officials will continue to monitor the situation.

Campgrounds and picnic shelters have been unavailable for reservation on Recreation.gov and will remain that way for now.

For a complete list of recreation sites and their status, click here.

These facilities have been closed throughout the pandemic.

The following facilities in the North River Ranger District:

• Hone Quarry Campground and Day Use Area
• North River Campground
• Brandywine Campground and Day Use Area
• Todd Lake Campground and Day Use Area
• Shaws Fork Equestrian Campground
• Camp Run Campground
• Briery Branch Day Use Area
• Elkhorn Lake Day Use Area
• Staunton Dam Picnic Area
• Blue Hole Day Use Area
• Braley Pond Day Use Area
• Mountain House Day Use Area
• Hite Hollow Shooting Range
• West Side Shooting Range
• August Springs Wetlands Interpretive Trail Restroom
• Confederate Breastworks Restroom

The following facilities in the Lee Ranger District:

• Peters Mill Run/Taskers Gap OHV Trail Complex*
• Wolf Gap Campground and Picnic Area
• Little Fort Campground
• Elizabeth Furnace Family Campground, Day Use Area and Group Camp
• Camp Roosevelt Campground and Picnic Area
• Trout Pond Recreation Campground, Day Use Area, and Rockcliff Lake
• Hawk Campground and Group Camp
• Lions Tale National Recreation Trail Restroom

The national forests say their number one priority is the health and safety of the public.

You can learn more about updates on George Washington and Jefferson National Forests facilities and sites at https://www.fs.usda.gov/recmain/gwj/recreation. For the latest national forest status updates, you can check FS.USDA.gov/recmain/gwj/recreation.