On a recent Friday morning, roughly a hundred people rolled out of bed and said, “Let’s hike Humpback Rocks today.” By 11am the parking lot at the base of the hike was filled. License plates ranged from Alabama to Massachusetts. Several SUVs staked their claim on the grass, nearest to the trailhead. Kids clambered over rock walls as parents collected water bottles and changed shoes. Two backpackers came careening down the hill 20 feet off the trail. The most popular hike on the northern end of the Blue Ridge Parkway was about to be inundated with vista seekers.
And its very popularity threatens the landscape and has led to blocking erosion-causing social trails to keep hikers on authorized paths. Soil compaction and loss of vegetation, along with the sharp incline, leave bare-rooted trees and boulders ready to shift and fall with the next footstep, but attempts to divert hikers have met with little success.
The vertical beginnings leave many panting. Almost halfway up the mile-long ascent, the trail flattens. For some, this is where the path diverges. Historically, this used to be a loop trail, explains Kurt Speers, Ridge District ranger for the Blue Ridge Parkway. Now there is only one way up, marked by the blue trail markers unique to the parkway.
The National Park Service has spent countless hours over the years hauling branches and stumps to keep people from using the old trail. Signs get torn down and the brush is removed. A cable wire tied between two trees is the latest attempt to keep hikers on the sanctioned path. Beyond that cable, a dusty, vegetative-free swath of post-forested land must beckon to some as an easier or faster way to get to the summit.
Speers assumes that those who remember the old loop just want to continue to use it. “It’s the unwary first-timers we’re concerned with,” he says. Using the undesignated social trails has led many trampling tourists to get lost and then they call and want to be rescued. Citing a lack of resources, Speers suggests that it would just be easier if they did not get lost in the first place.
At the top of the mountain, more extreme precautions have been built. “There was a significant erosion problem on the outcropping behind Humpback,” says Blue Ridge Parkway spokesperson Leesa Brandon. Park management decided to form a new loop.
Think of an over-achieving beaver on performance-enhancing drugs. A recently constructed four-foot-high pile of shale and rock stands guard, as well as larger detritus from trees. Sixty feet of cable wire loop through trees and saplings, wherever it looks like an off-trail may have sprouted. “We want to hit them at the waist,” so they know not to cross, says Speers.
Rangers want to get the word out to hikers to stop using the social trails. “Appropriate use is part of good stewardship,” says Brandon. The mission of the National Park Service is to provide safe enjoyment today, she says, and “to manage resources for future generations.”
Anyone with a healthy set of stems and working lungs can make it to the top. The hundreds of people who trample up and down it on any given weekend know the visual reward that awaits them. But if hikers continue to wander around in trail oblivion, it will be a very changed landscape, and one imminently more treacherous. And the damage remains.
Speers insists that the hike will never be closed. But he does want hikers to stay on the open and marked path.