DUNGANNON, Va. (WJHL) – When it comes to hikes and treks in the region, few have created more cautionary tales than the Devil’s Bathtub.
From backcountry injuries to large groups of hikers becoming stranded, the trail is synonymous with risky business for some. But what is it that makes the trail so challenging, and why hasn’t it been tamed?
For Pam Cox, Scott County’s director of tourism, the trail is easy to underestimate. In fact, it took her three separate tries to ever reach the landmark that the Devil’s Fork trail is named after.
“I finally succeeded on my third attempt,” Cox said. “The first couple of times, I fell in the creek initially and was wet and it was December, so I had to leave.”
She eventually completed the trip and wrote about it on the county’s tourism site, describing the hike as a scramble over narrow ledges and creek crossings that can turn on a dime.
“You might not even think that you are stepping onto a slick area,” Cox said. “But it is slick. People have fallen, they’ve broken arms, they’ve hurt themselves seriously.”
When you arrive at the Devil’s Fork trailhead near Dungannon, you’re presented with two options to reach the landmark. If you go right, you’ll have to hike around seven miles to the tub and back with minor creek crossings. If you go left — the shorter and riskier trail — you’re going to cross a creek 13 times. If the water is high, the challenge of that route is multiplied.
Cox strongly recommended avoiding the trails on rainy days, as the steep holler walls can funnel water into the trail’s creeks and trap people who aren’t able to cross them. In 2020, 20 hikers were stranded overnight after rising water cut off all escape.
“If you get to the first creek crossing and the water is past your shins, please don’t try to make the trek up through there,” Cox said. “It’s too dangerous, and it’s not going to be any fun.”
As a tourism director for the county, Cox said she doesn’t want to discourage the adventurous from giving the trail a shot. She does, however, want the public to be aware that the ‘difficult’ label placed on the trail by the Virginia Tourism Corporation means business.
“It is not suitable for children under 10 years old,” Cox said. “It’s just not going to be fun for you, nor is it going to be fun for them.”
In terms of gear, Cox recommended two hiking poles for stability and water shoes to make creek crossings easier.
Daylight is also a large factor in the trail’s difficulty, as deep hollers around the tub mean that daylight runs out much earlier than in other areas. Cox said each group needs to budget around five hours for the trip and warned against ever starting the trail after 3 p.m. or 1 p.m. during Daylight Savings Time.
“The worst thing you want to try to do is come out of that trail in the dark,” Cox said. “It’s just not a good idea.”
What’s more, rescue efforts in remote places like Devil’s Fork can be a real challenge. Cox said local agencies like the Fort Blackmore Volunteer Fire Department respond to around 30-32 calls in the area each year.
“The EMTs can get to a certain point at the Devil’s Bathtub, they can drive in to a certain point,” Cox said. “But then the rest of the way they have to hike in, just like you or I would have to hike in. And then they’re going to have to carry you back out on a stretcher.”
For those that do find themselves in trouble in the area, Cox encouraged a hard look at whether an emergency medical response is actually needed.
“Do not call unless you are seriously injured,” Cox said. “You’re taking their time, and you’re putting them in jeopardy also. There are some folks that will call just because they want help out; please don’t do that.”
So what is it that makes the trail so rugged? Cox said a lack of central trail organization plays a large part.
The land that contains the Devil’s Bathtub is managed by the United States Forest Service (USFS) and is part of the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest. As federal land, that means there’s a lot of red tape standing in the way of locals who want to alter the trail.
“It would be great if we had a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with them so that we could go in and do some work ourselves,” Cox said. The local economic development authority has received grants to do maintenance work but needs to complete environmental impact studies and get permission from the USFS before making any major changes.
In the meantime, Cox stressed that planning ahead is key to a good hike. From parking in the nearby lot at 336 High Knob SC to allotting extra time for rough terrain, a game plan keeps a fun day out from turning into a stressful or painful return trip.