In late October 2015 REI announced that they were staying closed on Black Friday and paying their 12,000 employees to go out and play. In a campaign they called #OptOutside they invited the rest of the world to join them. As a member of a community that has grown weary of excessive consumerism, this invitation was enough to get me thinking.
Virginia is an amazing place to be an outdoorsman. We have 554 miles of the Appalachian Trail that run through the Washington and Jefferson National Forests, and Shenandoah National Park. There are hundreds of miles of side trails to the Appalachian Trail, but there are also another 395 miles of Rails to Trails, plus another 37 Virginia State Parks. How does a hiker even begin to narrow down a list of hundreds of possibilities?
I used two major limiting factors to decide where I would join the 1.4 million people who decided to OptOutside: Distance from home and hike mileage. Given that I only had a three day weekend, four hours travel time was my limit, and I wanted a hike greater than 15 miles but less than 30. This narrowed my choices quite significantly. Many of the hikes that I really hoped would make the cut failed miserably. Though Seneca Falls,
WV would have been an amazing place to hike, it is nearly five hours from my house. McAfee Knob fell just 5 minutes outside my four-hour window, so I considered it until I realized it was only an 8-mile hike. The same situation occurred for Dragon’s Tooth. Though Three Ridges fell just inside my 15-mile limit, it was close enough at only 3 hours away. Three Ridges seems to be the hike that everyone does, it is long enough to backpack, short enough to day hike, strenuous enough to get the blood going, and trail access is easy. I can’t tell you that I was overly excited about the hike, but any day on the trail beats a day in the city. I needed a few days in the woods.
About a week before the trip, at some ridiculous hour of the morning, I decided to jump online to look at my hike. By a (mis)stroke of luck, I typed in “triple” instead of “three” and came up with a quite different set of search results. Near the top of the page was a Mid-Atlantic Hikes page for the Virginia Triple Crown (modified). Dragon’s Tooth, McAfee, and Tinker Cliffs, all in one hike! I was pretty stoked, so I began to research it more. I realized the Mid-Atlantic modification cut off Dragon’s Tooth to create a more manageable 28-mile hike, rather than a 35-38 mile route recommended by other trip planners. The downside was that I would have to plant my car at one end and hitch to the other. This kind of hitch isn’t usually too difficult in the mountains of Virginia, so I went with the chance.
Black Friday morning my phone alarm dutifully went off at 3:30 in the
morning. I’m fairly certain my electronic rooster also decided that one minute of crowing was enough for both of us, and went back to sleep. 6:16 in the morning, I rolled over and noticed that the night sky was fading into morning sunrise. Ahh, how wonderful. Wait! Oh no! I am supposed to be halfway to the mountains by now! Fortunately, my gear was already packed, I had showered the night before, and my clothes were already laid out for the day. I was out the door (even had coffee in hand) by 6:35. My fear that Black Friday traffic was unsubstantiated, and I was parked at the Park-N-Ride at VA 220, Daleville four hours later. I opted to hitch down to the start since it’s easier to hitch when you don’t smell like a hiker. I headed up to a Shoney’s around the corner from the parking area for a carb-heavy breakfast, hoping to catch a hitch. Luck was with me as I met a nice older couple who were happy to give me a lift down the road. I was happy to catch the bill for breakfast, so everything worked out well. Given my late start, I modified the Mid-Atlantic hike further, making the McAfee Knob parking area on VA 311 in Catawba my new starting point.
McAfee Knob Trail begins on VA 311 in Catawba. There is a large parking
area across the highway from the trailhead. From the parking lot, the trail is 3.9 miles to McAfee Knob. This trail is a well-used trail where two people can easily hike side by side for most of the trip. Following the white blazes of the Appalachian Trail, the elevation gain of 1,740 feet is mild through the first few miles, increasing after an intersection with a fire road. One mile into the hike, Johns Spring Shelter appears to the right of the trail. According to the 2015 AWOL AT Guide, there is supposed to be an unreliable spring 25 yards in front of the shelter. I was unable to locate the spring, despite the abundant recent rainfall.
One more mile up the path lies Catawba Mountain Shelter. A small piped spring lies to the left just before the shelter cutoff. The shelter seems well maintained, the privy was clean, and there was a picnic table filled with day-hikers enjoying their lunch. For those who prefer to tent, the land here was fairly well sloped and not suitable. Hammock campers will find plenty of small trees behind the shelter. A spring/summer hike may have more vegetation. This was supposed to be the end of my Day 1 hike according to the Mid-Atlantic directions, but since the day was still fairly early, I chose to hike on.
McAfee Knob doesn’t seem to have a lot of written history, but it is indeed the most photographed location on the Appalachian Trail. The Knob rises 1,740 feet above the valley and boasts a nearly 270-degree view. It is the inspiration for the Virginia Appalachian Trail license tag, a movie poster for “A Walk in the Woods” and dozens of postcards, posters, and calendars. Arriving at the knob at 3:30 in the afternoon, there were dozens of people enjoying the view. Folks had brought chairs, hammocks, and one clutch of college kids had even brought a folding table. Just to prove to me that everyone in the state had the same idea as me, I ran into several members of my trail club, as well as the head pastor of my neighborhood church. Hiking Upward marks McAfee Knob as a 1 (the lowest mark) for solitude, and it was dead on. It’s
a funny thing about people that forgo the consumer driven world to OptOutside though, for the 50+ people that were on the knob at that time, there was a general reverence for the location. Trash was being packed out, there was a line to have pictures taken at the point and everyone was respectful to one another. There was a polar difference between these people and those who would later make news for being loud and rowdy outside department stores across the nation.
Having taken in enough of the view, I slung my pack and carried on. The trail north of McAfee rolls steadily down Catawba mountain through a rock maze. Camping on McAfee Knob is prohibited, but many people seemed to find nooks behind this maze to erect their shelters. The terrain is a fairly steady drop of about 550 feet in elevation across about a half a mile to arrive at the “Pig Farm” campsite. This was a very level area with room for half a dozen tents. At the center of the site is a standard fire ring. Water is available from a stream that lies about 500 feet to the south. This is the same water source that supplies Campbell Shelter just a tenth of a mile north on the trail. Campbell is fairly well maintained. There is room for six hikers in the shelter, as well as a nice wide deck. The usual fire pit, privy, and picnic table accompany the shelter. A sign was posted regarding recent bear sightings, and the need to hang bear bags. Other hikers followed shortly behind me, as was expected considering the unseasonably warm weather and the large crowds at McAfee. After the usual banter, meals were cooked (tuna mac and a brownie that I swiped from my Shoney’s breakfast for me) and bear bags were hung. Sunset was at 5, and moonrise was at 7, so I anticipated a good view of the sky before I hit the hammock. Light pollution from nearby Roanoke and incoming clouds dashed my hope for a truly spectacular sky. Though I was a bit disappointed, I knew that I would be much further away on Saturday night.
Around 7 am Saturday morning, the sun broke the horizon, but never the clouds. Days like this always give me a lazy feel. Rather than breaking camp right away, I chose to lay in my hammock for a bit longer. Once I finally rolled out of my nest, I decided to meet the other hikers who had come to the shelter. Brewing a pot of coffee is my preferred method for plying stories from other hikers, so I went to work with my pour over kit attached to my Nalgene and some fresh ground Kenya AA coffee. Sure as ever, it only took a simple offer to bring the hikers around, cups in hand. Sharing morning joe, I learned that I was the only one hiking north. Two other couples had only hiked to the shelter for the night, one girl had hiked south from Tinker Cliffs, and one couple intended to make a weekend of it at the shelter. This laid a promising track for a fairly quiet hike north. The other hikers seemed to come from all over, North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia, and Oregon. Oddly, everyone introduced themselves by their real names, no trail names were used. After a little morning banter the coffee was empty, I packed my gear and headed off to the north.
The day started off on an easy and downward trend. Still descending Catawba Mountain, I loped north 3 miles towards Brickey’s Gap at a better than expected pace. Gently following the ridge, the AT gave gorgeous views east and west. Hiking in the winter affords three main advantages, a lack of vegetation being one. Without the leaves, the valley below is almost always visible. On the saddle, I could see Catawba Mountain from where I had come, as well as occasional glimpses of Tinker Cliffs ahead. The cliffs loomed a mere five miles from the shelter, but more than a thousand feet of elevation gain, mostly in the last two miles. To the east, Carvin Cove Reservoir reflects the serene gray cloud skies. The weather report had been less than promising for Saturday, and even less so for Sunday. So far the rain had held out, I could only hope that it would continue at least long enough that I could get a view from the cliffs.
The last two miles up Tinker Mountain were indeed strenuous. The views were limited, and the inclines focused the mind on the trail. As the trail tends to do, it reads the hiker, leads the traveler to push beyond comfort,
but not without reward. Little plateaus appeared along the way. Each respite was strewn with quartz marbled stones that proved just the right size to take a load off, and occasionally afforded a view of the cliffs ahead. Finally, at 1 pm I was able to reach the grand limestone cliffs. The view was breathtaking. I was as if a giant hand had raked a giant three prong garden cultivator across the land, scraping 3,000-foot ridges from the valley floor. Though the hike had been exhausting, the bounty of such a vista was exhilarating. Slinging my pack to the ground, it was time for lunch.
While the view had been amazing, the wind had picked up. The already low clouds began to loom overhead, promising a wet trail ahead. Rather than wait for the storm at the highest and most open point around, it was time to strap my pack on, retrieve my hiking poles and move on. I had chosen a spot that was just about halfway across the cliff face, so I still had a few ooh’s and ahh’s before the trail broke hard right, diving back into the forested mountainside. Winding my way down switchback after switchback, through a limestone maze, and back into the open, the AT forks to the right, leaving the old Andy Layne conservation trail and Scorched Earth Gap to the right. There was a printed sign stapled to the AT directional marker reminding hikers that bears have been spotted in the area recently, and that we are directed to use proper precaution when storing food. I found myself lost in thought as I guided to the right, wondering about the actions of bears this late in the year. It has been an unseasonably warm year, so I suppose it is completely possible that bears have not decided to head for caves for their seasonal snooze.
There is a quiet on the trail when you are out on your own. The only sounds are completely natural, which makes it easy to hear people from a distance. As I strode along, I began to hear the sound of someone chopping wood in the distance. I guessed (correctly) that I was near Lambert’s Meadow shelter, and that someone was getting firewood ready, settling in for a rainy evening. Arriving at the shelter, I met two gentlemen in their mid 20’s who were busily chopping firewood between swigs from a whiskey bottle on the picnic table. The usual formalities commenced with introductions, where you going, where you from, nice pack, looks like rain, etc. Though I felt nothing particularly predatory about this duo, my spider-senses were tingling, and I could almost feel the little Jedi ghosts around me warning that the common sense in these two was not very strong. I decided that I might just as well head a little further north to the campsite at Sawmill Run.
Walking about 100 yards down the trail, I was disappointed to see the Sawmill Run tent area was still within earshot of the drunken lumberjacks. I briefly paused, considering my options. It was only 3 pm and my AWOL guide held at least one promising location. There had been a number of other areas along the trail where a hammock camper could set camp. Sunset was at 5, I had brand new batteries in my headlamp, and I sure didn’t feel like hearing the dynamic duo. AWOL showed a pretty much downhill glide, I decided to go for it.
At mile 720.9 my guide showed a “Blue-blazed trail west to view” that seemed to be of the greatest promise. Arriving at the marked trail right at 4, I decided that this was the best place I could possibly hope for. The view was gorgeous, and it sat a little below the ridge top. I quickly slung my hammock and prepared my camp, happy to have not seen rain.
Just after sunset, while drinking a cup of tea on the cliff, the rain finally came. Ducking quickly under my hammock tarp, I enjoyed the last of my tea, rolled into my hammock, and was lulled to sleep by the raindrops dancing off my tarp.
Dull light crept across my camp Sunday morning. The rain had stopped, but the clouds still remained. Rolling out of my bear burrito, I was pleased that this morning was warmer than expected. I set out to my usual morning chores. I have learned that the faster I put my sleeping gear away, the less likely I am to loll around. I fetched my food bag from the tree down the trail. Mornings like this remind me that keeping all my food inside of a Ziploc freezer bag, inside of the food sack is a good idea. The sack was soaked, but the food was dry. Sitting on the ledge of the cliff, I proceeded to make my morning coffee
and mow down a bag of peaches and cream instant oatmeal. I found that I had reception on the cliff, so I let everyone know that I was safe, and preparing to be on my way. by 8 o’clock, I had shaken most of the water from my gear, packed everything away, and was back on the trail.
Hiking is as much a mental sport as a physical one. Each uphill, each downhill, every rock scramble takes a toll on the mind. The cold, the heat, drought, and humidity each plays a part in the mind game. Then, of course, is just the sheer magnitude of distance. The game of the hiker is to break these things down to their own individual milestones. A reference such as AWOL’s “AT Guide”, or Green Mountain Club’s “Long Trail Guide” allows a hiker to really make those decisions. Sunday’s portion of my hike would be dominated by Angel’s Gap, Hay Rock, and a bunch of powerlines. There would be no water sources for the duration of the trip. I knew the distances of each, and my game was to calculate the approximate times that I would reach each waypoint. I knew that I had roughly 7 miles to cover, at an average of 2 miles per hour which is 3.5 hours of travel time. I figure in a 15-minute break every hour, so I was looking for an arrival time of 12:30. Why am I telling you this? I want you to understand that little difference between the day hike and a backpacking hike.
While my first two days afforded the best views, Sunday would prove to be a more technical hike. The trail became less clear as it disappeared over rock scramble drop-offs, around turns in rock mazes, and on occasion the answer was in the rocks above. The rain had made the rocks more slippery, and parts of the trail were slick as an ice rink. Each obstacle rewarded me in new vistas and beautiful resting areas. The Mid-Atlantic guide had warned me that Hay Rock had become the victim of vandals spray paint, but I was pleased to see that the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club had done a great deal to cover the vandalism. Just to the north of Hay Rock I found an outcrop that seemed the perfect place for a mid-morning second breakfast. The sun had broken from between the clouds. The temperature was rising, I needed to shed a layer. Four miles to go.
The miles clicked by through a cycle of sun, clouds, and rain. Each powerline crossing afforded another breathtaking view to the east over Carvin Cove Reservoir and the rippled land below. One set of lines afforded less of a view, but far more to think about as the scorched earth at the base of the tower. This set of lines hummed with electricity and nothing grew in the vicinity. There was a certain creepiness to the landscape that made one think of an evil enchanted forest. Stunted dead trees dominated the trail coming up to the tower. Immediately after this powerline, the trail dove down the ridge, quickly escaping the electrical hiss with switchback after switchback into the winter forest.
Right on time, 12:30 in the afternoon, I arrived at a split in the trail that led me to the park and ride where my car was parked. For those who have trekked more than a day hike, you can understand the flood of emotion that comes with trail’s end. The happiness of dropping your pack, the sadness that the hike is over, the anticipation of the next hike, the relief that knowing a shower is in your future. This hike was a good hike. I’m glad that I decided to #OptOutside.