In August of 2021, Shenandoah National Park released a proposal to make several changes for visitors: 1) Increase the campground nightly fee from $15-20 to $30, 2) Begin charging a fee for backcountry camping, and 3) Establish a pilot program for Old Rag visitor access.
In January, the park officially announced the final details of the pilot program:
- Starting March 1, 2022, visitors of Old Rag will need to obtain a day-use ticket in advance of their visit.
- While being labeled a one-year pilot, day-use tickets will only be required March 2022 through November 2022.
- Ticket availability will be limited to 800 per day, with 400 available 30 days in advance and the remaining 400 available 5 days in advance.
- Ticket fees will be $1.
- Entrance fees to the park still apply in addition to this ticket fee.
- Tickets must be purchased through https://www.recreation.gov/. Tickets will not be available at the Old Rag fee station.
Last year, MAC submitted comments to the Park on their draft pilot program proposal, including input from the community about how the program could affect climbers specifically as well as equitable access for all visitors. We are disappointed to see that changes were not made to the pilot program to address any of these concerns. MAC will continue to monitor the pilot program and relay feedback to the Park. If you have experiences to share, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
In August of 2021, the Shenandoah park Superintendent held several online sessions to discuss the details of these proposed changes, as well as the reasoning behind them. The reasons behind the proposed fee increases are easy to understand. Consistent congressional underfunding has impacted the National Park System for years, and Parks have often lacked the financial resources and staff capacity to keep up with growing visitation.
Similarly, anyone who has hiked Old Rag over the past several years understands the environmental impact and overcrowding that occurs with this increased visitation. The Old Rag mountain hike is one of the most popular hikes in the mid-Atlantic region and the most popular destination in the Park. Hiking Upward gives this hike a solitude rating of 0. The rock scrambling sections often become a bottleneck, forcing hikers to wait in line for a significant amount of time. Clearly this is a concern in a wilderness area.
Data Behind The Old Rag Pilot Program
In 2019, a study was conducted to better understand the impact of increased visitation at Old Rag. Among other things, this study included measuring:
- Daily visitor use, tracked by point of entrance.
- Number of people at a particular point in the rock scramble portion known as the Chute, as well as the wait time.
- Number of people at the summit.
Areas of focus in the 2019 study.
The results of this study put numbers to the issues at Old Rag:
- Visitor usage originated primarily from the Ridge Trail (96%). This usage peaked at over 1,800 people in one day. The remainder of visitors either traveled counter clockwise, starting with the Weakley Hollow fire road, or originated from the Berry Hollow parking area.
- The daily maximum number of people in the Chute area of the rock scramble ranged from 22 to as much as 196. Related, the hiking time ranged from as little as 15 minutes to over two hours (126 minutes).
- The daily maximum number of people at the summit ranged from 45 to 143.
Our Concerns With The Pilot Program
We understand the issues at Old Rag and appreciate the Park’s efforts to mitigate the problem. However, we do have concerns about this program’s potential to unduly impact climbers with no benefit to the problems the Park is attempting to address.
Climbers Aren’t The Problem
As the study indicates, the overwhelming majority of visitors to Old Rag use the Ridge Trail. The vast majority of climbing areas at Old Rag are best accessed from Berry Hollow, which the study shows is the least used origination point. The one area accessed from the Ridge Trail is located below the summit as well as the rock scramble. In fact, the ideal approaches for all climbing areas avoid the rock scramble; both for the traffic as well as the inherent challenges in carrying a large pack through tight constructions. There are areas accessed from Berry Hollow that require passing the summit, but climbers are at Old Rag to reach their destination area, not stop at the summit for the views.
The Potential Threat to Equitable Access
In addition to the fact that climbers are not part of the crowding problem at Old Rag, we also have concerns that this program will reduce equitable access to Old Rag for the climbers. Advance reservation systems as well as additional fees (we have no way of knowing what the cost will be should this program live past its pilot phase) may discourage or prevent some members of the climbing community from enjoying this resource. The proposed system may favor visitors with more flexible schedules, higher incomes, and other factors that would contribute to ease of advance planning. Climbing is also more weather dependent than hiking, as rock can sometimes take multiple days to dry from rain or snow melt before it is safe and feasible to climb. As a consequence, advance planning can be generally more difficult for climbers.
Something common with park proposals but missing in this one is the presence of alternative solutions. Perhaps this is because this is only a pilot program. We encourage the park to consider alternative solutions. Alternatives could include holding a certain number of tickets for walk-ins, or releasing tickets unused by a certain time for walk-ins. Assuming this program continues past the pilot phase, the fee will likely increase. An alternative that allows for some recreationists to access Old Rag the day of the visit could also reduce the total cost for those visitors.
To be fair, as this program has not yet begun we do not truly know how it will impact climbers. We will do our best to monitor the situation as it develops and we ask the Park track and publish metrics throughout this pilot period. Tracking when reservations are made, which access points visitors are using, and how many reservations are unclaimed may help us all better understand the impact of the system on recreation at Old Rag.
If you experience any issues while at Old Rag, please let us know so that we can better track the impact it has on the climbing community.
Link photo credit: Peter Jensen