Park and police prepare for another busy weekend

FRONT ROYAL – Last weekend, traffic was at a standstill from Shenandoah National Park’s entrance, down Stonewall Jackson Highway, along South Street and back nearly to Linden.

Jennifer Flynn, Shenandoah National Park superintendent, told the Board of Supervisors on Wednesday that of the 17,346 vehicles that visited the park last weekend, 6,000-plus were in Front Royal, which equaled out to about nine cars entering the park per minute.

“We’re bracing for a similar weekend,” she said.

If as many tourists arrive as last weekend, Flynn said there is not much that the park can do to expedite traffic.

“I’m not sure how much faster we could go without people just not stopping at all,” she said.

Flynn said that a few times last weekend the park did “flush” visitors through the entrance, opening the gates and letting cars enter. She said this eases traffic only for a few minutes because cars in the park soon back up to the gate.

While Flynn said the recent heavy rains have made for beautifully flowing waterfalls and streams, the weather has resulted in a significant dip in visitors. At the end of September, she said visitation was down 14 percent from last year’s 1.46 million visitors. She said the park in October experienced similar low numbers, which all changed when foliage struck “pretty much all at once” last weekend.

“We had been watching the weather, and it was predictable. We knew there was this pent-up demand and as soon as we finally got a gorgeous weekend, everyone who ever thought it was a good idea had the same good idea,” she said.

Front Royal Police Capt. Crystal Cline said over the phone that the department received 91 calls from midnight Friday to midnight Sunday and blocked intersections impeded officers’ ability to promptly respond. She added that there were at least six minor vehicle mishaps directly related to the park traffic.

She said her department is working with the Public Works Department to erect signage directing vehicles not to block intersections and pointing them to proper lanes.

Front Royal Police Capt. Jason Ryman said over the phone that he has never seen so much park-related traffic, with the biggest issue being there is nowhere to direct the cars. He said the department is calling in a few extra officers this weekend who will man some of the intersections that were constantly blocked.

He told residents to “please be patient” and “avoid those main drags,” adding that most locals know how to best use side streets to avoid the congestion.

Flynn said the park is beginning to develop plans for a new entrance station in Front Royal, but that would not be implemented until at least next year.

She said that as annoying as the traffic can be, “having a national park as a neighbor is a good thing.” While she did not have a breakdown of how much money tourists bring into specific localities, she said in 2017 that $95.8 million was spent by tourists in communities located within 60 miles of the park’s boundaries.