Posted by: davepidgeon | July 23, 2009

Taming our wild pursuits

The price of popularity may mean a loss of hiking a mountain on a whim. What do I mean? The day you could simply drive to the base of Old Rag in Shenandoah National Park and hike up its boulder-strewn spine may be coming to an end. From the Madison County Eagle:

Shenandoah National Park’s latest plans for future parking changes at the mountain’s trailhead in Nethers include a seasonal reservation system. Once the park completes the planned construction of a new parking lot at that site, officials will start requiring visitors to call ahead and pay to reserve a parking space, according to recently released park documents.

However, it’s unclear how soon any of the proposed parking changes – signed off by National Park Service Regional Director of the Northeast Region Dennis Reidenbach June 18 – will take place, according to park officials.

Old Rag’s popularity (about 50,000 visitors yearly, according to the article) stems from two things – reaching its 3,286-foot summit is an adventure that doesn’t require any technical climbing, just some careful but challenging boulder scrambles; and the epic views of the Virginia Piedmont fading into a blue horizon during a good-weather day. I’ve seen elementary-age children and geisers who should be hooked up to an IV complete the 6-mile roundtrip hike, which helps make Old Rag an icon of Shenandoah.

The benefits of limiting the number of hikers on Old Rag are clear. With so many people going up to the summit, a lot of them have never heard or don’t believe in the Leave No Trace principles. I’ve seen McDonald’s bags and candy wrappers strewn around the boulders, plus graffiti annoyingly applied to the famous rocks. There’s also the environmental consequences, which simply from my untrained eyes seems minimal except for the trash. A biologist may think differently, though.

I’m usually not in favor of such limitations like the ones the park service wants to impose on Old Rag. I like the scene in Sean Penn’s Into the Wild where Chris McCandless repeats incredulously that he’d have to wait many years to paddle down the Colorado River because only a limited number of permits are given out annually by the United States government. The pathos is derived from how unnatural it is to limit human beings from rafting a wild river or hiking a mountain. The other side of course would argue such limitations are for the safety of not only visitors but the natural resource that is the river or in this case Old Rag. The world has changed, there are a lot of people in it and we can’t love natural things to the point of killing them. See Lenny from Of Mice and Men.

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