Place of peace
Gentle meadows, placid streams and inviting vistas on this section of the AT near Catawba remind us all how beautiful the world can be
Kevin Myatt | The Roanoke Times
A golden tree welcomes autumn in the foreground, and mountain ridges extend to the horizon in the background of this vista from Sawtooth Ridge. if you look closely, you might be able to pick out the Peaks of Otter in the deep background, just right of the trees on the left.
- Location: Virginia Rt. 624 to Virginia 311 (McAfee Knob Trailhead)
- Trailheads: Route is from Virginia 624 to Virginia 311. 624 is the second road to the left off 311 traveling west out of Catawba it's also known as Newport Road. The trailhead here is only a small arc of gravel to the left of the road about a quarter-mile off 311, just big enough for a couple of cars. The 311 trailhead, popularly known as the AT trailhead, is large and easily found as 311 crests Catawba Mountain about 7 miles west of I-81 at Salem. From the parking lot, follow the AT without crossing the highway to pick up the end of this section; the route across the highway leads to the highly popular McAfee Knob. An alternate access point is in the middle of this section at Virginia 785, but there is no easy parking here along the road tightly lined with barbed wire cattle fences.
- Distance: 6 miles.
- Elevation difference: Ranges from 1,600-2,100 feet.
- Shelters: None on this section. There are two farther north on the trail, between 311 and McAfee Knob.
- Water: You will cross 3 creeks in the first 2 miles of this section, but once atop Sawtooth Ridge, there is no dependable water source.
Perhaps there has never been a better time for the peace and joy a hike along this 6-mile section of the Appalachian Trail near Catawba can provide.
Over the last three weeks of September 2001 and now into the first few days of October, we have experienced an incredible stretch of perfect autumn weather. Bright sunny days, cool nights, distinct visibility of faraway ridges, and early autumn colors becoming splattered on the green foliage canvas. It's a hopeful backdrop to a dark time.
With the variety of its landscape and quite a few stretches of easy, pleasant hiking, the 6-mile AT section between Virginia 624 and Virginia 311 not only exemplifies peace and beauty, but also accessibility to many who might not regularly lace up hiking boots. The trail as I describe it from south to north has a few substantial uphill climbs, but these can be avoided for those who seek shorter, simple hikes. Two examples: hiking through the pastures with long open views on either side of Virginia 785, and taking a ridgetop walk from the 311 trailhead.
This stretch of the AT often escapes attention because it is between sections of the trail that reach Dragon's Tooth and McAfee Knob, sites among the best-known features of the entire 2,000-plus-mile AT. Through-hikers may find this section of the trail attractive because of the lodging and food amenities found nearby -- Down Home Bed and Breakfast a short distance away in Catawba itself, two country stores nearby, and that favorite refueling stop for famished hikers, the Homeplace restaurant in Catawba. (Just don't try to hike right after eating all the food you'll get there.)
Starting from 624, the trail crosses a small stream and begins a series of switchbacks through a mixed forest that will get you to the top of Sandstone Ridge. This is sort of a lower hump that pokes up in the valley between Cove Mountain, home of Dragon's Tooth, and Catawba Mountain, home of McAfee Knob. As the trail switchbacks, you will see some private homes through the trees and a couple of "Posted" signs not far off the trail. In a half-mile, the trail levels out on this wooded knoll and you pass the first ofseven stiles built to cross barbed wire fences on this section. The odd thing here is that the fence has been cut beside the stile so you don't actually have to climb up on the wooden steps.
The switchback climb transforms into a level stroll in the woods and then a gradual descent, eventually leading to another small creek that is crossed on a wooden footbridge. The trail parallels the creek on an old roadbed. When I hiked it on the first day of October, this old roadbed already had a carpet of fallen orange and yellow leaves. The creek seems to mix upland and lowland features -- it has both rocky, gurgling runs and weedy, marsh-like placid pools. At one point, an old concrete structure, apparently the site of an old mill, is visible.
Just before the old roadbed opens up into a grassy field, the trail takes off to the right off the road. It's easy to miss -- I did, and ended up wandering aimlessly through the pastures. The trail cuts through a tall section of weeds as it follows a bench just above the pastures. Finally, it comes out of the weeds into the pastures, crosses a stile, parallels a fence line, then takes off diagonally through the pasture. Follow the metal posts topped with white markers. Once you get to the top of a hill, you will see the stile that leads to 785, a mile and half from the start. (Careful -- when I hiked it, a step was out, and there appeared to be an electric fence underneath. It was all the more treacherous since I was carrying my dog.)
Across the road is another stile, and more open fields. Don't be surprised to see cows grazing in any of these fields -- and be very surprised if you don't see fresh cow dabs. The trail can be a little hard to pick out here -- two small white-tipped metal posts in the middle of the field are all that mark the route. Generally speaking, go straight across the field to top the hill, and then you'll see the neat little wooden bridge that crosses Catawba Creek, which is tucked against a lovely wooded knoll. Cross the creek, head left along an old roadbed over two more stiles, cross another slight wooden bridge, and you'll see a grassy hillside ahead. Follow the trail markers up this moderately steep incline, which is called Beckner Gap. White blazes are marked on two telephone poles, and the trail can be seen entering the woods uphill and straight ahead.
Before disappearing into the forest, be sure and look back at the open view over Beckner Gap, the lovely pastoral scenes of cows munching in the meadow, with Cove Mountain and Dragon's Tooth as the backdrop. Once in the woods, the trail begins a steady climb of switchbacks to achieve the top of Sawtooth Ridge, which is the name for this portion of Catawba Mountain. The AT stays on Catawba Mountain formore than eightmiles, from this point until it descends below McAfee Knob. Among these switchbacks, there's one more stile to climb up and over, just before the trail finally reaches the ridgetop.
For the next three miles, the AT follows the ridgeline, rising up to various knobs and promontories and then dropping into little valleys in between. One such drop will sweep at an angle down past a marvelous bluff line. The rocky "saw teeth" provide several views east toward Fort Lewis Mountain. On a clear day, you might even see the Peaks of Otter off to the northeast, some 30 miles away. Over the years, the trail has been rerouted in about 3 spots to go around some of the taller points instead of steeply ascending them. Be watchful for these trail changes.
Finally, the trail will open up to the large parking lot on 311. You may find 20 or more cars parked here on pretty weekends, but generally you won't have seen these folks hiking the trail you just finished --most of them are headed to McAfee Knob 5 miles in the other direction. Or, if they have the gusto, they may be making a 20-mile trek past both McAfee Knob and Tinker Cliffs to U.S. 220 at Daleville.