If you’ve been paying attention to the hiking scene in Southwest Virginia over the past couple of years, you’re probably already aware that the Devil’s Bathtub Trail, located in Scott County, Virginia, is an absolute mess. The trail itself might be beautiful and in a remarkably pristine portion of the Jefferson National Forest, but social media buzz in the past several years has led to the trail’s popularity skyrocketing. Hundreds of visitors – most traveling from outside the immediate area and with little to no hiking experience – are cramming into the small trailhead lot every weekend to tackle a rather difficult trail. The amount of trash being dumped on the trail has ballooned, and many of the more disrespectful users are parking on signed private property or are blocking public roads providing access to locals’ homes when the trailhead lot becomes full. In the backdrop of all of this, rescues have become commonplace – just this week, in fact, a party of lost hikers had to be rescued at night involving a ground team and a helicopter.
So what do you do when you have a trail with these kinds of increasing user issues? For the past couple of years, the folks at the High Knob Conservation Agency have done an incredible job performing regular trash pickups, and volunteers with the Clinch Coalition have assisted the USDA Forest Service in improving marking and signage on the trail. The amount of trash collected during HKCA’s cleanups alone has been staggering: users are dumping everything from wet clothes to food packaging to used diapers in the backcountry, often mere feet from where visitors are enjoying the swimming holes near the Bathtub.
While these efforts can create a temporary fix for the above problems, trash and other issues related to overuse will likely continue. Only changing user attitudes that will fix them permanently, and that will require long-term educational efforts and a major shift in how visitors are thinking about and using our local public lands. And that’s where the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics comes in. The Colorado-based center is a world leader in developing common-sense approaches to minimizing negative impacts from overuse on recreational lands such as hiking trails, waterways, and other outdoor venues. Each year, the LNT Center selects a handful of “hotspots” to focus on for the coming year: places that are experiencing significant negative impacts from overuse and/or disrespectful use by visitors that are putting those public lands at risk. The Center then visits those sites over the coming year to provide special attention and expertise tailored to the specific needs of each hotspot.
The Devil’s Bathtub has recently been included among the Center’s list of 2016 hotspots, along with 15 other sites spread across the U.S. It’s a testament to just how bad conditions have become that the Bathtub has been included with much more heavily used sites such as Maine’s Acadia National Park and Lake Tahoe. In 2016, specialists from the LNT center will be visiting the Bathtub and our other regional hotspots (Breaks Interstate Park and Mount Rogers) to lend a hand and provide programming that will hopefully lessen some of the issues happening on the trail. Stay tuned to local media and the LNT website for more info as visit dates approach.
In the meantime, though, what can you do to help out? It’s simple: plan smart and hike smart. Carry all of your trash out of the woods on any hike, and never park in areas that are signed as private property and/or would block a roadway. And most of all, be sure to give reliable info on the Bathtub if you share it on social media. Many of the users coming to the Bathtub – and likely many of those involved in frequent rescues – seem to be viewing the Bathtub as a developed park and easy, short hike…leading to little to no preparation that could otherwise prevent any problems. The Bathtub is a hike that is neither overly short nor easy, and making sure that visitors are aware of the difficulties of the trail (and the time it takes to hike it) before they get into the woods is an easy step that can go a long way towards making things better for both the trail and those who enjoy it.
If you’re interested in learning more about LNT Outdoor Ethics, check out the website here.