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!

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