Customers embark on a float trip down the Powell River in southwest Virginia with Stone Mountain Adventures.

Guides and Outfitters Take Education Outside

Justin Harris gets excited when he talks about the salamanders on Whitetop Mountain. “You can get eight to twelve species of salamanders in a half-mile walk,” he says. “At that elevation, there are things you’re not finding outside of two or three other mountaintops in the world.” 

There’s a good reason for Harris’s enthusiasm. Beyond being home to Virginia’s second-highest peak, the slopes of Whitetop are home to some of the highest salamander diversity on Earth. Dusky Salamanders camouflage themselves in the mountain’s many seeps and headwater springs, while colorful Weller’s salamanders and Yonahlossee salamanders roam the forest floor in-between. Hundreds of the animals may be wriggling within a single patch of woods, unknown to the thousands of hikers that visit the summit each year.

But Harris wants to change that. A biology graduate from Emory and Henry College, Harris opened a guide service this past spring that’s adding a new wrinkle to the region’s many businesses that already offer guided hiking, biking, and float trips. His Abingdon-based White Blaze Guided Hiking has been built around educating residents and visitors alike on the unique and often rare species that users share the Blue Ridge with when they’re on the trail. 

“I was asking myself how our company would be different, and that’s where the educational piece came in,” Harris says. “People want to go out and see things that they don’t know much about.” His business offers a menu of hikes, ranging from short, two-hour trips to overnight excursions, that each feature-unique aspects of Appalachian ecosystems and their resident wildlife.

Harris’s efforts are coming at a critical time. Like most of the nation, the Blue Ridge is in the midst of an explosion of interest in the outdoors. But as our outdoor areas become more popular, they’re also seeing more first-time users heading into the outdoors without skills that can help keep them safe and minimize their environmental impact. The resulting educational gap has created a void that services like Harris’s business are primed to fill.

Fifty miles across the Great Valley from Whitetop Mountain in rural Wise County, Beth and Neil Walker are working under a similar motivation. The couple opened their own guide service, Stone Mountain Adventures, in 2018 to address a growing interest in the outdoors across the Virginia coalfields. Beth Walker says that many people in her area often lack the resources needed to get started with outdoor activities. “They don’t know what to take or what to do once they get there,” she explains. Stone Mountain Adventures grew out of that need, with the goal of creating more informed outdoor users that could enjoy the outdoors sustainably. 

The Walkers’ business offers users an array of guided hiking, biking, and float trips, but they’ve also been taking some innovative steps to link recreation and outdoor education. As one example, they’ve been offering guided “focus on science” hikes for K-12 educators to the Devil’s Bathtub, a wildly popular swimming hole in Scott County, Va., that has been plagued in recent years by overuse. The hikes discuss how outdoor destinations can be living classrooms for science educators while also engaging participants in environmental stewardship by cleaning up litter during the hike.

Adam Boring, one of Stone Mountain Adventures’ guides, is a testament to how important an introduction to the outdoors can be. Boring saw his own interest ignite years ago during a series of guided hikes led by the Virginia Cooperative Extension. “My love for the outdoors grew and grew over the years,” Boring says, “until one day I just decided, ‘Hey, maybe I can make a little bit of money by taking friends out on hikes so that I can do something I enjoy and teach people about what I’ve been learning.’”

Boring began to share that knowledge on social media and, before long, the Walkers came calling. He’s been a guide with Stone Mountain Adventures since and became a certified Virginia Master Naturalist this year. Leading interpretive hikes is all about “spreading the knowledge of our local plants and animals to people who can then, in turn, spread it to other people,” he says. “Our region as a whole would benefit from understanding which plants and animals are endangered so we can know what to be more careful around or what to really be awestruck by if we see it.”

There are few data specifically tracking the impact of guide services in the Blue Ridge, but those businesses’ role in the region’s economic landscape is growing. A 2017 report by the Outdoor Industry Association accounted for more than 1.5 million jobs supported by outdoor recreation in the Southeast, accompanying more than $179 billion spent on outdoor activities. Guides and outfitters are an important portion of that economic mix.

As part of that equation, Harris hopes to connect his educational efforts with economic benefits in surrounding communities. He’s teamed up with several lodging and restaurant businesses across southwest Virginia, creating package deals for visitors that offer additional activities after a day on the trail. “If someone wants to come in and do a guided hike, they’re going to stay or eat somewhere,” he explains. “It’s a win-win for the whole region.”

While it will take time to tell if the Blue Ridge’s growing guide industry can make lasting progress towards supporting rural economies and creating a more sustainable outdoor experience, both Harris and Beth Walker believe their work is well worth the effort. “I want to show people home,” Walker says, “but not in a way that’s going to destroy what we have.” And in a region that’s increasingly grappling with sustainability challenges, that’s one mark on the outdoors worth leaving.