Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Big South Fork Celebrates National Park Week With Free Camping

Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area will be observing National Park Week from Saturday, April 19, through Sunday, April 27. Everyone is invited to celebrate all that America's more than 400 national parks have to offer with the theme "National Park Week: Go Wild!"

National Park Week will kick off with free backcountry camping permits as well as free camping at Alum Ford Campground for Saturday, April 19, and Sunday, April 20. Then join the park for the 14th Annual Spring Planting Day as well as National Junior Ranger Day on Saturday, April 26, with activities taking place at Bandy Creek.

From diverse wildlife and iconic landscapes to vibrant culture and rich history, our National Park System has something for everyone. For more information on the BSF, please click here.

Hiking in the Smokies

Blue Ridge Parkway Announces Temporary Closure

Beginning Tuesday, April 22, 2014, the Graveyard Fields Parking Area and Trailhead, at Milepost 418.8, will close for approximately 11 weeks. During the closure, the National Park Service will complete important phases of a comprehensive construction project underway at this highly used and popular recreation area. The project addresses important visitor services and safety issues, and includes construction of a new comfort station and doubling of the parking capacity.Complete closure of the parking area is necessary to protect the public during the project and expedite construction.

Graveyard Fields is one of the Parkway's most popular recreation areas, providing access to U.S. Forest Service lands and a variety of outdoor recreation experiences including the opportunity to view three waterfalls, pick seasonal blue berries, and disperse camp. Dangerous parking, heavy use of the area and lack of restroom facilities currently contributes to diminished visitor experiences and natural resource degradation. Planned and funded in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service, Federal Highways Scenic Byways Program, and the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, this project allows for a series of site improvements including:

· Expansion of the overlook parking area from 17 spaces to 40 spaces.

· Placement of a new three-unit, ADA compliant vault toilet restroom facility constructed adjacent to the parking area.

· Improvements to USFS trails that include installing boardwalk, constructing check dams, improving drainage, closing non-system trails, and modifying boardwalk sections to fit new design features.

· Installation of a new trail map at trailhead and four additional interpretive signs on the Graveyard Fields Loop Trail.

· Reducing the speed limit in the area and eliminating parking along the road shoulder.

Addressing safety issues at the site is a paramount concern for the Parkway. Blue Ridge Parkway Superintendent Mark Woods says, "Currently visitors to Graveyard Fields use the island of the existing lot, and several hundred feet of the narrow road shoulder in both directions, for parking. This situation is unsafe and has resulted in numerous incidents. We're pleased this expansion will relieve some of the congestion and improve safety for drivers and pedestrians at Graveyard Fields."

This project could not have been completed without the Parkway's philanthropic partner, the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation which is providing important financial support of the project.Foundation Director Carolyn Ward expresses her enthusiasm for the project stating, "We know that visitor use exceeds parking capacity every day of week throughout the summer and fall seasons at Graveyard Fields. The Foundation is pleased to provide a way to match people's love of this site with its long term management and stewardship."

Project managers ask for cooperation from visitors and to be aware of gates or lane closure signs in the area in order to expedite construction at the site. Parkway leadership encourages everyone to follow the progress of the project on social media at

Hiking in the Smokies

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Foreign Visitor Fractures Leg on Chimney Tops Trail

Last week Kathy and I spent several days hiking in the Smokies. On Tuesday, our first day in the park, we decided to hike the Chimney Tops Trail. As we were putting our gear together I noticed three people standing near Newfound Gap Road trying to flag someone down. They were finally able to stop a road construction vehicle, and after a few seconds, the truck sped away. I had no idea what was going on, so I continued packing my backpack.

One of girls among this group noticed we were getting ready to take off, and approached us. She told us there was a woman on the trail who broke her leg and needed a rescue. She wanted us to tell the woman that emergency services had been contacted, and help was on the way.

As we climbed up the trail we found out from hikers coming down the mountain (the old information superhighway) that the woman was from Italy, and didn't speak a word of English. Finally, after hiking about a mile-and-a-half up the trail, on one of worst sections of trail in terms of rocks, uneven surfaces, mud and water, we finally reached the injured woman. She was sitting on a rock with her husband, who didn't speak any English either. Fortunately they were with a companion who spoke a little English, at least enough to get by. There was also a woman there that had some advanced first aid training. She told us the woman, likely in her 60s, suffered a compound fracture of her lower leg (tibia). Believe it or not, but the injured woman was hiking the trail in ladies flats!

After relaying our information that help was on the way, and making sure that she had enough clothes to keep herself warm, or seeing if she needed any Ibuprofin, we continued towards the summit. After about a half-hour or so we began our return trip back down the mountain. By that time emergency personnel had already arrived, and were just beginning to move her down the mountain on a stretcher. Interestingly, the stretcher had a mountain bike wheel attached to it, allowing the rescuers to move fairly rapidly down the mountain. In fact, they were moving almost as fast as we were.

We arrived back at the trailhead at almost the same time as the rescue party. Here they transported the woman to an ambulance. In addition to local emergency medical personnel, the Great Smoky Mountains Search and Rescue operations team played a major part in the rescue as well.

We couldn't help but think that this family had to be extremely disappointed in having to deal with a situation like this while traveling abroad. Hopefully the woman is doing much better now, and is already at home.

As a result of this hike we have updated the Chimney Tops Trail page on our website.

Hiking in the Smokies

Monday, April 14, 2014

Major Section of the Appalachian Trail in Southwest Virginia Permanently Protected

After nearly 30 years, the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) in Giles County, Virginia near the New River will be on permanently protected lands through the collaborative efforts of the U.S. Forest Service, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), Columbia Gas of Virginia, Columbia Gas Transmission, Celanese Corporation, the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club, the Outdoor Club at Virginia Tech, and local governments. With this action there are only a few short segments of the 2,180-mile Trail corridor not in public ownership.

The final alignment of the A.T. in Giles County had remained unresolved due to challenges with Trail design, land ownership, and hiker safety issues. The current footpath location is on private property owned by Celanese and is open only at the discretion of the landowner. The current route parallels US 460, passes by Celanese’s manufacturing plant, provides minimal recreational or scenic values, is difficult to maintain and poses a barrier to certain land uses.

Through the collaborative efforts of the U.S. Forest Service and the ATC, in negotiation with the managers of Celanese and the local community and government, a new alternative route was identified on the Celanese property that provides a scenic and safe route from the New River to the summit of Peters Mountain. The new route alleviates impacts to adjacent private landowners, and minimizes the impact from nearby manufacturing operations. This is receiving broad public support. Celanese has generously donated an easement across 2.5 Trail miles for the new route.

The completed Trail will provide the local community with a much improved recreational experience. The proposed new A.T. route crosses the New River and U.S. 460 and immediately enters the woods. The new Trail will follow the New River for approximately one mile, offering scenic vistas of the river below before ascending a ridgeline onto Hemlock Ridge through terrain that provides a more remote experience and minimizes conflicts with Celanese’s operations. As it ascends Peters Mountain, it affords spectacular vistas of the surrounding terrain.

“The acquisition of this route is a landmark achievement for everyone who cares about the Appalachian Trail,” stated Ron Tipton, executive director/CEO of the ATC. “With this action more than 99 percent of the entire Appalachian Trail corridor is now in public ownership and permanently protected. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy salutes all of the parties to this agreement, and especially the U.S. Forest Service and Celanese.”

This Trail project dovetails with the southwest Virginia regional interest in enhancing local economies through outdoor recreation with a new initiative called “Appalachian Spring.” The A.T. provides numerous recreational opportunities, including hiking, camping, picnicking, hunting, observing wildlife, photography, and backpacking, to numerous populations along the length of the Trail. In western Virginia alone, the proposed new Trail section lies within a short distance of several of the largest population areas, including Blacksburg, Roanoke, Harrisonburg, Lynchburg, and Charlottesville.

This final protected section of footpath represents a monumental milestone as the A.T. management partnership can now fully apply its resources toward the protection of critical viewsheds, improvements to trail sustainability and expanding the corridor of A.T. lands. A $40,000 grant from Columbia Gas of Virginia and Columbia Gas Transmission will allow the ATC to complete this capstone Trail project. The ATC plans to build the 2.5 miles of new Trail during the Spring of 2014 and open this final section as quickly as possible, providing access to visitors from the local community, across the U.S., and around the world.

“The opportunity to make the final protected section of the Appalachian Trail a reality is consistent with our sustainability strategy and philosophy to be good stewards of the environment,” said Carl Levander, president, Columbia Gas of Virginia. “Each day, we work hard to build and maintain a modern energy infrastructure which incorporates innovative environmental conservation approaches like this collaborative effort in Giles County.”

Hiking in the Smokies

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Celebrate National Park Week 2014 With FREE Admission and Special Events

The National Park Service, in partnership with the National Park Foundation, recently announced that the nation’s 401 national parks will celebrate National Park Week April 19-27 with a free admission weekend and special events nationwide.

The theme for this year’s National Park Week invites visitors to “Go Wild” for history, nature, culture, wildlife, and fun in America’s national parks. Additional information, including a list of National Park Week events nationwide can be found online at

“National Park Week is a great time to discover the diverse wildlife, iconic landscapes, vibrant culture, and rich history found in our national parks,” said National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis. “Every park offers a different experience so I invite everyone to join the celebration and get to know a park. And, to get the party started, all national parks will have free admission on April 19 and 20.”

Using the resources on the National Park Week website, visitors can plan park experiences based on their specific interests. A calendar of events includes many special National Park Week programs, including National Junior Ranger Day activities on April 26. Young visitors can take part in family-friendly activities and be sworn in as junior rangers at many parks. Visitors using the website can also share national park photos, videos, and tips, and learn about all the ways to help support national parks all year.

National Park Week also offers many opportunities for the public to explore local parks, trails, and architectural gems sustained by National Park Service programs such as the Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance program and theNational Register of Historic Places.

Hiking in the Smokies

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Hiking a Classic: Mt. LeConte

The hike to Mt. LeConte via the Alum Cave Trail is one of the classic hikes in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There are several trails in the park that are far longer, gain more elevation, and have steeper climbs, but the Alum Cave Trail is unmatched in its combination of interesting geological features, history, high adventure and stunning views. Below is a video highlighting many of the sights hikers will enjoy along the way. For more detailed information on this classic Smokies hike, please click here.

If you do plan to visit the Smokies this year, please note that our website offers a wide variety of accommodation listings to help with your vacation planning.

Hiking in the Smokies

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Two Found Guilty In Major Auto Break-In Case in Shenandoah National Park

Another reason to not leave valuables in your car while hiking - or at least lock them in your trunk:

On October 21st, Shenandoah rangers arrested two people – Florida residents Hataria Whitehead and Stephanie Kantz – who were suspected of committing two vehicle burglaries (‘car clouts’) within the park. Numerous items of stolen property were found inside their vehicle, including various IDs, bank checks, electronic equipment, and over 30 credit cards. 

The case was transferred to the Investigative Services Branch. The ensuing investigation revealed that the pair had been involved in a type of aggravated identity theft referred to as ‘Felony Lane Gang’ schemes. In summary, the scheme involves breaking into vehicles to steal identification documents, credit cards and bank checks. The perpetrators then cash one victim’s bank checks by using a separate victim’s bank information and identification.

The thieves frequently work in teams and wear disguises in order to appear like their victims. They use the outermost lane at a bank’s drive-thru to make their fraudulent transactions, thus earning the nickname the ‘Felony Lane Gang.’ They also use the victims’ credit card(s) to purchase gift cards that can be later used as cash.

At the time of their arrest, Kantz and Whitehead had in their possession over $3,500 in U.S. currency and 111 gift cards valued at more than $3,800.

Several state and federal task forces exist throughout the country to combat these traveling, Florida-based groups. With the assistance of the United States Attorney’s Office, the United States Secret Service, local law enforcement agencies, corporate fraud investigators and many victims, investigators uncovered evidence which linked Kantz and Whitehead to numerous cases in several different jurisdictions and identified more than 50 additional victims. This evidence was then used to indict them federally under conspiracy and various fraud-related statutes.

Whitehead is also wanted by the state of Florida on burglary and grand theft charges. Knowing he had an active warrant at the time of his arrest, Whitehead falsely identified himself as his brother. His true name was not known until after two court appearances, during which Whitehead testified (and lied) under oath about his identity. He was subsequently charged with two counts of perjury.

Pursuant to the terms of a plea agreement, both Kantz and Whitehead were found guilty of conspiracy to commit fraud using identification documents of another, conspiracy to commit fraud using access devices, and aggravated identity theft – the proceeds of which totaled more than $70,000.

The aggravated identity theft statute (18 U.S.C. 1028A) carries a mandatory minimum sentence of two years imprisonment, which must be served consecutively to any other sentence that is received. A forfeiture provision for the items that were seized in the case was also included in the plea agreements.

Kantz and Whitehead have been in custody since their arrest and are scheduled to be sentenced on June 12th.