Hurricane Sandy Forces 2-Day Shenandoah Closure

Hurricane Sandy dropped 8-10 inches  of ice-covered snow at Shenandoah National Park’s Thornton Gap and closed the park’s backcountry October 30th and 31st.  Concerns centered on fallen and “hazard” trees along the Appalachian Trail, which traces the park’s ridgeline.

According to Karen Beck-Herzog, Shenandoah National Park public affairs officer, wind speeds reached 38 m.p.h. at Big Meadows, milepost 55, but the snowstorm grew to the point where it knocked out weather instruments.  Officials began working to assess and repair trail damage and subsequently announced the reopening of the backcountry beginning November 1st.

Hurricane Sandy, worst storm since native American days, left the ridgeline of Maryland’s Gambrill State Park unscathed, however. The 1600-foot-high footpath bisecting the state park, closest mountain footpath to the Baltimore-Washington metropolis, offered an unobstructed route through the mountain laurel the following day.

Gambrill is situated 125 miles inland from the Atlantic. It is the southern terminus of the closest long-distance hiking trail to the Washington, D.C. metropolis:   the 16-mile Blue Trail, named for its blue tree blazes, which connects Gambrill and Cunningham Falls State Parks.

Ecological impacts of the storm were variable.  The valley city of Frederick saw extensive disruption, while the only storm evidence at Gambrill was a missed feeding cycle for the deer and wild turkey, which foraged in the post-hurricane mist.  High ground hiking environments at Pennsylvania’s Caledonia State Park, northern limit of the Blue Ridges; and at Catoctin National Park saw a similar absence of damage.  Where the storm collided with the base of the Blue Ridge mountains after turning north, oak stands near Thurmont, Maryland suffered extensive destruction, with entire tracts of forest leveled.

Sandy’s track took it onto the high plateau of Swallow Falls State Park in western Maryland, where it permanently altered the forest structure.  The eastern hemlock forest there, already compromised by wooly adelgid, readily yielded to the storm.  A portion of the major trail through the park now bypasses a wasteland of downed timber.  The storm hastened the disease-induced demise of virgin conifers that had eluded centuries of human and nature-induced threats.

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