One of the most famous points along the southern AT, especially among photography buffs, McAfee Knob (pronounced MAC-a-fee by locals) deserves a day hike of its own. Approaching from the south, the 3.5-mi. ascent of Catawba Mountain, gaining 1200 ft., is strenuous, but the views from the knob are worth the effort and are quite possibly the best Virginia has to offer.
From the parking lot, cross VA 311 and pick up the AT at a stone stairwell. This road is a main thoroughfare between Roanoke and Blacksburg. Use extreme caution. The AT begins an immediate, steep ascent, leaving the highway behind as it crosses up a wide old woods road. In early spring, the area is abloom with a variety of wildflowers including violets, dwarf iris, buttercups, and lady's-slipper. In April, the trees are dotted with the bright red blooms of the redbuds. Rhododendron, dogwood, and blueberry bushes also make the area green and colorful.
A series of switchbacks brings the trail to the crest of a narrow ridge. As the AT passes over the top of the ridge, there are steep drop-offs to the left and the right. To the north, Catawba Valley sprawls below, scattered with rustic farmhouses and open green pastures. To the right, mountains rise in the distance.
Continuing its climb through a forest of young Virginia pine and hickory, the trail gets narrower and rockier as it leaves the old woods road and follows the ridge. After 0.25 mi. of steep, uphill hiking, the AT dips slightly, reaching an AT bulletin board and registration post. A scan of some of the comments in the registry from hikers returning from the knob will increase your anticipation of the sights ahead. Beyond this checkpoint, the trail cuts to the right and begins a slight descent. Don't get used to the easy gaityou're in for some mighty steep uphill climbs ahead.
The drooping pink petals of the vetch flower line the trail in early spring as it continues through a rocky area. The several rocky sections here were created 250 million years ago when the African plate crashed into, and then receded from, what is now Virginia. During this process, the land bowed, rippled, heaved, and cracked to form Catawba and Tinker mountains. They sit at the front edge of a giant sandstone rock block known as the Pulaski Fault. The force of the ocean from the south and east created the formation by pushing it up over the neighboring stones.
A series of narrow footbridges carries the AT over the extremely rocky patches that resulted. Although this section of the trail is well cared for, be sure to test the boards for stability and cross with care. An occasional loose plank is inevitable, especially after a harsh winter.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication