Shenandoah Park comes out of hibernation

Most visitors since 2001, albeit traffic counter at Thornton Gap out of order

The 1.43 million people who visited Shenandoah National Park in 2016 were the most recorded in 15 years — since 2001, when the nation’s capital was under terrorist attack.

During that difficult year some 1.5 million visitors escaped to the peacefulness of Shenandoah, its northern gate in Front Royal just over an hour’s drive from Washington, D.C.

Historically speaking, the highest attendance ever recorded in Shenandoah was 2.8 million visitors in 1977. Indeed, the period from 1961 to 1978 averaged over 2 million visitors annually. The lowest number — 41,831 — was recorded in 1943 during the height of World War II.

This year has gotten off to a good start for Shenandoah attendance, thanks to the warmest February on record. During the month large numbers of day-trippers traveled the often snow-covered (if not entirely closed) Skyline Drive, which runs the length of the park for 105 miles.

That said, the Rappahannock News has learned that the traffic counter at the park’s Thornton Gap Entrance Station above Sperryville was still not working in February after being struck by lightning last August 17. So arguably the exact number of visitors to the park in 2016 isn’t known.

“Traffic counter at Thornton Gap still broken,” a park employee noted in an online log. “It was a very warm and pleasant February. We had an increase of 121 percent of the total amount of sales at TGES [Thornton Gap Entrance Station]. All other stations showed an increase of [February] traffic between 9 percent and 54 percent. I increased TGES [using past averages] by 70 percent.”

It was a similar log in January 2017: “Used the five year average for Thornton Gap. The traffic counters are down,” the employee wrote. And in December 2016: “Counter still not working at Thornton Gap Entrance.”

Calls to the park to find out if the traffic counter has since been fixed were not returned.

Meanwhile, this past weekend the newly confirmed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke hailed 331 million recreational visits to America’s national parks in 2016 — a third consecutive all-time attendance record for the National Park Service.

“Our National Parks are our national treasures, and it’s important to recognize that they are more than just beautiful landscapes,” said Zinke. “Growing up near Glacier National Park, I understand the value these places bring to local economies and in preserving our heritage. As we enter into a second century of service and visitation numbers continue to increase, we will focus on maintenance backlogs and ensuring these special places are preserved for future generations.”

Snow permitting, facilities in Shenandoah Park will begin opening this month of March and will continue to open through the spring.

Harry F. Byrd Visitor Center, located at mile 51 of Skyline Drive, will continue serving visitors on weekends until March 23 when the visitor center will begin operating 7 days a week. The Dickey Ridge Visitor Center, located at mile 4.6 Skyline Drive, will open 7 days a week beginning April 7.

Campgrounds will operate on the following schedule: Big Meadows Campground will open March 24; Lewis Mountain Campground will open March 31; Loft Mountain and Dundo Group campgrounds will open May 3.

Be advised that the opening of Mathews Arm Campground will be delayed until September 1. The entire wastewater system that supports the Mathews Arm Campground is under construction. This project began in the fall of 2016.

Elkwallow, Pinnacles, South River, and Dundo Picnic Grounds are currently open. The remaining picnic grounds will operate as follows: Big Meadows will open March 24; Lewis Mountain will open March 31; and Dickey Ridge Picnic Grounds will open April 7.

Concessioner-operated restaurants, lodges, and associated facilities will operate as follows: Lewis Mountain Cabins and Lewis Mountain Campstore will open March 17; Big Meadows Wayside and Big Meadows Shower/Laundry will open March 23; Skyland Resort will open March 30; Loft Mountain Wayside will open April 6; Elkwallow Wayside and Skyland Stables will open on April 7; Loft Mountain Campstore and Loft Mountain Shower/Laundry will open May 3; Big Meadows Lodge will open May 10.

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John McCaslin is the editor of the Rappahannock News. Email him at