Tuesday, April 14, 2020

COVID-19 Virginia Hiking Guide

When the pandemic started really gaining momentum in March, my trail club decided to shut down all group hikes.  As a result, several people contacted me asking about where to go hiking during these trying times, because I hiked over 40 National Forest trail miles in March before I came across my first hiker or biker.  Here are some tips for finding trails without the crowds.  Remember to think local first, but find places without crowds.  Go further only if local locations are crowded.

1. Avoid any trail and any vista that has traditionally been popular. At this point, they probably aren't open anyway!  The National Park Service has closed down Shenandoah National Park and many of the access points surrounding the Park - such as the roads to Old Rag, White Oak Canyon and Sugar Hollow west of Charlottesville. The Blue Ridge Parkway's northernmost miles are closed - likely to keep the crowds away from Humpback Rocks. People flocked to these locations in good times, and people flocking there during the pandemic caused them to get closed down.
2. Weekdays are better than weekends.
3. All campgrounds and day use areas in the George Washington/Jefferson National Forest are closed as of this writing.  That means no Crabtree Falls or Wolf Gap to Big Schloss.  No bathrooms!  Other parking lots might be open, however.   Driving past Mountain House Day Use Area, the picnic area was closed, but parking for hikers going into Ramsey's Draft Wilderness appeared to remain open, as of Saturday April 11.  I'd advise calling the North River Ranger District: 540-432-0187.  Your local ranger district office may be closed, but it is worth trying.
4. Access lots and access trails to the Appalachian Trail are shut down.  Too many people!  If your desired hiking location is near the AT, check the National Forest website for closures, call the ranger district office, or figure it is closed.
5. If you live in Central Virginia, heading north is probably worse than heading south.  Massanutten near Signal Knob is now the closest place for NoVa hikers to access.  Don't head up there.  Trails closer to West Virginia, such as in the Warm Springs Ranger District, are much more likely to be open and empty.
6. All of this may force you to find trails you haven't used before.  If that is the case, you should have a good sense of direction and know how to use maps and a compass.  These days, police departments do not need to spend their time tracking down lost hikers.
7. Expect to drive further than normal for nationally administered trails.  If you live in Roanoke, you will find McAfee Knob, Tinker Cliffs and Dragon's Tooth are all closed (thanks crowds!).  But other Jefferson National Forest trails, further away from Roanoke, probably remain open.
8. If you are an experienced hiker and know how to follow a trail without getting lost, there are great resources online for finding trails that are empty.  These include:

Hiking Upward.  (Full disclosure: I write for that site.)  You can search according to multiple parameters, and one is solitude.  Look for trails rated 4 and above for solitude and you should be in good shape.

Forest Service Trails List.  This list can provide a jumping off point for further research.

REI's Hiking Project.  Info on trails and downloadable GPS data for many trails in Virginia's National Forests.

Alltrails. Search hiking routes that others have downloaded.  Descriptions often tell you how much use the trails get.

9. Have a Plan B in mind.  An example: I drove to a trailhead a couple of weeks ago and found 4 cars in the lot.  So I kept driving to another, further trailhead for a different trail reaching the same vista, and hiked the entire way without encountering another hiker.  Another example: The entire Braley Pond area is closed at the Braley Pond Road off of US 250 west of Staunton.  So if you want to use this to access trails entering into Ramsey's Draft, you are out of luck.  But there is a trailhead for the Crawford Knob Trail on 250 a little east of Braley Pond Road and a trail that connects.  And there is a seasonally open Forest Service Road west on 250 that takes you to the trails you would access from Braley Pond (Link).  You CAN still get there, you just need to be ready to change your starting point.
10. Get out early.  As an example, I hiked an Albemarle County preserve on a Tuesday morning.  I saw no one for the first 5 miles.  Over the last 2 miles, I saw 5 people.  The lot had a single car when I arrived at 9AM, and 6 when I left at noon.
11. When hiking out-of-the-way trails, expect that their conditions might not be in the kind of shape that you are used to. And trails will be worse in June than they are in April, due to the growing season. Many federal agencies are discouraging or prohibiting volunteers from conducting trail work during the shutdown.  Don't complain - instead resolve to help out when the pandemic is over.  If we ALL pitch in...
12. Remember that bathrooms and restaurants will be harder to find as you travel to and from the trailhead.  And folks in rural convenience stores may look more distrustfully at a customer they don't recognize.  For all they know, you just arrived from Manhattan. So leave your home prepared. Interstate rest stops and places like Sheetz appear to still be open, as of this writing.  Assuming you want to risk those places!

Stay at home if you can, and don't travel further than you need to.  Leave a hike plan with someone at home. Above all, stay safe!

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  1. Solid advice. I have been staying local since I live just outside Pocahontas State Park. I try not to hike or bike at peak times and I use trails that aren't used as much. I have also do some off-trail exploring which I know I am not going to run into anybody.

  2. Good option! I refrained from discussing bushwhacking as I don't want some reader lost in the woods, and we are at the end of "bushwhacking season" as Spring growth starts.

  3. Thanks so much for this very helpful update with useful tips. I am really bummed that places where I normally see very few people are officially closed (there are lots of uncrowded trails in Shenandoah National Park, e.g.). Trying to find somewhere where I can do a 2 or 3-day backpacking trip in solitude within 2 or 3 hours of DC.
    - Dena


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