"Like the bear who went over the mountain, I went out to see what I could see," wrote Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. "On a good day I might catch a glimpse of another wooded ridge rolling under the sun like water, another bivouac."
Dillard's words capture the gentle rhythms of central Virginia's Appalachian mountains. You'll feel them too as you follow the ridges she wrote about, winding and climbing from one to the next, then descending into a series of quiet shady hollows.
You can hike this section any time of year, but spring will put you in the southern Appalachian's glorious wildflower bloom (look for sheep laurel to bloom in late April and early May on McAfee's Knob). If you're partial to the flaming hills of autumn, October is prime time for leaf-peeping.
Location: Southwestern Virginia near Roanoke. The trailhead in on VA 311, about 9 miles northwest of I-81.
Distance: 28 miles.
Maps: The entire loop is mapped on Map Number 4 of the Appalachian Trail, Glenwood and New Castle Ranger Districts of the Jefferson National Forest, published by the Appalachian Trail Conference.
The Route: Head north on the Appalachian Trail from Catawba, Virginia, and then leave the AT to return by way of the North Mountain Trail. You'll pick up the AT as it crosses on VA 624 0.3 miles from VA 311, where a hiker-friendly general store offers a last chance to buy supplies. Warning: the start of this loop is a series of short, strenuous ups and downs followed by a steady, three-and-a-half mile climb, so you'll want to be conservative about the mileage. You'll be rewarded for your work when you reach the summit of McAfee's Knob, which boasts one of the best known and most commonly photographed views on the Appalachian Trail. The views continue as you follow the ridge to Tinker Cliffs.
You'll leave the AT at Scorched Earth Gap (if you continue on the AT for a 0.6 miles detour, you can stay the night at Lambert's Meadow Shelter). Heading south on the blue-blazed North Mountain Trail, you descend into a valley on what used to be the Appalachian Trail, then climb up to North Mountain. This is a flat ridge walk, but it's not a fast one. In recent years, the blue-blazed trail has been the victim of several ice storms and can be quite overgrown. The upside: solitude. At route 311, turn left and walk 0.5 miles back to your car. If you've got time and energy left over for a side trip, try the climb up to Dragon's Tooth, going south on the AT from VA 624.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication