Virginia hiking club encourages women of color to explore the great outdoors
by Amanda Creasey, Outdoors Writer
Despite growing up in urban New York City, Nicole Boyd remembers experiencing the great outdoors during her childhood. She recalls riding her bike, playing basketball and going to parks. “Hiking, or ‘walking in the woods’ as I called it as a kid, was something I looked forward to,” she says. “Something about it centered me and brought me a peaceful feeling.”
“Being able to hike with a group provides a sense of safety for women of color.” – Nicole Boyd
Narshara Cade grew up in a somewhat more suburban setting in eastern North Carolina. The youngest of four, she was the last child left at home after her siblings departed. “Outside time for me was, maybe, a walk around the block,” Cade says. Her earliest memories of being outdoors revolved around playing sports.
Now both grown, Boyd and Cade met while teaching at the same Virginia middle school. Boyd’s love of the outdoors has persisted, and she continues to enjoy hiking. Cade, on the other hand, had never been on a hike until she was 33. Her first was a birthday celebration Boyd held with her and other friends. “We went on a hike and wine trip. There were six of us in the group,” Boyd says.
Boyd says she and her friends began noticing “a lack of diversity in the outdoors,” and they wanted to change it. To address this, Boyd and Cade began posting photos of their hikes on social media. Often, friends would ask them where they were hiking and began joining them, prompting the two women to start a hiking group that enticed women of color to get outside and hike more.
Not long after, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020, Boyd and Cade formalized the group and named it Black Girls Hike RVA.
“COVID-19 shut the world down. But outside was still open,” Boyd says. The group aims to make the outdoors accessible to everyone, especially women of color. “Our mission is to help connect black and brown women to the great outdoors through sisterhood, support, love and laughter on each hike,” Boyd says.
Over the past two years, the group’s membership has grown. As of November 2022, the group boasted 40 members. “The hiking community is constantly growing,” Boyd says.
Those interested in membership can choose from three different options, each offering different perks, from t-shirts to state park passes.
Once a quarter, the group also leads friends-and-family hikes, which are open to non-members. And it is for just such a hike that my dogs and I join the group on a mid-November morning.
We arrive at the parking lot in Richmond, Va., a little after 9 a.m. to find a large group of friendly, smiling women, several children and two dogs waiting for the trek to begin. It is one of the coldest mornings of the season so far, but the sun is up and shining, and even the chill in the air doesn’t cool the warm and welcoming mood of the group, now strolling briskly through the woods on the Buttermilk Trail.
Black Girls Hike RVA aims to hold between one and two hikes each month, for a total of between 12 and 14 each year. Local hikes, like the one I join, usually consist of between 10 and 25 participants and normally last about two hours, covering a distance not longer than five miles.
Today’s hike on the Buttermilk lasts roughly three hours and covers a nearly four-mile, out-and-back route. My dogs and I spend much of it walking with Charli Gorham and her dog, a pointer named Larry. Gorham has made the trip from Tappahannock to join today’s hike.The last time she participated was two years ago, and when I ask her what made her come out today, she tells me she and Larry just wanted to get out.
As we walk together, Gorham comments on how peaceful it is. I comment on the sound of the James River rushing just beyond the trees. We listen together to a woodpecker’s call piercing the morning air, and we try to catch a glimpse of him in the trees before continuing down the trail.
“When we created this group,” Boyd says, “we never imagined the synergy that would occur every time we hike together.” As I enjoy getting to know Gorham and watching our dogs sniff and trot along together, I know what Boyd means.
Many women, particularly women of color, she explains, face hurdles when it comes to getting outside, including “a lack of resources or not having anyone else to go with. Most women do not feel safe outdoors alone, especially in the wild. We have had several women show their gratitude for having a group hike organized so they wouldn’t have to hike alone.”
SAFETY IN NUMBERS
Being able to hike with a group provides a sense of safety for women of color, Boyd explains. In addition to offering safety in numbers, Cade and Boyd foster safety by scouting out all their routes ahead of time, in addition to learning about the area’s history so they can answer any questions that might come up during a hike.
Due to their desire to accommodate and include women across the commonwealth, Cade and Boyd lead hikes “all throughout Virginia, from state parks to hikes that are local for us and feature the James River.We also hike throughout the Blue Ridge Mountains.The variety of terrain in Virginia makes it the perfect place to hike and explore.” Cade’s favorite place to hike is Humpback Rocks, while Boyd is partial to Crabtree Falls. Both women cite the North Bank Trail in Richmond as their local favorite.
Eventually, Cade and Boyd, both teachers, hope to create a non-profit to serve youth in their local community and beyond. Both women love spending time in nature and want to foster that love in future generations. “We know that getting outdoors is not accessible to all, so we want to break that barrier. We believe that climbing a mountain at age 12 can change your outlook not on the world, but within yourself,” Cade explains. “Nature is my home,” she says. “It’s where I belong.”
As Gorham, our dogs and I finish our hike and find ourselves back at the parking lot, I realize that over the course of the last four miles, I have forged a friendship. I scratch Larry’s ears and thank him for being such a good hiking buddy for Nacho and Soda. I look at Gorham. “I feel like all this warrants a hug,” I tell her.
“It sure does,” she says, smiling. We wrap our arms around each other and squeeze, laughing, and I find myself grateful for this group that makes sure no one must hike alone.
To learn more, visit blackgirlshikerva.com.