Devil's Bathtub (Jefferson National Forest)
Standing at 36.81 degrees North, 82.65 degrees West is one of Virginia’s greatest surprises. Take a look at the map - there’s nothing particular, just some trees. No sizable towns, no significant roads, and nothing out of the ordinary, but our search for the elusive ends in a beautiful 10 feet deep bathtub carved into the stone that dominates so much of this strange wilderness.
I have spent a fair amount of time trying to find our next spot to explore. We spend virtually all of our outdoor time in the Pedlar ranger district of the GWNF. I ran across a place called Devil’s Bathtub on an old, unorganized website a few weeks ago. It seemed pretty unpractical back then, a 250 mile drive south and into seemingly nowhere - topped by the fact that verifiable coordinates for the swimming hole were basically nonexistent. I poked around some more places on Google and eventually came up with several targets to search for, picked up a hiking GPS, and we headed out on our search. We packed our bags for every situation we could imagine, and left Lynchburg on Friday afternoon.
We made our trek to Roanoke and hopped onto 81 for several hours. We eventually made it off the highway and into a very rural area with some incredible mountain landscapes. Another 40 miles and we made our way down a gravel road, took a left at an abandoned house, and started our way down a rough trail to the parking lot. After finding the trail, we put on all of our bags and made our way up to the trail. By this time, it was dark outside and we got our flashlights on and made our way onward. We were greeted with the most interesting sight - a forest resembling something straight out of Jurassic park, a mossy set of trees stretching dozens of feet into the air, brilliant rock formations, and rocky creeks everywhere.
The hike itself was pretty flat - a 412 foot elevation change in 1.8 miles - but the challenge was in the 11 creek crossings that must be made before finding the first swimming hole. The creek crossings are not awful in themselves, but crossing a creek with very slippery rocks in boots while hauling camping supplies is annoying at its very best - but 10 creeks later, we were happy to keep our feet away from crossings for the hole night.
We found ourselves at a target I marked on my GPS as a potential swimming hole. We walked down, crossed the creek, and found a really neat looking water slide in the creek. We ended up liking the spot and decided to make camp here since it had already been a long day for us. Some mixed attempts at making fire and a dinner later, we decided to search for the elusive Devil’s Bathtub itself - a destination that my GPS’ targets claimed to be a short 500 feet away. We made a quick rock scramble towards the trail again, walked several hundred more feet, and looked to our left. My roommate said that he thought he saw the bathtub, so we made our way downhill and what lied before us was the most spectacular body of water I had ever seen - a 20 foot by 8ft pool of crystal clear water, eroded into the stone that was the creekbed. It was about 10 feet deep. The water had a pretty blue-green tint, it shined even in our headlamps crude LED light. We crossed it and were in awe for quite a while!
We made our way downstream a little more and found what I have seen referred to as “Swimming Hole #4”. Another crystal-clear pool, albeit much larger and with a waterfall. Another few steps downstream and we made our way to “Swimming Hole #3”, a large swimming hole that was about 10 feet deep, with more crystal-clear water. It was beautiful! After this, we headed back to campsite and tried to get some sleep.
The next morning, I woke up at sunrise. I looked up, and saw the most incredible rock formation! It’s hard to get a good idea of what things look like at night. I made us a fire for breakfast, we tried at some bacon, and then we made our way back to the bathtub. It wasn’t hot out (being the 5th of October) but we drove a long way out so we got the guts to get into the water. It was COLD! 59 degrees, to be exact. We slowly slipped into the clear water of the bathtub and swam across. Then we made our way into Swimming Hole #3 and went down the slide. It was actually really fun! I never expected to find a natural slide that was better than the ones at water parks! Swimming across this pool was remarkable, I just wish it was a little warmer!
We goofed off a little more and then packed up our campsite. Our hike back was uneventful and we got the creek crossing technique down. Another 1.8 miles back to our car and then we drove off into the mountains and back into Lynchburg.
Devil’s Bathtub is absolutely fantastic and I highly recommend it. It’s a strech for a day trip, but if you’re looking for something amazing and elusive, it’s a place you should consider. There is very little trash and even fewer signs of people deep in the woods down Devil’s Fork Loop Trail (the name of the trail that leads to the bathtub) - we saw a family there at night, but they camped by the parking lot and we didn’t see another face until we were far away from JNF. My research online showed me many people were confused to the location of the bathtub, mostly because it isn’t something you can find directly from the trail without looking for it specifically.
It’s a fair distance away from anything worth noting - 40 miles from a rural stretch of 81. The drive to the parking lot is rough but not undoable, take a bigger vehicle if you can manage. The trail may be rough for those who don’t partake in forest related activities regularly due to the stream crossings. These will be even more complex after recent rain or during the winter.
Here are the coordinates so you can find it yourself. These have all been averaged with my hiking GPS thus are accurate and verified to about 50ft.
- Parking lot (rudimentary): 36.81835, 82.62662
- Big Water Slide: 36.81373, -82.64935
- Swimming Hole #3 (deep, slide): 36.81341, -82.64955
- Swimming Hole #4 (waterfall): 36.81300, -82.65037
- Devil’s Bathtub: 36.81373, 82.64935
And to help you follow the trail, here is the track GPX.