Ice storms curb Skyline driving Road blocked by trees, snow for 6 weeks, but Va. park trails are open

March 15, 1998|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

The popular Skyline Drive in Virginia has been closed by fallen trees and snow since late January and will remain blocked several more weeks after its worst ice storms in decades.

The road and its environs atop the Shenandoah National Park have lost thousands of trees and tree limbs in three separate storms in late January and February. No one has been reported hurt, but damage is estimated at $700,000.

"In 25 plus years here, I've never seen ice storms so severe and the road closed so long," said park spokesman Lyn Rothgeb.

Added Clayton Jordan, a ranger for the park: "We've had more tree damage than in Hurricane Fran in September 1996."

Jordan said tens of thousands of trees and limbs in the 196,000-acre park were downed or damaged. Trees hit hardest were black gum, locusts, oaks, hemlocks and pines above the 2,000-foot elevation.

Crews have been working for weeks to clear obstructions. Many tree limbs are dangling over the winding two-lane road. Fallen trees and snowdrifts still clutter the roadway. Power and telephone poles also were snapped by ice in the park.

Scores of cars expecting to find the road open have been turned away from park entrances from Front Royal in the north to Afton Mountain in the south.

The park's 500 miles of trails have remained open to back country hiking and camping, but some dangerous conditions may exist. Upper trails are crossed by fallen limbs or meander below hanging branches.

A series of storms began with a three-day weather pattern Jan. 27that dropped rain on the Piedmont Plateau valleys and 12 inches of snow on top.

Then 20 inches of snow fell the first week of February, and 9 inches of snow dropped Feb. 17.

Freezing rain was interspersed with some of the snow and formed layers of ice up to 4 inches thick on the road and forests.

L "I've never seen ice 4 inches thick on trees," said Rothgeb.

Skyline Drive, closed six weeks now, is usually blocked only several days each winter by snow or ice.

In February 1997, 38,126 people used the park, about 25,000 in cars. The others were hikers and cross-country skiers.

This February, only 12,993 hikers, skiers and back country campers roamed the park. Other mountaineers have hiked this month.

No road opening dates have been announced.

"We don't have a good guess," Jordan said. "We know for sure the entire drive won't be open for several weeks. We have to clear much of the road. And in March we don't know what to expect from Mother Nature. But we're trying to open the central section by early April."

Fifty additional road workers joined a small maintenance crew March 1, so the section's Skyland Lodge and the Big Meadows campground and Big Meadows Information Center can open as planned April 3.

"We have frequent short shutdowns of the road, but not this. This is the park's fourth big storm in recent years," said Jordan, who said he thinks the storms of 1998 have been the roughest on trees.

Previous problems include severe flooding in June 1995 that created pockets of severe damage to the trail system, and a January 1996 blizzard that dropped up to 47 inches of snow on the upper elevations. Hurricane Fran dealt another blow in September 1996, toppling thousands of trees and closing trails, roads and bridges.

Shenandoah National Park, 125 miles from Baltimore, attracts almost 2 million visitors in a normal year. Fully opened in 1935, the narrow lengthy park sits astride the Blue Ridge, the eastern flank of the Appalachian Mountains.

For road, weather and other information, travelers are urged to call: (540) 999-3500.

Pub Date: 3/15/98

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