This report was reposted on October 17, 2020 to include a video, new photos, and updated formatting.
McAfee Knob is among the most popular hikes in southwest Virginia and said to be the most photographed place on the Appalachian Trail with its own wikipedia page. The popular nature of the hike is a reason I avoid this hike typically and head over to Tinker’s Cliff unless I am doing a sunrise hike. When Keith visited last year, I had planned to write about our sunrise hike and even took a GPS track on it. However, that hike was completely in the fog.
About 1 year to the day, Keith visited us again so we gave sunrise another shot. As you can see, it was quite a nice success. Given we hiked mostly in the dark, I headed up there again to take some updated pictures of the trail for this report a month later during the peak foliage season. With Amtrak restarting train service to Roanoke from D.C the week I’m publishing this post, hopefully this will be just in time for you to plan a southwest VA getaway.
To help preserve this section of trail for everyone else, please remember to practice leave no trace and pack out your garbage including your toilet paper.
- name: McAfee Knob
- type: in and out (combine the AT and fire road, FR, for a loop feel)
- distances: between 7.8 to 8.5 mi
- one-way estimates
- AT – 4.1 mi
- FR – 3.9 mi
- one-way estimates
- elevation change: 2041 ft ascent and descent (combination of AT and FR)
- one-way from trailhead to viewpoint estimate:
- AT – 1731 ft ascent and 512 descent
- FR – 1423 ft ascent and 198 ft descent
- one-way from trailhead to viewpoint estimate:
- time: 3 hours moving (3:15 hours with breaks), FR is about 10-15 minutes quicker
- location: Appalachian Trail; Catawba, VA (google map directions)
There are different two routes during the first 2 mile or so of the trail leading up to McAfee Knob. The first is the AT and the second is the fire road (FR). The routes also intersect at 2 points, the second is where the routes combine. Continue on the AT northbound there to head up to McAfee Knob. The fire road is easier to walk with less elevation change. On the AT, the vistas are of Fort Lewis Mountain and Mason Cove to the south. Meanwhile, the fire road takes the ridge with views to the north of North Mountain.
If you were looking for a longer hike or a few days backpack, this section of the AT called Virginia’s Triple Crown is a treat. You can even make it a loop by incorporating the North Mountain Trails. Camping is restricted on this trail because of popularity. Here is a link by the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club (RATC) with shelters in the area. However, my recommendation to set up a shuttle for a point to point section hike of the AT from the Dragon’s Tooth parking lot to VA 220. This would include the Hay Rock and Carvins Cove section rather then the viewless North Mountain.
Before you start planning for this hike, note that this is one of the most popular hikes in Virginia. On a nice weekend day, the parking lot will be full shortly after sunrise (as seen here).
Previously, we use to be able to park along a side road (Old Catawba Road) just east of the main parking lot. However recently, the Roanoke County Police have been towing cars there when there were no “no parking” signs posted here (Roanoke Times).
For this trip report, I will describe the hike heading up on the official Appalachian Trail (AT)
and down on the fire road. As described above, the AT takes a little bit longer and has more elevation change. If you are night hiking up for the sunrise, want to take it easier, or have a larger group, the fire road is better for you.
The trailhead for the AT is directly across the street from the information bulletin board. Even though there are warning signs for cars and rumble strips, the cars here travel on this road around 50 miles per hour. So be aware and cross quickly here, especially at night.
The trail quickly climbs up toward the top of the ridge on Catawba Mountain ridge. The incline here is as steep as it gets for this trail.
Once you are on top of the ridge, you will walk around a few boulders in the path of the trail before you come to the first intersection. At this point, you can still decide to head up via the fire road by taking the left path here.
The right path continues on the AT, which I took. There is another information sign depicting the shelters and camping areas available on the trail. Because of the popularity of the trail, no other camping spots are allowed.
There is a view point here looking south toward Fort Lewis Mountain and Mason Cove. (Hopefully Starbucks will sponsor me in the future with my awesome product placement, fingers crossed. Actually, since I was hiking alone, I was just using what I had on hand to give perspective to the scenery).
The AT undulates on because of large, slanted rock formations on the trail.
Just over a mile on the AT is the John Springs Shelter, one of 3 different shelters around this section. There is a fire pit and a toilet here. The water source is 0.25 miles from the shelter following the blue blazes with a sharp right turn half way toward the toilet. More information on shelters in the area can be found on ROTC’s webpage.
Afterwards, the AT continues on the side of the mountain bypassing a few more cool slopping rocks and rounding Catawba Mountain
before arriving an intersection for the Catawba Shelter and Campgrounds in another mile, or 2.3 miles from the trailhead.
The shelter here has a fire pit, toilet, and even a bear locker.
There is also a stream with reliable water source here just before the shelter and runs right by it.
Further north on the AT is the camping area with a few sites and fire rings.
The trail starts pushing uphills at this point and coming to the intersection with the fire road around 2.4-2.8 miles from the trailhead. There is now a chain with directions showing the way to continue uphill toward McAfee Knob (labeled at another 1.2 miles).
After more uphill, the AT crosses an opening for power lines that provides a surprising nice view as seen from this view point after the opening.
There is a first viewpoint north (if took the AT) once you reach ridge of the mountain, but it is getting more overgrown.
Continuing up on the ridge, there is another intersection where the AT continues sharply to the left. The blocked off right path leads down toward the blocked off portion of the fire road. This picture is looking back after the left turn.
After that, you’ll arrive at a cool section of large boulders. There are several climbing routes among these boulders if you are willing to carry crash pads up this far. Don’t worry if you aren’t willing, there are a few more boulders along the fire road closer to the trailhead that I’ll get to later in the report.
After walking across a last flat rock incline, you’ll reach the split to the cliffs
that make up McAfee Knob, the most photographed spot on the AT. The photograph below is taken from the last weekend of October 2017, roughly the peak foliage for the year.
Due to the warmer fall the last two years, the foliage has been very uneven leading to muted colors. Even though there are plenty of green leaves left, only the yellow leaves dominate the scenery with the red and oranges yet to turn or have already fallen. In the future, check out foliage reports from Virginia’s Department of Forestry or Shenandoah National Park. For comparison, check out pictures through the years at the end of this page.
The best time to come up to McAfee Knob however is for the sunrise.
Second time is the charm hiking with Keith, as we were stuck in the clouds the first go around last year. The best time of year to capture a photo of the sun directly rising behind the knob is during the summer month.
Continuing past the outcropped rock, there is another view point, from where you can directly view the sunrise and downtown Roanoke with the star on top of Mill Mountain, which gives Roanoke its nickname of Star City.
Even further passed the outcrop, is another maze of boulders presenting more bouldering routes to climb.
Even though there is no camping allowed at the top of McAfee Knob, it not unusual to find a few hammocks or tents here through the night. Be aware there is no water source here if you do decide to squat and as always, practice leave no trace and pack out your garbage.
For legal camping close to McAfee Knob, continue northbound on the AT for less than a mile. There you will find the Pig Farm campsite and the Campbell Shelter. Improvements have been made there for more of a reliable water source, which can still dry out during late summer droughts, 0.1 miles further downhill.
Once you are ready to back to the trailhead, retrace your steps until you reach the intersection with the fire road. From here I’ll describe the fire road route, read the directions in reverse if you are taking the fire road up.
At the intersection, follow the sign for the fire road toward RT 311.
The fire road follows the ridge continuing slowly downward. The wider trail with trees on both sides create a nice forest tunnel scenery the Virginia AT is known for, green for most thru-hikers and yellow in the fall.
Along the way there are 3 sets of boulders you can climb.
The most popular is Mickey Mouse, which is slightly over a mile from the trailhead.
About a mile from the trailhead, there is another information bulletin board.
Right before the last downhill, you’ll reach the junction that crosses over to the AT. Interestingly, there chain link pushing hikers back toward the AT now. This is perhaps because the fire road comes out slightly down hill on RT 311 and it might be difficult for drivers to see you crossing.
For completeness, I headed down the fire road anyways coming to the last bouldering spot known as Road Side. You can see the parking lot from here. The outcrop is also the reason why cars heading west will have a hard time seeing you coming out on the fire road.
Just below the boulder, is the fire road trailhead where I finished my hike.
For those of you that crave some traditional southern cooking at the end of your hike, there is a well known local all you can eat restaurant just west on RT 311, down the hill. It is called Homeplace and a favorite place to combine with hiking. UPDATE 2020/10/17: Homeplace is closed after October 18 for the rest of 2020 (Roanoke Times).
- views: 3. At McAfee Knob, the outcrop rock is most photographed location on the AT. However, it’s not just the rock that makes the view, but the rest of the Catawba Mountain ridge, the valley below, and the layering of the mountains in the distance that makes this such a nice viewpoint. Beyond the vista, the hike also features the green (or yellow and red during peak foliage season) tunnel effect that the Virginia AT section is known for. These features contrast the peaks and more rocky terrain of the Appalachian Chain further north as a visiting hiker from Vermont pointed out on my last hike. McAfee does have its own rocky features as well with several bouldering pitches along the way and slots at the top. The major draw back is that McAfee Knob is very popular, so don’t expect to have the viewpoint to yourself at any time. For the best aesthetic views, my recommendation is the sunrise hike here.
- difficulty: 2. Even though the trail is mostly a gradual incline, the 2000 ft elevation change through the 8 miles can make it seem more difficult then it is. For an easier and quicker hike, take the fire road.
- technical: 1. Regardless of the fire road or the AT, the trail is very well marked with no scrambling.