Shenandoah National Park closes popular trails where social distancing became impossible

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SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK, Va. (WHSV) — UPDATE (March 25):

Photo of Nethers Road in Madison County that was later closed to all but local traffic. | Credit: Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park remains open during the COVID-19 outbreak to provide people a chance to enjoy nature – but after so many people flocked to popular trails that social distancing to the proper extent was impossible, they're having to make changes.

The national park announced that, in response to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines, they're putting in place additional modifications to their operations to support efforts to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

As of March 25, the Shenandoah National Park closed the Old Rag and Whiteoak Canyon-Cedar Run circuit hikes.

Those are two of the most popular hikes in the entire park, but they recently became overwhelmed by visitors, making the CDC's social distancing guidelines impossible to follow.

Park rangers say that was especially true at multiple congestion points along the trails at rock scrambles, waterfall viewpoints and the summit of Old Rag. The park also cannot assure that visitors are able to meet the CDC’s hand sanitation guidance in those remote locations.

Also, the Madison County Sheriff's Office has closed Nethers Road (Route 600) and Weakley Hollow Road (Route 600) leading to the trailheads for those hikes indefinitely.

The National Park Service is working with federal, state, and local authorities to monitor the pandemic and work to ensure compliance with all guidelines and orders.

Outdoor spaces at Shenandoah National Park remain accessible to the public in accordance with the latest guidance, and fees remain waived for all visitors.

Unlike some other national parks, however, the park is not closing at this point.

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As many businesses are closing as COVID-19 restrictions continue, Shenandoah National Park is still open. However, after this weekend, the park is reminding visitors to follow social distancing, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines.

Throughout the weekend, SNP posted several photos on their page showing crowded parking lots and large groups of people. Park spokesperson Sally Hurlbert said they had a lot of people visiting the park, which is common when there is no entrance fee, like is the case right now for all national parks.

Hurlbert said while the park is a great place to visit, people should still be aware and follow public health guidelines.

"As long as people are remembering the social distancing of six feet or more, then they should be okay,' Hurlbert said.

Many of the more popular trails in the park were very crowded, and the Madison County Sheriff's Office closed access roads to Old Rag and Whiteoak Canyon because there was no way to ensure safe social distancing with those levels of crowds.

Hurlbert said the park is monitoring everything, and there could be changes.

"This is a fluid situation, and we can change things rapidly, so be flexible," Hurlbert said.

She added that if people plan to visit the park and see a busy trail, they should find a less busy one. They're also reminding everyone to remember to stay at least six feet away from others, practice good hygiene, and stay home if you have symptoms.

At this time, there is no "shelter in place" order for Virginia, and Virginians are still allowed and encouraged to spend time outside — the key to social distancing isn't staying inside. It's staying a safe distance away from other people.