By: Pam Cox, director of tourism, Scott County, Virginia
Over the last year, thousands of people have hiked to the county’s Devil’s Bathtub, a once secluded spot now made famous by listings on the Weather Channel, Virginia.org, plus the popular website, Reddit.
As I have never been one to be left out, on a warm November day last fall I finally made my own pilgrimage to the Devil’s Bathtub. This was my third attempt at tackling the 13 river crossings and four-mile round-trip trek. The first was on a rather cold December day a couple of years ago. I didn’t even make it through the first creek before I fell face first into the icy water. Needless to say, I was wet and not in the best shape to continue the journey.
I tried once again last winter and didn’t even make it out of the parking lot before packing it up and going home, realizing then that I had the wrong shoes and was attempting the trek with hikers much more prepared than I. They were doing the entire seven miles around the back of the Tub to check the wear and tear made by our recent cold winter. Most importantly, they were all my daughter’s age. I didn’t feel I had it in me to keep up that day.
I have never considered myself old, even though I’m on the other side of 55, until last week, when I finally made my first trip to the tub. And it was on this trip that The Devil’s Bathtub taught me a valuable life lesson.
I had decided to tag along, last minute, on a trip planned by the county’s public works director, a man as long in leg as I have ever met who will forever after that hike, be known to me as “Grand-daddy longlegs.”
It was a gorgeous fall day, and once again, I had the wrong shoes and clothes for hiking through the mountain creek. Wearing what I considered to be good water shoes, carrying two hiking poles, plus clothes that I hike in at home, I’d thought I was prepared, but after a couple of creek crossings, I realized I was not. I needed felt-soled waders and different pants. However, thinking this might be my last chance to see the Devil’s Bathtub, I decided to forge ahead. Again, I didn’t want to be left behind.
What did I learn on a hike so rough it took me three times to even get started? This is not a hike for the weak-kneed. After less than a mile in, I was weak and aching. The ascent to Devil’s bathtub is a typical, rocky Southwest Virginia mountain trail. You need to watch out for the rocks and tree roots embedded all along the trail. I also learned there is a reason I am a cold-weather hiker—SNAKES. I dislike snakes in any form or fashion, so much so that I once tried to shoot a snake cornered by my dogs and curled up next to the house. Fortunately, my husband arrived in time to save the dogs, the house, and the snake.
After the first creek crossing, you have the option of going right or left. The Forest Service has the sign pointing both ways to the Devil’s Bathtub, but the mileage is not marked. To the right is seven miles round trip, but with no creek crossings. To the left is the shorter and more heavily traveled trail with the 13 creek crossings.
We went left, opting for speed and efficiency over an easier terrain. In terms of grade, the hike to the Devil’s Bathtub is not steep. There were a couple of climbswhen I could hear my heart beating in my ears but, most of the trail is relatively flat and marked with rocks and roots.
Crossing the creek was extremely difficult. Even with the best of waders, you are going to be going up and over lots and lots of rocks, both in water and on ground. After just a few creek crossings and up and overs on the rocks, it hit me—I’m old. My poor knees were screaming in pain. At one point, I thought my knees were going to detach from my legs.
About two hours into the trip and close to the Tub, we reached the most challenging part of the hike. To reach the lower swimming pools of the Tub, you have to cross a narrow ledge with a good drop down into the creek. Fortunately, someone has placed a hand-rope along the ledge to steady your balance.
Next we trudged through the swimming hole and climbed up a steep bank to the diving area into the swimming hole. I have seen videos of folks diving from that tree-lined ledge down into the swimming spot. Let me make certain this is understood—you have to clear about a three-foot rock ledge before hitting the water. Please don’t do this because I don’t want to read about you in the “Darwin Awards,” a book that chronicles the many unlikely ways people eliminate themselves from this world.
Finally, we arrived at the Devil’s Bathtub. I was drenched in sweat with aching knees and blistered feet. But, I had made it and in mostly one piece. I gingerly stepped out onto the slick, moss-covered rocks of the tub and made my way to what is considered by many as a great “sight to behold.”
No one questions the beauty of the Devil’s Bathtub. It is a crystal-clear, aquamarine color that is created by the algae on the bottom. Since I was already wet, I decided to scoot on my bottom to the edge of the Tub.
We spent close to an hour at the Tub, allowing us to take plenty of photos and videos. I captured some great video of the flowing cascade into the Tub and down into the pools below.
Eventually, it was time to leave. I scrambled back up to the ledge, reflecting on the journey to the tub, and muttered “Well, at least, I’ll never have to do that again.” My co-hikers doubled over with laughter.
I was worn out and pretty much stumbled my way back down the stream, perhaps now slightly over-confident having made it to the Tub successfully.
We were forging one of the last creek crossings when I felt my foot begin to slip. Tottering, then teetering, I lost my footing and butt first into the creek, soaking myself and almost dousing my camera bag. I was cold. I was wet. But I had made it to the Tub, and it couldn’t get any worse than falling into the creek.
That’s when I saw it—SNAKE. My hiking partners were way ahead of me, and all I could do was holler, “SNAKE. SNAKE. SNAKE. SNAKE. SNAKE.” Frightened and clumsy, literally stumbling over my own feet as I tried to flee, I felt my footing slip again and fell—smack dab on top of that snake.
Arms flailing, legs akimbo, hooting and hollering like a gentleman lefting at a hoe down, I squirmed and kicked until I managed to upright myself on a rock, crying, SNAKE, SNAKE the entire time.
Grand-daddy Longlegs and our co-hiker just stood on the other side of the creek and laughed. Finally, Longlegs came back across the creek with his walking pole to examine the snake. “It’s only a little garter snake,” he laughed. Given my time spent wallering around on said snake, had it been venomous, I would not be writing this story.
We made good time coming back. I was relieved to push myself into the backseat of the county’s Tahoe. Wet and tired, I pulled off my shoes and examined my feet. Major blisters, but miraculously that seemed to be the extent of my injuries. I pulled on my socks, never bothering to put my tennis shoes back on.
I hobbled back into the office, telling everyone about my arduous trip to the Devil’s Bathtub, with all the young folks saying, “Why that’s an easy trip.” Easy. Perhaps, when you are 33. I was so tired, I didn’t even bother to put my shoes on for the drive home. I put a blanket in the seat, cranked up the heat and headed home.
When I arrived home, my husband was already there. He took one look at me and said, “What in the world happened to you? Were you in a wreck or a fight?” “No,” I replied. “Hiked to the Devil’s Bathtub today.”
“Cool,” he said. “Want to go back this weekend?” I looked up at him and just rolled my eyes. “Unless you’ve found the elixir of youth, I am not heading back there anytime soon.”
But, I think I will return again, some day. This time, however, I will take the right-turn to the longer, less-traveled trail, because quick doesn’t always mean easy and we all need to take the trail that suits us best.