The News Desk is a collection of news, notes and breaking items affecting the Fredericksburg community.
Crowds flock to reopened park
About 10:30 a.m. Sunday the vehicles started arriving
in earnest at the Thornton Gap entrance to Skyline Drive in the Shenandoah National Park.
By 11 a.m. the two-line backup was 20 cars deep,
a pace that kept up until
The traffic flow was so hectic that park rangers walked down the lines handing out the information leaflets that the employee at the ticket window would normally give visitors.
And everyone from the fee collectors to the leaflet rangers to the visitors who waited patiently in line had one thing in common—smiles on their faces.
Everyone seemed happy to have this and every other U.S. national park open again following the 16-day federal government shutdown that ended Thursday.
With fall color above 2,500 feet at its peak this week, the reopening couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.
By noon it was difficult to find a parking spot at virtually any of the scenic overlooks along Skyline Drive as tourists from all over the United States and any number of foreign countries snapped photos in the autumn-like 45-degree temperatures.
While almost everyone interviewed had bad things to say about Congress and the federal government, their anger was generally tempered by nature’s beauty and their ability to once again enjoy the park that their tax dollars supports.
With an azure blue sky looking down onto mountainsides of red, yellow and gold, it was too nice a day to be angry. This was just a time to enjoy.
For some, the park reopening came just in the nick of time. Kristal Jackson, a post-doctoral student from Australia now studying in Minnesota, thought she would miss her first opportunity to show her parents Skyline Dive in all its autumnal glory.
“They got in from Australia last week and we just drove around taking side roads until the park reopened,” she said. “We were quite happy to be able to come here today.”
Debra West had traveled from Lake Tahoe, Calif., to enjoy the Shenandoah National Park fall experience with her daughter, Patricia, who lives in Washington and ironically works for the Department of Interior (which oversees the national parks).
“We planned this trip last April,” said Patricia, who joked that she just completed “a 16-day weekend from work.”
Debra says the duo was “nervous” about their chances of getting into the park but is thankful everything worked out.
For James Blacklin of Columbia, Md., the shutdown caused a reshuffling of plans.
“I had reservations to camp at Big Meadows last week but the park was closed,” he said. “I had some trouble changing my vacation to this week but it all worked out.”
Even Backlin, a human behavioral research expert, admitted he could not figure Congress out.
Colleen and James Barker, both of whom work for Spotsylvania County schools, had also planned to host her parents, who live in Wisconsin, and show them the Blue Ridge Mountains’ fall splendor this week.
“We didn’t know until the day before if we would be able to come up here,” said Colleen’s mother, Kris Barthel. “Our plans were up in the air.”
Unsure about lodging in the park immediately after the reopening, the two couples stayed in Front Royal Saturday night.
According to the desk clerk at Skyland, the lodge and cabins were full Friday and Saturday night but he noted that there were rooms available Sunday night, which is unusual for the month of October.
While tourists crammed the overlooks and restaurants at Skyland and Big Meadows, the crowd at Pinnacles picnic area was less than half of what would normally be seen on a Sunday afternoon in October. Those who did show up had no trouble finding a grill or picnic area.
John Gaylord of Atlanta, who is hiking the Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia, also had good timing.
“I got to the park just as it reopened,” he said. “If it hadn’t, I was going to sneak in and take my chances.”
Gaylord said he talked to hikers who were kicked out during the shutdown.
The smiles on top of the mountain could not compare to those of the local merchants in Sperryville who lost thousands of dollars because of the government shutdown.
“Things are finally back to normal,” said Phyllis Swindler whose family operates Beech Springs Fruit Stand and Quilt Shop. “It began picking up Thursday.”
“Business really picked up Friday,” said Eddie Gore, whose family operated Atkins’ Fruit Stand.
“Yesterday and today have been great,” added his wife, Barbara.
The Gores estimate that they lost 90 percent of their normal Columbus Day weekend revenue because of the park closure.
“We won’t get that back,” said Eddie.
Still, Gore and Swindler and the other merchants at the foot of the Shenandoah National Park have one or maybe two more weeks in which to try and salvage a season partially lost to the federal government shutdown.
Unlike last week, these mountain merchants had little time yesterday to blast Congress and the federal government over a shutdown that cost them big bucks.
On Sunday they were too busy doing what they usually do in October—selling to tourists and, like many Americans, trying to make the best out of a bad situation.