On my two trips to Crabtree Falls (one I didn’t complete), I was warned by a country store owner and my mother-in-law not to leave the trail and climb on the rocks by the waterfall. Of course, they were preaching to the choir. One of my pet peeves is when people don’t follow trail warnings and ranger instructions when visiting York River. The Golden Rule of doing to others as you would have them do unto you applies to me as an outdoors professional as well (which is why I didn’t hike Crabtree the first time, I didn’t have exact change for the honor parking). Thus, I had no intentions of straying from the trail.
More than an annoyance, not following trails damages the natural landscape and causes more work for those who have to maintain them. Mountain trails sometimes have switchbacks to protect the natural slope and prevent erosion. Cutting across them loosens rock and allows water to wash portions of the trail away. Plant life is also negatively affected by these “short cuts.” Trails on hillsides east of the Blue Ridge suffer the same fate. To restore them, employees and volunteers have to put in hours of labor that could have been used to make other trails for more people to enjoy. So, instead of saving time, these self-appointed trailblazers cheat themselves and others of adventure opportunities.
The possibility of bodily harm and/or death is another good reason to say on the designated trails and overlooks. Loose rock on a mountain side or clear algae along a waterfall is (at best) an invitation to a fall that will result in a sprain or fracture. Indeed, people have died at Crabtree Falls because they wanted to feel the water rushing on them or had to get closer for the perfect photograph. I find showers and telephoto lenses a better antidote than risking my life to fulfill such desires. Tidewater hikers take risk as well when they fail to stay on the trail. Unstable ground and venomous snakes (False Cape State Park’s cottonmouths are the worst!) are more likely found in the possible “short cuts” than the tried and true paths. In any case, rangers and rescue workers are most likely to search for the lost and injured in places where visitors should be before they go to places where they have no business being. When suffering perhaps to the point of dying, this is not a comforting thought.
For those who are bored with following marked trails, Google “bushwhacking clubs” and learn how and where to do it right. Other than that, visit different trails at other parks. Visit trails at different times of the year. Chronicle your journeys with pen & paper or modern technology. My trip to Crabtree was highlighted by creating lovely images of the waterfalls and meeting a variety of people along the way. There were a few other photographers, a family from Westmoreland, and dog owners enjoying the day. I treated myself to a barbecue sandwich and conversation at the little cafe in Montebello. Letting cool mountain water rush over my feet may have felt good. But, not needing crutches feels much better.