Hike the Appalachian Trail to Virginia's McAfee Knob
Named after James McAfee, a Scottish-Irish born immigrant who settled in Virginia's Catawba Valley in the late 1730's, McAfee Knob sits atop the northeast ridge of Catawba Mountain providing hikers with gorgeous panorama views of the valley below. It's the most photographed spot anywhere on the 2,190-mile long Appalachian Trail, but
When Myron Avery, the Appalachian Trail's master builder, designed the route the plan was for the trail to follow the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains on the other side of Roanoke. When local hikers caught wind of this they requested that he reconsider, proposing a new route that included McAfee Knob some fifteen miles west. In 1933, after some convincing by the newly organized Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club, Avery endorsed the new route and personally supervised its construction. Almost a century later, hikers are drawn to the knob for it's fame, the beautiful view, and of course the photo.
Trailhead elevation 1,951'
Don't miss The view just past the knob where the crowds thin out considerably
Hiking to McAfee Knob
The hike begins on the opposite side of the SR-311 parking lot at a clearly visible trailhead sign. We've done this trail more than a half dozen times and the last time my old man came to check it out and camp overnight.
After a brief initial incline the trail splits a quarter mile in. Turn right at the information kiosk to pick up the white blazed Appalachian Trail and continue along the eastern side of the ridge gradually gaining elevation as you go. The trail is very well marked, fairly rocky overall, and super easy to follow. You get lost on this one and it's time to reevaluate life.
At 1.0 mile in you'll pass the Johns Spring Shelter to your right and at 2.2 the Catawba Mountain Shelter. Both are three sided lead-to's and have an eight person capacity, but comfortably it's more like six. Neither have terribly reliable water sources nearby, but come with fire rings. Like all AT shelters they're on a first come, first served basis and require no fees or permits to use.
There is a large, noticeable tent camping area just after the second shelter where the trail veers left. This is the only tent camping spot before you reach McAfee Knob that we're aware of, but it's a pretty decent size area that can accommodate around a dozen or so tents. No fees or permits are required for tent camping. At roughly 2.5 miles you'll cross over the McAfee Fire Road where the trail steepens and for the most part holds this grade until reaching the knob. The view from McAfee Knob is incredible and arguably the best in all of Virginia. North Mountain and Tinker Cliffs, two key segments of the Virginia Triple Crown, as well as the Roanoke Valley can be seen from up top. The drop from the edge is about 100' so use caution when approaching.
Sunrise on McAfee Knob can be amazing and we highly recommend being up there for it. We typically hike up midday, enjoy the views before hiking down to the Pig Farm Campsite or Campbell Shelter about 0.7 miles past McAfee Knob and camp for the night. The next morning we make it back up with plenty of time to enjoy sunrise before heading back to the trailhead. In our opinion this is the best area to camp the night before since it's so close to the top. If you were to camp in the Catawba Mountain Shelter or nearby tent camping area you're looking at nearly 1.8 miles and 1,000' of elevation to get up to McAfee Knob and then 4 miles back down to the trailhead. Camping is prohibited near McAfee Knob.
There's no bad time of year to hike this one, but summer and fall are our favorites since we like to stay overnight and catch sunrise the following morning. Parking can be an absolute nightmare on the weekends and when school is out during the summer. Due to the trail's popularity a shuttle to the trailhead is now available if you don't want to deal with the parking craziness. More info on that here.
Some other great hikes nearby include Dragon's Tooth, Tinker Cliffs via Andy Layne, Hay Rock, and the Virginia Triple Crown backpack. Carvins Cove is also nearby and worth checking out if you're into kayaking or mountain biking.
Have a blast and make some memories!