One of Virginia’s most popular hikes is planning to soon resume its ticket requirement. After March 1, anyone hiking on Old Rag Mountain needs a $1 ticket in addition to paying a fee to enter Shenandoah National Park.
“We have huge issues with overcrowding on that hike,” National Parks interpretive specialist Claire Comer told the Daily Progress. “We’re hoping to spread out the visitation.”
Old Rag stands 3,291 feet above sea level and first in the hearts of many hardcore hikers. But Comer said that its popularity has led to crowding on some fall weekends, traffic so extreme that famous chokepoints such as the photogenic fissure near the top called “the chute” have seen waiting lines of two hours.
“That’s the not the kind of visitor experience we want people to have,” said Comer. “Secondly, because of the fragile resources, we want to limit the possibility of people getting off the trail and trampling fragile vegetation.”
The proposed solution first enacted last year from March to November requires each visitor to go to recreation.gov and buy a $1 ticket indicating which day they want to visit. The park issued 800 tickets for each day last year: 400 of which could be reserved 30 days prior to the hike and the remaining 400 of which were released five days in advance.
“Hi all,” wrote one dejected ticket-buyer on an Old Rag Facebook page. “We have a group of 5 but were only able to get 4 tickets before it sold out on 10/22. Does anyone have an extra one? Thanks!”
She didn’t get an answer.
Comer said that although officials plan to resume the ticket system, they will still consider it a pilot program because a pair of devastating December ice storms consumed so much staff time and limited park officials’ ability to crunch the numbers and gauge visitor opinions.
“So we decided to do another year of the pilot program and get some additional feedback,” said Comer.
That means that, starting March 1, anyone wanting to hike Old Rag needs not just to get to the community of Nethers in Madison County. They will also need to visit recreation.gov and see if they can get a ticket. A ticket, Comer noted, is just a crowd-control device; it neither pays for entrance to the park nor ensures available parking.
Avid Greene County-based hiker and hike-blogger Lauralee Bliss said she supports the ticket program. She has not only seen crowded ridges but also people taking chances, getting lost and getting hurt.
“Even though it’s only a dollar, for some reason paying adds a little responsibility,” Bliss told The Daily Progress.
And while Bliss called the 800-person daily limit “generous,” Comer seemed aware that there may be disappointment.
“Will we have to turn people away on an October Saturday?” she asked. “Yes. But not if we can spread that visitation out.”