Devil’s Bathtub (Devil’s Fork Loop Trail)

Length/Type: Approximately 3 miles, out-and-back (strenuous 7-mile loop option available); Difficulty: Strenuous (multiple technical stream crossings, dangerous in high water conditions); Other Considerations: parking and access are currently a challenge at the trailhead – see directions at the end of this post for details and a list of alternative hikes located close-by for when the trailhead lot is full. A smartphone-based guide for this trail is also available here.

It’s not a coincidence that we’ve decided to feature the Devil’s Bathtub as the first trail profiled on this site. Within the past two years, social media buzz has transformed this destination, tucked into an isolated and remote corner of Scott County, Virginia, from a little-known local gem into one of Virginia’s most popular hiking destinations. The allure of this hike is the destination: the Devil’s Bathtub is a deep but small pool of azure-tinged water that has been scoured out of surrounding bedrock along the Devil’s Fork – a scenic stream cascading off of the southern slopes of 4,200-foot High Knob.

These characteristics – clear, cold water in a high mountain holler, all rolled into a string of pristine swimming holes and with more than ten stream crossings thrown in along the way – have fueled the Bathtub’s explosion into an iconic regional hike. On summer weekends, literally hundreds of vehicles can descend on the trailhead, turning what looks like an idyllic hike into something resembling a crowded airport terminal. For this reason, we were hesitant to even profile this hike and potentially add fuel to the overcrowding wildfire. However, many of the Bathtub’s problems also stem from a lack of public information, and it’s our hope that this writeup can alleviate some of the confusion surrounding this hike and its destination. Regardless, if you choose to hike the Bathtub, be respectful of other users and local landowners and avoid this hike if the trailhead lot is full. We’ve provided suggestions for other nearby hikes as alternatives at the end of this post, and knowledge of Leave No Trace outdoor ethics is essential not just for this hike but for all others in our region.

The Hike

The path that many hikers refer to as the “Devil’s Bathtub Trail” actually does not bear that name at all. Instead, the trail leading to the Bathtub is formally designated the Devil’s Fork Loop Trail by the Jefferson National Forest. As its name suggests, the full trail forms an approximately 7-mile loop (when hiked clockwise) from the trailhead up the scenic Devil’s Fork, climbing the ridge up narrow Corder Hollow to the northern rim of the Devil’s Fork drainage, looping back to the trailhead from the north. Beyond the first 1.5 miles or so to the Bathtub, however, the loop becomes less well-managed and can be difficult to follow, especially when the forest floor becomes overgrown from summer into early fall. For this reason – and also as a result of a number of lost hiking parties attempting the upper loop in recent months – we have chosen to only detail the most popular 1.5 miles to the Bathtub here. If you do attempt the loop, make sure that you are adequately prepared, have some previous hiking experience, and are capable at route-finding if and when the trail becomes faint.

The hike begins at the Devil’s Fork trailhead, a small, gravel pull-out located at the end of the narrow entrance road. The trail begins behind a directional sign and up a series of wooden stairs on the north end of the lot, quickly turning left on an old roadbed, actually an abandoned railroad grade that once carried locomotives into the high cove above the Bathtub. (Turning right at the top of the stairs quickly brings you back out at the trailhead entrance road.)  The trail follows this roadbed approximately 0.25 miles downhill to the first of many creek crossings, this one crossing Straight Fork – the main stream that the Devil’s Fork joins on its way out into the Clinch Valley. This initial crossing is a great spot to gauge the suitability of the rest of your hike, as more than ten similar stream crossings will occur between here and the Bathtub – many technical and difficult at high water. A good rule of thumb is that if you don’t feel comfortable at this crossing, it’s best to turn around and come back when the water is lower and not as swift.

Shortly after this crossing, the trail splits in two directions, both marked with yellow blazes at a signed junction. This spot, in fact, is likely responsible for more lost hikers than any other spot along the route. The gut feeling at this junction is to follow the rightmost, seemingly more well-worn route, which initially follows an old roadbed. This direction, however, takes hikers counterclockwise around the Devil’s Fork Loop, up onto the ridge and away from the Bathtub. To continue to the Bathtub, follow a series of yellow blazes (and the posted signage) to take the leftmost route onto a true foottrail, which meanders briefly across a low bottom and then angles upstream into the Devil’s Fork drainage.

From here, the trail takes on a character that it will have for roughly the next mile or so to the Bathtub. Although that distance may paint a picture of easy hiking, don’t be deceived: the trail will instead hopscotch across the Devil’s Fork multiple times within that distance, for a total of just over ten stream crossings each way. These crossings can be surprisingly technical when the water is high. These water levels can vary greatly along the Devil’s Fork depending on recent weather, but be sure to take care in all seasons since the rocks found in the streambed are often slick, especially when wet. Sturdy footwear is essential for this part of the hike, and be sure to look carefully prior to crossing the stream for the continuation of the trail on the other side. All crossings are marked with yellow blazes, and virtually every crossing on the way to the Bathtub will ford the creek while headed upstream. Avoid the temptation of creating your own trails or following unblazed “cheater” trails – these enhance both erosion and confusion for new hikers.

One of multiple crossings on the Devil’s Fork, this one at low water. Use caution at these crossings, especially if visiting the Bathtub during high-water conditions.

After approximately 1.5 miles, you will reach a large swimming hole at the base of a small falls. While scenic and indeed great for swimming, this site is often mistaken by most first-time hikers as the actual Bathtub. In reality, the Bathtub itself can be found by crossing the stream one more time and turning left down a short side-trail scramble at a signed junction just upstream of the swimming hole. This scramble takes you down to the Bathtub and a long, swift-moving sluice of water cut into the hillside. Enjoy your time at the Bathtub, be sure to pack out your trash and wet clothing, and retrace your steps back to the trailhead.

Swimming hole and small falls just below the actual Devil’s Bathtub.

Nature Notes

Most visitors to the Bathtub often remark about how “pristine” the forest surrounding the Devil’s Fork is, and they’re right: very little recent disturbance has occurred to the forest surrounding the Bathtub, and virtually no human development exists upstream of the trailhead all the way to the head of the Devil’s Fork and Straight Fork watersheds.

That doesn’t mean that things have always been this way in the Devil’s Fork drainage, though. This area was once heavily logged and even mined in places prior to the establishment of this portion of the Jefferson National Forest, and the trail itself was not originally built for hikers but as a railroad grade to carry locomotives up into the watershed to move resources out into the Clinch Valley and its famous Clinchfield Line. If you look closely, echoes of this history can be found all along the hike to the Bathtub. Rusted cables and spikes can occasionally be seen along the trail, and the path even passes the rusting remains of an aging coal car early in its climb up the stream. (As an aside, notice how small this rail car appears compared to “typical” railroad cars seen today. This is because the rail line leading up the Devil’s Fork was a “narrow-gauge” line, with tracks more closely spaced to allow easier passage up into the watershed. Narrow-gauge rail lines like this one were common across the Appalachians during the peak of the mountains’ logging boom in the 1800s and early 1900s.)

Steep cliffs hem in the Devil’s Fork drainage, making the stream the only logical path for the original railroad line that forms the Devil’s Fork Loop Trail today.

Despite this history, the Devil’s Fork drainage is still one of the most pristine small watersheds in this part of the Virginia mountains today…and it’s easy to tell by looking at the stream itself. The Devil’s Fork is rarely clouded with sediment – a consequence of little development and erosion upstream – and often takes on a remarkably clear, blue-green hue. While the clarity of the water does indicate the health of the stream, its color comes from a different source. That blue-green, almost “neon” tint comes from the scattering of light produced by minerals dissolved in the water, a result of the surrounding rock strata steadily eroding through time.

Directions: From Fort Blackmore , Virginia (jct. of VA-65 and VA-72), drive north a short distance on VA-72 and turn left onto signed SR-619. Follow this road approximately 4.2 miles – bearing right along the way to stay on SR-619 (High Knob Road) where SR-653 (Hunter’s Valley Road) angles left – and then continue to follow SR-619 left across the bridge. 0.2 miles later, a rutted, one-lane gravel road turns left beside a white house and sign. Follow this road to its end at the trailhead parking area. (NOTE: This parking area is small, and no alternative parking is available. Do not park alongside the entrance road, on posted private property, or alongside gravel SR-619. Violators risk towing, and continued issues with users parking outside of the established trailhead lot risk the permanent closure of this trail. Don’t make yourself part of the problem: if the lot is full, be respectful and come back another day.)

Get to the trailhead and find the lot full? Don’t contribute to overcrowding; choose from one of the hikes below and come back on a day with less people crowding the trailhead. Each of the below hikes has equal – if not better- scenery to the Bathtub, is close by, and will let you still have an excellent hike without adding to ongoing overuse issues on the Devil’s Fork Trail:

 

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