McAfee Knob brings peace amid the clouds
Kevin Myatt | The Roanoke Times
McAfee Knob gets peak use during the October color season, offering breath-taking views of Catawba Valley and beyond.
- Location: Appalachian Trail parking area on Route 311 between Catawba and Roanoke/Salem outside Catawba. The large trailhead on top of 311 is hard to miss, especially if it's crammed with 50 or more cars as it often is on weekend afternoons with perfect weather. Pick up the AT across the road from the parking lot.
- Length: 3.5 miles to McAfee Knob, 7 miles with the return
- Elevation: From about 2,000 feet at the trailhead to 3,200 feet at the Knob.
- Gottasee factor (scenery, scale 0 to 4): of 3.5.
- Gottabreathe factor (difficulty, scale 0 to 4): of 3: A constant but mostly steady climb up 1,200 feet in less than 4 miles. Lots of people make it, however, who aren't well-conditioned hikers.
- Beware: The sharp drop at McAfee Knob. Death is literally a step away.
- Of interest: Ever been to Africa? If not, Africa's been here, geologists say. Catawba Mountain and others nearby were formed, they say, when Africa crashed into North America more than 200 million years ago.
- Description: In Virginia, McAfee Knob is the Appalachian Trail's poster and postcard image. Pick up an Appalachian Trail calendar and there's a good chance it's there. The hype is supported by the reality: McAfee Knob is the jutting end of a crazily tilted rocky mountain, sticking out into thin air like a diving platform. The view from the Knob sweeps around 270 degrees (everything except through the forest directly behind), surveying the Catawba Valley and North Mountain to the west, Tinker Cliffs to the north, and the Roanoke Valley to the east. The view to the east (or right, if looking straight as the Knob points) looks as if one is on approach to Roanoke Regional Airport, and the buildings of downtown Roanoke gleam in the sunlight when it's not too hazy. Further away, the Allegheny Mountains roll into away in waves to the western horizon and Sharp Top points skyward to the northeast.
Questions heard most often on McAfee Knob
Q: What's that we are seeing?
A: Catawba Valley, North Mountain and Tinker Ridge. Roanoke Valley on a clear day.
Q: Can we drink the water?
A: You can, but it should be treated. In a high-use area the water probably is contaminated with Giardia, a bacteria that can cause a bad case of diarrhea.
Q: How long does it take to get to McAfee Knob from Virginia 311?
A: It is 3.5 miles one way and takes about two hours, depending on what kind of shape you are in and your hiking experience.
Q: What kind of wildlife will we see?
A: Deer. Maybe a bear. Possibly a black snake or corn snake. Rarely a copperhead.
Q: Can I get lost?
A: Not likely. The trail mostly is straight up and straight back. But one hiker once left the parking lot too late, got disoriented in the dark and had to be located by a bloodhound.
From McAfee Knob, I could not see Sharp Top, where I had been the day before, poking up on the horizon. I could not see the First Union Tower sticking up from the floor of the Roanoke Valley. I could not make out the Mill Mountain Star in Roanoke. I'm sure I couldn't see anything in West Virginia.
Of my three trips to what may be the most photographed spot on the entire 2,000-mile plus Appalachian Trail, Oct. 24 offered the worst visibility, with its fog, haze and overcast skies. Tinker Cliffs, North Mountain and the Roanoke Regional Airport were visible, but much beyond that. The Blue Ridge to the east and the Alleghenies to the west were only abstract smoky masses.
And yet, this hike to McAfee Knob revealed, in other ways, the most beautiful scenes of any of these three trips I've taken this week.
The valley floor below the Knob was stroked with the brush of a skilled heavenly painter. The reds, yellows and oranges of the forest 2,000 feet below made up for not being able to pick out individual trees on a mountain ridge 10 miles away.
The hike up provided a similar kaleidoscope of fall color. At Sharp Top, it seemed the seasons were in layers working up the mountain. Here on Catawba Mountain, as it angled up at its crazy tilt to McAfee, three seasons seemed to be all mixed together. Some trees were bare, some were brown, some were brightly colored, and more than I had expected were still mostly green. Autumn has not been a one-weekend wonder on this mountain.
One spot I spent a little more time to absorb, as opposed to running through it in the haste to get to the Knob, was the Devil's Kitchen, an area of huge flat-top boulders, big chunks of a mountain said to have formed when Africa delivered an uppercut to the East Coast many millions of years ago. I'll probably get on a harangue tomorrow at Devil's Marbleyard about all these devilish names, but today, I just admired these rock formations as I wandered through them.
This hike is a definite calf-burner. Cindy and I again plowed straight through with few water breaks before the top, passing one hiker who started right before us, but we felt it in the legs. At least I did. At the Knob, I found a place to sit, munched on some soy nuts, and gave the dog and me some gulps of water. Buzzards and hawks soared below. There was almost no wind. It was peaceful.
On the way down, I chose to take the old fire road back to the start instead of the trail, joining it a mile below the Knob. In many ways, I liked this route better. It's a good route to take for speed, as it is so wide with such an easy grade. It seemed there were even more colorful trees clustered around the road than the trail, and it visits some neat rock formations. It comes out just a little piece from the trail, with the parking lot in sight to the left across the highway.
Before we finished, a light rain sprinkled down upon us. It wasn't nearly enough for the rain jacket, though, and I found myself wishing it would rain a little harder. A nice rain brings up some fresh smells from the forest as it first begins. And besides, I thought it would be more interesting to write about a little bad weather than all these perfect-weather hikes.
On to every hiker, a little rain must fall.