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  • Writer's pictureTim Murphy

Trail Trials: McAfee Knob

Widely regarded as the “most photographed spot along the Appalachian Trail,” McAfee Knob is a sight to behold. The prominent precipice towers nearly 1,700 feet above the Catawba Valley, offering splendid scenery and panoramic views from its iconic overhang. While the out-and-back journey covers 7.8 miles, more than 50,000 hikers visit McAfee each year, making it one of the most popular and heavily trafficked segments on the Appalachian Trail.

The main McAfee parking lot is located off VA-311; however, this area fills up quickly, especially during the fall and spring months. Overflow parking is available year-round along the Catawba Greenway, while a seasonal shuttle service provides trailhead transportation from the I-81 Park & Ride at Exit 140. The Appalachian Trail intersects Route 311 on a semi-blind curve, so exercise caution when crossing the highway.

Once across VA-311, the A.T. ascends the foothills of Catawba Mountain with glimpses of Mason Cove peering through its arboraceous landscape. After 0.3 miles of uphill hiking, an information kiosk appears at the junction of two trails. The Appalachian Trail (marked by white blazes) continues to the right, while the other footpath leads to an old fire road—an alternate route for those wishing to venture off the beaten path. Several shelters and campgrounds speckle the Appalachian until it reconnects with the fire road two miles down track.

The Appalachian Trail steadily rises over moderately steep terrain for the remaining 1.4 miles—passing underneath overhead power lines and around the monolithic boulder clusters of Devil’s Kitchen. As the hardwood forest blends with mountaintop pines, the blue-blazed McAfee Knob Spur Trail directs hikers to the coveted overlook.

My experience at McAfee was nothing but sensational. Although Roanoke County was beset by severe thunderstorms prior to my visit, the skies were beginning to break when I arrived at the trailhead, making for a misty, ethereal atmosphere. The main parking lot was essentially empty—the inclement weather having deterred the crowds—and I enjoyed the hike in blissful solitude. My entire journey took just over four hours to complete; however, I remained atop McAfee’s rocky ledge for thirty minutes, savoring the presence of a sublime landscape.

McAfee Knob is classified as a moderately strenuous hike—not necessarily due to elevation gain, rather its length. Those wishing to experience the heights will have to endure nearly eight miles roundtrip, but the view is worth every step. The drop-offs are very steep and have caused serious (if not fatal) injuries to overly venturous hikers, so please exercise caution while exploring the Appalachian Trail’s most photogenic protuberance. Trail Rating: 10/10

Click HERE for an overview map of McAfee Knob


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