Up, up and away! The trail is well-trodden, and every twist and turn feels familiar as you sense footsteps of through-hikers past. With the famous white blazes leading the way, 4.4 miles weaving through pines and firs lead you to a magnificent overlook. Don’t let the devastatingly deep drop leave you breathless – take a deep breath and smile. You’ve earned this.
Get ready: The trail head for McAfee Knob is about 30 minutes from Roanoke, Virginia. From Interstate 81, take exit 141. Head north on 419/311 for about a quarter of a mile, then turn right on Route 311. Drive about 5.5 miles, up Catawba Mountain. The gravel parking area will be on your left as the road sweeps to the right. As you pull into the lot, look out for hikers crossing the road – the Appalachian Trail actually crosses it.
Get set: Don’t be surprised if the lot is nearly full. Just cross your fingers that there’s still a spot left if you’re hiking on a weekend day! When we visited, we had to park in front of the porta potties (there are a couple for you to use). Do NOT park on the side of the road – you WILL be towed. Once you’re ready to hit the trail, cross the road, carefully, looking for the little sign marking the continuation of the AT. The trail rises right away.
Go: Switchbacks, rises and falls – this 4.4 mile portion of the AT up 3,200-foot tall Catawba Mountain has it all. You’ll pass AT shelters and campsites, navigating over roots, rocks and dirt. Just be sure to always follow the white blazes (there’s a fire road that you can follow, alternatively, that will drop you about 1.4 from the knob – we took this on the return, as we were losing sunlight). Once you get to McAfee Knob, find a quiet spot to have a snack, sip on some water and take pictures. Trust me – you’re going to want to capture this special place on a camera! Be careful about getting too close to the edge. It’s a VERY steep drop. When you’ve soaked up the view enough, head back the way you came, along the trail, or take the fire road (the same length – just a straighter shot).
Effort: With the return, this is an 8.8 mile trip. You’ll climb 1,700 feet to reach McAfee Knob, which just so happens to be one of the most scenic (and photographed) spots along the famed Appalachian Trail. Your calves will ache and your blood will be pumping, but your eyes will feast on the 270 degree view from the knob.
Takeaway: The hike should be on every Evergreen Girl’s bucket list. It’s a highlight for through-hikers on the Appalachian Trail, and just as spectacular for all us day hikers. While 8.8 miles might seem like a lot, trust me when I say that it goes by quickly, and while the climb IS difficult – ANYONE can do this hike knowing what kind of vista lies at the end. You will not regret working this trek into your next exploration in Virginia!