Monday, August 8, 2016

20 Life Lessons to Learn from Hikers

You only have one life to live, but some people spend their entire lives rushing toward nameless destinations. Whether you seek fame and fortune, yearn for retirement, strive to live the good life or work toward some other goal, it's easy to find yourself running in high gear as though life is a race with medals awarded to the fastest. Slow down and learn these life lessons from hikers who journey thousands of miles on the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail and other long-distance trails.

Life is a Journey, Not a Destination 
Before taking off on a hike of days, weeks or months, long-distance hikers prepare for possible problems. But they also know that life is a journey, not a destination. It's easy to lose sight of the journey in our day-to-day lives. Enjoy the sights, sounds and gifts of each day.

Be Prepared
The Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts use "Be Prepared" as their motto. For long-distance hikers, being prepared is essential to survival. Plan ahead and have enough of what you need. But don't get bogged down with excess baggage, whether your hike is on the trail or through life.

Hike Your Own Hike 
Ask any long-distance hiker for one piece of advice and you'll hear "HYOH" -- a hiker acronym for 'hike your own hike.' Hikers know this means to hike at your own pace, not paying attention to the speed of the other hikers.

It Builds Character 
When you face and overcome challenges on the trail or in life, you become a stronger person. Armed with new skills and knowledge, you are better able to face the next challenge.

The First Step is the Hardest 
You can think, plan and map out a long hike, but you'll never get anywhere until you take the first step. In life, it's easy to spend too much time thinking and worrying instead of just taking a step forward.

Put one Foot in Front of the Other 
There will be times on the trail or in life when you just don't feel like you can go any further. Those are the times to just put one foot in front of the other and continue.

Sometimes You Need to Take Baby Steps 
When you're on rocky ground on the trails or in life, you may have to slow down your pace for a while. Baby steps are still steps forward.

It May be Easier With a Partner, But Sometimes You Need to Do it Alone 
It's important to remember that the only person who will be with you for your entire life is you. Some journeys are meant to be solos.

The Downhills Aren't Always Easy and the Uphills Aren't Always Hard 
Both going up and coming down have unique challenges. On the trails, downhills can be much more treacherous, just as in life.

Accept Help When Offered
If there's a hand rail along a trail, you probably need to hold onto it. If someone holds out their hand to you in the journey of life, the same applies.

Take Advice From Those Who Have Walked Your Walk 
Along the trails, you will run into people who are returning from where you're heading. Listen to their words of advice and take heed. The same is true in life. Whether you're dealing with challenges in your personal or professional life, listen and apply the advice you're given.

Rest When Needed but Don't Quit 
Some long distance hikers take 'zero days' -- days when they hike zero miles -- as a way to recover from injury, regain perspective, restock supplies in the nearest town or avoid bad weather on the trail. One rule many long-distance hikers follow is, "Never quit on a zero day." Often when you take a break from a challenge or problem, you come back refreshed and renewed for the journey.

The Journey Makes You Stronger 
This life law is also known as, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger." If you are told this as you face difficulty, it may hurt your feelings or make you mad. When you look back years later, you will see the strength you've gained from the adversities you've faced.

You Never Know What's Around the Next Corner 
As you round a turn, you suddenly catch a glimpse of the mountains or the sun shining so bright it hurts your eyes. Expect surprises. You won't be disappointed - on the trails or in life.

If You Take a Wrong Path, Retrace Your Steps and Start Again 
On the Appalachian Trail, double white blazes signify an upcoming turn or change in direction. Life doesn't offer that option. Starting over is one of the most challenging things in life. Sometimes you take a wrong turn and keep going in the wrong direction despite that little voice warning you to turn around. It may take a little while to start again now, but it will take longer if you travel farther in the wrong direction.

Learn From Your Mistakes 
There are no mistakes in life, only lessons. Forget to properly store your food when backcountry hiking and you will have unexpected company in your tent. Some lessons are more costly than others, but the most costly are those you repeat. 

The Taste of Success is Sweet 
Although it's all about the journey, the destination is also sweet. Thru-hikers on the AT pose for a photo at the end of the journey. Many day and section hikers ask a friend or fellow hiker to take their photo on the summit of a mountain they've just climbed. Success tastes sweet in life too. When all of the pieces come together just right, it feels so good.

Take Time to Savor Your Victory 
It's rare that a distance hiker arrives at the end of the trail, turns around and leaves. Whatever your success in life, pat yourself on the back and savor the moment.

It Can Be Lonely at the Top 
Appalachian Trail hikers support one another and are happy to welcome new members into the 2000 Miler Club. It's not always like that in life. Sometimes people you think are friends aren't supportive when you win. When that happens, it may be time for new friends.

Enjoy the Views 
You only pass through life once. Stop to enjoy the views and take photos. Whether you're shooting a sunrise over the mountains with your camera or imprinting an image into your memory, look around instead of down. There's a lot of beauty to be found on the trails and in life. 

Life is a lot like long-distance hiking. The journey may seem long at times, but rewards abound around every turn. As you travel through life, these life lessons from hikers will help you enjoy the the journey and the views along the trail we call life.

All of these photographs were shot while hiking on various trails in Virginia, including along my beloved Appalachian Trail. Each year, from early spring through late fall, thousands of hikers attempt to thru-hike the nearly 2,190 mile length of the Appalachian Trail. Most of the hikers I've met are very friendly and happy to pose for a photo or two as they share stories about thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, the adventure of a lifetime. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Hiking Virginia: McAfee Knob

If you're looking for a great hike in Virginia, check out McAfee Knob. It may be the most iconic hike in Virginia -- and the most photographed site along the nearly 2190 mile Appalachian Trail, which stretches from Georgia to Maine.

Challenging enough for serious hikers, McAfee Knob is enough of a 'walk in the woods' for newbies to tackle. Most Hiking Upward reviewers give this hike a four to five star rating.

I've hiked McAfee several times and the views seem to get better each time. The 2015 movie, "A Walk in the Woods," which features views of McAfee Knob in the trailer and on the cover, is based on bestselling author Bill Bryson's book, "A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail." McAfee Knob is part of the Virginia Triple Crown of hiking, which also includes Tinker Cliffs and Dragon's Tooth.

It's easy to spot the trailhead for McAfee Knob, located on Virginia Route 311 at the top of Catawba Mountain. Just look for the hikers on the road sign and turn into the parking area on the left. It's a good idea to arrive early since the parking area fills up quickly, especially on weekends. Towing is enforced, so it's best to avoid parking on the sides of the road.

You have to cross Route 311 to get from the parking area to the trailhead. The sign on the kiosk in the parking area points you in the proper direction. The road crossing is in a curve, so be cautious.

Notices and warnings are posted on the sign. One notice suggests items to bring when hiking McAfee, including: at least two quarts of water, durable hiking boots, a working flashlight, high energy foods, rain gear and common sense. Despite the busyness of this trail, some have encountered black bears on the trail. Water sources along the trail may be dry, so make sure you have adequate water for the hike. You'll want to stay at the summit for a while to enjoy the views.

You'll see the Appalachian Trail and McAfee Knob signs across Route 311, pointing the way to the trailhead. If you're like many hikers, seeing this sign brings it home to you that you're on the way to a timeless destination where so many others have gone before you.

There's a special thrill when you see your first white blaze on the Appalachian Trail. The blazes, 2 inches wide by 6 inches high, are painted on trees, rocks and posts along the Appalachian Trail to help hikers stay on the trail. Although distances between the white blazes vary, it's recommended to retrace your steps if you've not seen a white blaze in a quarter-mile. For more seasoned A.T. hikers, the familiar white blazes feel like coming home.

Double white blazes signify a turn, route change or side trail ahead. Be alert to avoid taking a wrong turn. The two blazes may be offset in the direction of the turn. Regardless of the season, the white blazes help you stay on trail during daylight hours. Hiking after dark is more challenging.

McAfee Knob trail is a very popular trail all year long. Most hikers are pretty friendly, so you may make new friends on the trail. On my first hike, I met another hiker shortly after the trailhead and we hiked together to the top, talking to pass the time. You'll see hikers wearing everything from shorts, t-shirts and flip-flops to full backpacking gear.

There are two shelters along the trail: the Johns Spring Shelter, located less than a mile from the trailhead, and the Catawba Mountain Shelter, located 1.4 miles from the trailhead. There is one additional shelter and a campsite less than a mile north of McAfee Knob: Campbell Shelter and Pig Farm Campsite. Some hikers continue to hike north to Tinker Cliffs after reaching McAfee Knob, camp out on the mountain and return the next day.


There's a two night maximum stay at each shelter and all A.T. shelters are offered on a first come, first served basis. Shelters fill quickly, especially on weekends and during A.T. thru-hiker season from spring through early fall. Some shelters on the Appalachian Trail are stocked with a Bible and trail journal. You can read about other hikers' adventures on the A.T. and add your own comments to the journal.

McAfee Knob Trail and the shelters are part of the 120 miles of the A.T. maintained by volunteers from the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club. The RATC does a great job with upkeep of the trails and shelters. The RATC website includes information about the Virginia Triple Crown: McAfee Knob, Tinker Cliffs and Dragon's Tooth. This is a great challenge, geared to more experienced hikers.

Although the favorite spot for selfies is the overhang at the summit of McAfee Knob, there are lots of other places along the trail that are good for taking photos.

At the 2.6 mile mark, you'll cross the fire road which leads back to Route 311. Some prefer to hike the less strenuous fire road on the way back to the parking area.

Shortly after crossing the fire road, you'll come to a high voltage power line clearing with very pretty views in both directions.

This is a good spot to stop and take in the views before pushing on to the last leg of the upward hike.

About 0.3 miles past the clearing, you'll come to the first good overlook looking down toward the Catawba Valley. From here, it's only about half a mile to the summit.

When you reach the big rocks, you'll be at the summit in about five minutes. If you're hiking with kids, this is a good spot for rock climbing selfies on the way down.

Keep your eyes open for the sign to McAfee Knob Spur Trail, marked with an arrow directing you to the overlook.

If you're really lucky, your first view of McAfee Knob will be unencumbered by other hikers.

It's more likely that your first view will include hikers enjoying the views from the outcropping or sitting on the edge of the overhang with legs dangling down.

Nearly everyone you see on the summit will have a camera or cell phone in hand. The views are amazing from the Knob, with a nearly 270-degree panorama of the Catawba Valley and North Mountain to the west, Tinker Cliffs to the north and the Roanoke Valley to the east.

Ask someone to take your photo on McAfee Knob. Whether you sit on the overhang or stand back a bit with your arms outstretched in victory, you'll treasure the photo.

After savoring the views and eating lunch or a snack, explore the trail to the north of the Knob. The views are spectacular from every angle.

Although camping and fires are prohibited on the summit, some day hikers set up hammocks to enjoy the view from the top of the world.

Anywhere you travel along the Appalachian Trail, you may see signs of "trail magic" -- items left by hikers and passersby for other hikers to enjoy. Although it's a nice gesture, it's best to follow the Leave No Trace principles, including "Pack it in, Pack it out" as noted on these beer cans I found in a hollow tree. During the late spring to early fall thru-hiker season, you may find "trail angels" offering fruit, snacks, burgers or hot dogs.

If you hike the fire trail on your return trip, you'll enjoy different scenery than the trip up to the Knob. The views are nice on the way down, especially when the leaves are off the trees.

I've hiked McAfee Knob at various times of year. Spring and fall are exceptionally pretty on Catawba Mountain. In spring, you'll enjoy the redbud trees, forsythia and other spring-blooming trees and shrubs. In fall, the changing leaves add a touch of magic to the hike.

The best place to eat after a long hiking day at McAfee Knob is The Homeplace Restaurant, a Southern family style restaurant, located on Catawba Valley Drive, just a few miles from the McAfee Knob parking area.


The Homeplace is a beautiful old farmhouse with plenty of seating inside. You'll have to wait a while during peak times, but there's a nice wrap-around porch and waiting areas inside too.

The all-you-can-eat food is served country style. If you still have room, there's dessert for a small extra charge. One thing's for sure -- you won't leave The Homeplace hungry.

For an awesome hike with spectacular views, it's hard to beat McAfee Knob. See you on the trail!