If you live in central Appalachia – and maybe even if you don’t – there’s a good chance you’ve heard of the Devil’s Bathtub. The “bathtub” is the local moniker given to a small scour pool in the Devil’s Fork of Stony Creek, a stream cascading off of the south side of Scott County, Virginia’s High Knob. By Appalachian standards, it’s a pretty basic hike: scenic, crystal-clear water, a trail following an old rail grade that crisscrosses through the stream, a couple of small drops barely classifying as waterfalls…you get the picture.
Or maybe you don’t have to. There’s a good chance you’ve seen that picture yourself. Perhaps you’ve seen it on the Weather Channel. Or what about on the Rails to Trails Conservancy’s list of the nation’s top railbed hikes? Maybe you saw it featured as “the most beautiful place in Virginia” recently. No? Perhaps you remember it from the front page of Reddit or in one of its thousands of photos on Pinterest instead.
The case of the Devil’s Bathtub is, well, just plain weird. It’s not Southwest Virginia’s best swimming hole. It doesn’t have its highest waterfall. The trail doesn’t have the most stream crossings, contains precisely zero scenic overlooks, has no facilities located for miles, is far from the region’s wildest forest, and visitors from many areas literally drive past more scenic hikes to get there. In fact, we’ll just come out and say it: relative to the rest of the hiking trails in southwest Virginia and northeast Tennessee, the Bathtub and its companion hike are completely, utterly, vanishingly…mediocre.
So, why is a mid-grade trail being named as the Appalachians’ most iconic hike, and why are literal hundreds of people per week driving (many from across the country) just to cram into a 4-car gravel parking area and shuffle up to a swimming hole a little over a mile away? Your answer is a simple one: social media.
Before we continue, it’s worth mentioning a disclaimer. We’re not saying here that the Bathtub isn’t scenic, that it’s not worth seeing, or that it’s not an important regional asset. It’s all of those things, and it’s a unique little hike. But that’s about all it is, and it certainly isn’t worth the level of hype it’s received. In fact, much of that hype appears to have started as a mistake. So…how did we get here?
Let’s visit the start of that hype. Around three years ago, the trail up the Devil’s Fork was mostly a deserted place, barely visited even by locals. It had been mentioned in trail guides and online for years, but no one paid it much attention. That all changed sometime in 2014. It was around that time that, as best we can tell, the Bathtub began to show up on Pinterest, mostly in the form of color-enhanced and filtered photos from professional photographers ripped from the internet. These photos were also mixed in with a case of mistaken identity. Specifically, a rock formation in Ohio’s Hocking Hills State Park – also named the Devil’s Bathtub – also began to get attributed to a spot “in the mountains of Southwest Virginia.”
As things occasionally do on the internet, something in the photos caused the Bathtub to go viral. Based on buzz from social media during that time, it appears the mislabeled photos of Ohio’s Bathtub fueled massive regional interest, thanks to the fact that little in our region looks like the woods of a state park found hundreds of miles to the north. Whatever the cause, the Bathtub exploded: a few mentions early that year turned into literal thousands of shares on Pinterest and other platforms.
The Clickbait Craze
This social media trend continued into 2015. The trail gradually became more crowded, the narrow forest road more choked with cars each weekend as folks – most of them local – began to search for the odd-looking local swimming hole that was actually in Ohio. Things reached a head in the spring of 2015, though, when the Weather Channel selected the Bathtub as its top “hidden gem” in the state, part of a series of clickbait articles the site publishes to increase hits alongside weather forecasts. While this post got the photo right, the selection was downright odd: most other states had well-developed national landmarks or state parks featured. Something about the earlier social media frenzy had stuck, though, and the Bathtub had hit the big-time.
The trouble with clickbait pieces is that, once one site finds a theme that generates shares and hits, other sites follow suit. Since the Weather Channel feature, the Bathtub has been crowned the “most beautiful place in all of Virginia” by the vague content aggregator PureWow, named a top rail-trail by the Rails to Trails Conservancy (despite the fact that the Bathtub’s trail follows an old logging railbed, the narrow, occasionally rugged dirt path bears no resemblance to an actual rail-trail), and has been featured in more regional news outlets than can be counted. As best we can tell, these national websites haven’t visited the place at all before writing about it; they’ve simply found a trending photo on social media, dug up some info on the hike, and blasted it to the masses, trolling for ad clicks.
Since the Weather Channel’s feature in 2015, this typical Appalachian stream hike has become a backwoods nightmare. Hundreds of cars try to cram into the tiny gravel parking area each weekend, nearly all of them spilling out onto a nearby county road, blocking access to homeowners that live nearby. Visitors routinely use the yards of nearby homes as a bathroom, and used diapers, discarded clothing, and food wrappers often litter the trail. Rescue operations for lost and unprepared hikers can become commonplace in the summer, themselves sometimes impeded by the traffic jam of people searching for the place behind a nameless photo a friend shared online (see a video here). The situation has become so bad that the Kingsport Times-News (a regional newspaper) switched from publishing pieces encouraging folks to visit to pieces detailing problems with access and overuse all within a couple of years’ time.
Compounded in all of this is that the Bathtub, for better or for worse, seems to be getting many people into the woods for the first time. The majority of visitors on most warm-weather weekends aren’t seasoned hikers but twenty-somethings wearing flip-flops and carrying little more than a beach towel. Standard backcountry gear – things like water, food, a map, raingear, and sturdy footwear, the stuff that prevents mishaps in the woods – is a rarity for folks making the trek.
While it’s good to see new folks discovering hiking, this means that the Bathtub is the only trail many folks know exist in the region since it’s the only one being shared online. On a summer weekend when a melee of humanity descends on the Devil’s Fork, for example, nearby trailheads sit empty. These include the Little Stony National Recreation Trail a few miles away with its bigger waterfalls and deeper swimming holes, an actual rail-trail through the 400 foot-deep Guest River Gorge, and a high-elevation, stream crossing-filled stretch of the 19-mile Chief Benge Trail farther up High Knob. In short, it’s not really anything about the trail itself that’s getting the attention – it’s that the trail got attention to begin with.
What do you do about a viral trail?
The Devil’s Bathtub has ultimately become what may be one of the nation’s first “viral trails” – a place that, by the sole virtue of social media shares, has gone from anonymity to a public lands liability. While it’s likely far from the last trail to suffer this fate, the consequences are obvious. Discussions have festered about closing the Bathtub to public access to stem the destruction of its fragile ecosystem. Plans are being developed to possibly relocate parking areas and even the trail itself. And experts are being called in to address the rampant overuse issues the online attention has created.
While there’s a clear argument to be made that the attention the Bathtub has received is deserved (after all, it IS a beautiful place), there’s also an argument to be made that with social media sharing comes responsibility. If even a fraction of those naming the Bathtub as “the most outstanding ____” in Virginia or the nation had actually visited the trail first rather than swiping photos and content online, they would have seen that the trailhead was tiny, the trail itself in disrepair, and access limited. And, like the more accurate trail guides that came years before them, they likely would have stressed to users that there are problems with trying a hike to the ‘tub and that there are other, more scenic trails nearby when the parking area is full.
This responsibility also applies to those of us who promote our local trails. Knowing that problems like these exist at the Bathtub – and then repeatedly sharing posts that feature no information about access, trail length, difficulty, or other vital information – is the outdoor equivalent of shooting yourself in the foot, reloading, and shooting that same foot again and again and again, all while wondering why your foot hurts in the first place.
Don’t take it from us, though. Take a peek at some of the comments on a clickbait post created by an outside website and then shared this week by one local tourism group’s Facebook page below: everyone can’t wait to go see the Bathtub, yet there’s no mention at all in the original PureWow post of what to consider before making a trip. What then follows is an online game of telephone. Hundreds of people want to make the trip, no one’s getting accurate info on where to go or how to plan, but everyone still tries to make the journey, anyway. No one’s intentionally trying to cause harm to the trail, of course, but this is how overuse issues happen.
Thankfully, there’s a valuable chance here to turn useless clickbait posts into useful outdoor information, but so far we as a region have failed the Devil’s Bathtub (do see the update below, though, on some work taking place right now to remedy this problem). Instead, what we’re left with is an uninformed mass of people shuffling blindly towards an overcrowded mess in Scott County, Virginia each weekend, and as long as we keep failing how we promote outdoor sites like this one, overuse problems and lost hikers will continue. What’s the first thing you do after the rescue squad puts granny in the ambulance with her broken ankle and drops you back off at the car, after all? Take the selfie you snapped at the swimming hole and share it online.
(Update – 10 June 2016: Scott County Tourism, which covers the region that’s home to the Bathtub, is doing some great work making inroads towards combating the lack of the information that’s plaguing many users coming to the Bathtub via social media posts. Make sure to check out their site – detailed directions, parking info, and an overview of what the hike is like can be found on the front page. This type of info is a perfect way to overcome the confusion generated by much of the online attention coming from beyond the immediate region and described in the original post above.)