Saturday, May 6, 2017

McAfee Knob, Catawba VA

McAfee Knob is one of the most popular hikes on the entire AT, if not the most popular. But it is also the one place on the AT that Ann insisted we hike: she was not moving to the West Coast without her picture being taken at McAfee. The saga of our 18th hike of our 2017 52-Hike Challenge unfolds below.

We All Know Where This Was Taken

McAfee Knob From Blue Ridge Parkway
Unfortunately, this extraordinarily popular trail landed on our calendar on a May Saturday morning with a decent weather forecast. Because the parking situation at the McAfee Knob trailhead is tough—a good size parking lot but the sheriff's office has started towing any vehicle not in an official parking space—we decided to get out very early, skipping breakfast at the B&B, going without even so much as coffee.

We arrived at the parking area just at 7:30 in the morning to find the 50-car lot was already 3/4 full. If that doesn't speak to the popularity of the hike, on the return leg of the hike, we passed easily 150 hikers going the other direction including dozens of Boy Scouts. Solitude on a weekend is non-existent on this hike.

The weather forecast was for cloudy skies with very little chance of rain so naturally it sprinkled on us for the first half of the hike and again up at the top and for about thirty minutes of the return trip. Coupled with constant blustery winds out of the west, the rain made for a chilly start to our hike.


Early Morning to Beat the Rush
Apparently, this section of the AT must attract a lot of people who are not fit to hike. The signboards call the hike "moderate/strenuous" (umm, not) and make it known that you're in for an 8-mile hike. We did about 9.1 miles on the day, with all our exploring and wandering about.

They Say "Moderate/Strenuous" Difficulty
There might just be good reason for these warnings. In the sea of hikers coming at us, we could spot the thru hikers from as far away as we could see them. Most were lean and mean walking machines, head down and moving rapidly and gracefully towards us thanks to trail legs borne of 700+ miles, everything tucked into medium-capacity packs, wearing a minimum of sensible, practical trail clothes.

Contrast that with garishly clad paunchy weekenders staggering away under loads of way, way too much stuff in huge backpacks festooned with more stuff dangling off like Christmas ornaments. I saw one guy with a sleeping bag that must have been 20-22 liters by itself strapped to the outside of a pack also adorned with a lantern, a Jetboil, a pair of Crocs, a Spot receiver, and several other things. That pack weighed 60 lbs if it weighed anything. I saw another poor woman hauling one of the huge 75+ liter Osprey expedition packs, so new it still had creases in it, bulging at the seams, and nearly as big as she was. I'm really happy people are getting outside but when I see how miserable some of them are, I almost want to help them shake down their packs. Oh well, HYOH.

Trying to Scare Noobs
It seems clear to me that in the gap where 311 crosses the mountains, where the parking lot is situated, was an old home site. The woods nearby are full of vinca major, money plant, roses, and the odd Dutch iris. I'm thinking these escaped plants did not get here on their own.

Huge Vinca major Blooms

Escaped Money Plant, Lunaria annua

Why Is It Called Money Plant?

Beautiful Rose

View South from AT Near 311
From the gap, you climb a somewhat rocky ridgeline through fairly dry woods. This is where we saw several sedums and the first of many pink lady's slipper orchids.

Cliff Stonecrop, Sedum glaucophyllum

Bowman's Root, Gillenia trifoliata

Gorgeous Azalea, Rhododendron spp.

Bug on Fleabane, Erigeron spp.

Snowbells, Likely Styrax grandifolia
As you can see, the day was cloudy. What you can't see is the light rain and the extremely gusty winds that would only get gustier and gustier the higher we climbed on Catawba Mountain. By the time we reached the iconic overlook at the top, it was raining and I was freezing, being dressed for walking and not for being stationary in the rain with fairly brutal wind gusts. As much as I wanted to stay and admire the view of the Catawba Valley, it was not a day for this. We quickly came down off the summit and found some comfort in the lee of huge boulders while we had a quick bite to eat.

But how cool was it that on a day with so many hikers on the trail that we had our 15 minutes at the overlook by ourselves?

View of Catawba Valley Climbing to McAfee Knob

At the McAfee Knob Overlook

The Iconic Must-Have Photo

From the Far Side

Selfie at the Overlook
Up at the summit, I guess I wasn't expecting to see any flowers, but there were abundantly blooming patches of Pieris, a White Fringetree in full bloom, and a bunch of Pink Lady's-slipper orchids, if you took the time to look for their distinctive foliage along the ground.

White Fringetree, Chionanthus virginicus, at the Summit

Pink Lady's-slipper, Cypripedium acaule

Another View of a Gorgeous Orchid
The section of the AT that we hiked is unlike any other that I have hiked in that long sections of the trail run along the tops of vast canted slabs of stone, some so steeply angled that safe passage would be difficult. The camera does not portray the true angle of these slabs. The maintainers of this section of the trail, bless them, have affixed logs to the face of these stones and backfilled with rock and dirt to make a walkable trail.

Annie Crossing a Rock Slab

I Think This is Tall Milkweed, Asclepias exaltata

Appalachian Phacelia, Phacelia dubia
In the course of our walk, we came upon several hawthorns in bloom. I'm guessing that we saw at least two species, but because there are about 40 different species and cultivars recognized in Virginia, I won't even hazard a guess at which we might have seen. Look at the length of the thorns on this one: almost three inches!

A Flowering Hawthorn, Crataegus spp.

First Mountain Laurel of the Year, Kalmia latifolia
We were done (and starving) at 1pm and a quick google found Parkway Brewery not ten minutes away in Salem. Ann really loved their stout and I enjoyed their Get Bent IPA. While I rested my aching hip on a sofa, Ann went outside to a random food truck and ordered us a couple of cheesesteaks.

Parkway Brewery, Home of Excellent Brews

Bar in The Parkway Warehouse

Random Food Truck Cheese Steak
Having slaked our thirsts and calmed our raging appetites, we set out north on I-81 briefly before taking US-220 back through downtown Roanoke over to the Blue Ridge Parkway which we would follow north to our home for the night, Peaks of Otter Lodge.

While we were at the brewery, a young couple told us we should visit Mill Mountain and the Roanoke Star just after we reached the Parkway. I have seen pictures of the star all my life and here was an opportunity to go see it in person, so we did. By this point in the day, the sun had started to come out and the rain had disappeared, leaving us wonderful views of Roanoke and the Roanoke Valley.


Roanoke from Mill Mountain Overlook

Skyline Explained

The Happy Travelers, Post Hike

At the Roanoke Star
The Roanoke Star is such an icon that you've probably seen pictures of it. The same picture, head on, a thousand times. I wanted to take a photograph that was different and that showed the star in its surroundings. I shot this slightly underexposed so that the trees would form a dark picture frame, as it were.

A Different Perspective on the Roanoke Star

Siberian Irises at the Star
As we were leaving, we spied an old Lincoln in the parking lot, that reminded me of (but earlier than) the 1969 Continental 4-door that we used to have when I was a teenager. It turned out to be a 1960 Mark IV, that wouldn't turn over. So we hung around for about 15 minutes longer, ultimately getting it jump started.

We continued north up the parkway to the Peaks of Otter Lodge where the final part of our week-long road trip ends in the next post.

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