Baby's first hike
Isak Howell | The Roanoke Times
Howell and baby.
StatsAppalachian Trail, U.S. 11 to Fullhardt Knob shelter
- Trailheads: At AT parking lot on U.S. 11 at southern town limit of Troutville (From Roanoke, take Interstate 81 north, take exit 150B, then U.S. 11 north). Hike can be shortened by about a mile by parking along Mountain Pass Road (Virginia 652), which intersects U.S. 11 just north of the AT parking lot.
- Distance: 3.5 miles (7 miles as an out-and-back day hike)
- Shelters: Fullhardt Knob shelter is 3.5 miles from U.S. 11
- Water: There is a cistern at the shelter, but water is otherwise scarce on the largely ridgetop and mountainside hike.
- Elevation difference: From about 1,300 feet at U.S. 11 to about 2,500 feet at the Fullhardt Knob shelter.
- Highlights: Unique views of Tinker Mountain, McAfee Knob and Scorched Earth Gap. Another highlight is easy access from Interstate 81 and less crowding than at more well-known spots like Dragon's Tooth and McAfee Knob.
We needed what a lot of Roanoke folks crave on a Sunday short on daylight -- a hike close to town, with easy logistics and few crowds.
We found it on our first try.
It was our first hike with our infant daughter, and I figured we'd be lucky to make it 200 yards. Instead we achieved a glorious four-hour fall hike with a mostly slumbering baby through some classic mixed hardwood forest.
We were aiming for the Fullhardt Knob shelter on the Appalachian Trail, 3.5 miles uphill from the trailhead on the southern edge of Troutville. We expected a well-marked trail and mild weather, and got it, along with a nice picnic spot at the shelter.
Loaded down with what we thought was the proper mix of food, diapers and packs and slings for 3-month-old Elsa, we headed out from the gravel parking lot on U.S. 11. It was a warm, cloudless November day as we left the highway, crossed the railroad tracks and climbed into the first stand of trees.
We crossed a stile and were suddenly on top of a treeless, grassy knoll with a view of the surrounding countryside and the climb ahead of us.
The trail then crosses Mountain Pass Road (Virginia 652), a country road lined with homes and meadows. There's limited parking, but a hiker could cut a mile off the trip by parking here.
We climbed through some pleasant strips of woods before we settled into a series of steady switchbacks in the Jefferson National Forest and left the meadows and roads behind.
Gradually the memory of the four-lane highway and busy Interstate 81 interchange we just left began to fade away. The trail tucked itself between two knobs and it started to feel like deep woods.
We passed through thick patches of mountain laurel, stands of windswept pine and above a gully bottom that was open like a park under the oaks.
We passed fewer than 10 hikers on the whole trip, a marked difference from what some of the more popular AT stretches attract on warm days. We also walked up on a large doe about 40 feet away at one switchback. Though quickly becoming a nuisance animal to many Virginians, I love to see deer, especially when it's up close and not from a car window.
This is a perfect hike to do when the leaves are down, because there are no cliffs or breaks to provide big views during spring and summer, but plenty of through-the-limbs views in fall and winter. Views opened up of nearby Tinker Mountain, McAfee Knob and Scorched Earth Gap. Once atop the narrow ridge toward the shelter, the trail also provided views of the Botetourt County farmland rolling to the north.
The steady incline tapered off, and you could just feel that the destination was around the next bend. Sure enough, a very short side trail leads to the shelter on a wooded knob. We ate lunch at the Fullhardt Knob shelter's picnic table.
It wasn't deep wilderness, really. You could easily hear sirens and train whistles even from the shelter, but the dominant sound was the gentle breeze pulling autumn's last dry leaves off the oaks.
We had just one baby-related disaster (memo: always bring an extra change of baby clothes.), but overall little Elsa proved a very trailworthy infant, content to nap or bob along in silence.
For those looking to make a weekender of this stretch, there is a cistern at the shelter but few other reliable water sources. There is a good tent spot on a small promontory about a third of the way to the shelter, but very few other sizable flat spots close to the trail.
Our daughter slept soundly for most of the return trip, and we picked up the pace to beat the setting sun off the mountain. The shadows were getting long by the end, and the dry air smelled like decaying leaves.
It was a grand fall trip -- not too long and not too steep, easy to get to and lonely enough to make you pine for a real overnight adventure. And because we did make it farther than 200 yards, we can even call it a hike.