This 20.5 mile Appalachian Trail segment crosses the most photographed spot on the entire trail – McAfee Knob. Even though the view from McAfee is fantastic, there are great views all along the section. In fact, we think the view from Tinker Cliffs rivals the majesty of McAfee.
Day One (11 miles)…
Last fall, I told Adam I wanted to backpack McAfee Knob and Tinker Cliffs for my birthday. We planned our mileage, picked our meals, and hired a shuttle driver. When the Friday of our hike arrived, it was forecast to be blazing hot. The area was also experiencing a prolonged drought. The water sources along this stretch are typically reliable and we thought being on a high mountain ridge would cool things off a bit, so we loaded up and headed out.
On the way to our start point at Catawba, our shuttle driver (Homer Witcher – we’ve used him before and he’s a fantastic part of the Appalachian Trail community) told us that just a few days earlier, a woman and her daughter were crushed under a falling tree at one of the campsites along the route. He had assisted EMTs with the rescue operation. Fortunately, the daughter escaped with minor injuries and the mother recovered after a hospital stay. Scary!
Homer dropped us off at Catawba parking around 9:30 a.m. Despite it being early(ish) on a Friday, there were already numerous cars in the lot. This is an extremely popular area for hiking and the lot frequently fills and overflows by mid-morning, especially on the weekends. There are strict regulations for where you can park, and cars are frequently towed from this area. Take these rules seriously! You can read more about parking issues in the Roanoke Times article.
The northbound Appalachian Trail starts on the other side of route 311. We crossed and immediately began an ascent over dry, dusty terrain. Just a mile into the hike, we passed Johns Spring Shelter. It’s a typical AT shelter and has space for six people. There are a few tent sites and a privy nearby. The water source near this shelter is usually small, but it was bone dry on the day we hiked.
In another mile, we passed the Catawba Mountain Shelter. It’s a similar set-up to Johns Spring in terms of space. There are also several nice campsites with metal fire pits just north of this shelter. After passing this shelter, there is a steady 1.7 mile climb to the view at McAfee Knob. On the way to the top, you’ll cross a fire road. Stay on the white-blazed Appalachian Trail. Near the top, you’ll pass through an impressive jumble of truck to cabin sized boulders. The overlook is a couple hundred feet to the left of the trail and is marked by a small sign.
Views from the overlook are majestic and expansive. The long ridge on the the right carries the Appalachian Trail over to Tinker Cliffs. On a clear day, you’ll see the cliffs shimmering in the distance. When you’re at McAfee, don’t miss the opportunity to sit on the ledge with your feet dangling into the abyss. It’s a tradition and isn’t as scary as it looks.
After leaving the viewpoint, you’ll descend steeply into a maze of giant boulders. There are narrow openings in the maze, making it a fun place to explore. A half mile later, there is an open meadow under powerlines and a nice view of the distant mountains. The descent continues for about 1.2 miles. At the bottom, you’ll reach the Pig Farm Campsite and shortly after that – Campbell Shelter. The shelter is on an elevated platform and there is a privy, picnic table, and bear locker at the site. The water source, located about 150 yards to the left of the shelter, was also dry!
After the shelter, the trail follows rolling terrain for 3.1 miles until you reach a grassy opening at Brickeys Gap. There is a trail to the left, but you’ll stay on the white-blazed Appalachian Trail and begin a steep uphill climb toward Tinker Cliffs. The ascent goes on for 1.8 miles. On this particular day, the climb was especially rough. We were both tired from the heat and running low on water.
Navigating the trail as it heads up Tinker Cliffs is a bit tricky. Look carefully for white blazes and arrows. There will be openings in the rocks that look like trail, but they’re not. Most of these openings are blocked by branches dragged across the ground, but if you’re not paying attention you might head the wrong way. When we finally made it to the top of the cliffs, the views made all the effort worthwhile. We had the entire overlook all to ourselves! I thought the views from Tinker Cliffs were even better than McAfee Knob. I took off my shoes and socks and let myself bake for a few minutes in the late afternoon sun. It was probably still in the low 90s – such a hot day for late September!
It was clear that many people had camped at the top of Tinker Cliffs, but we were out of water and I’m pretty sure camping on top Tinker is prohibited. We made our way along the open cliffside for about half a mile before descending back into the trees.
The trail passes beneath the cliffs and then rambles downhill for about a mile until it reaches Scorched Earth Gap and the junction with the Andy Layne Trail. From there, we had an easy .6 mile stroll to our campsite at Lamberts Meadow Shelter. When we arrived, there was one other section hiker already there. We picked a campsite across the ‘stream’ from the shelter. Note, I put stream in quotes because when we visited it was nothing but a series of shallow muddy pools.
We got the tent set up and changed into camp clothes. It took us a full hour to filter four liters of water! First, we had to scoop water into our bucket. It was full of mud, pebbles, mosquito larvae, and algae, so we had to filter that water through a bandanna into our Sawyer bags. The we squeezed the water through the Sawyer into our Camelbaks. It was the color of weak tea, so I chose to treat it with Aquamira on top of the filtering. It was nasty!
We set aside a couple cups of the water to make dinner, leaving us each with just under two liters of water for the next day. It took so long to deal with water, that it was almost dark when we headed up to the shelter to cook. By then, a couple other section hikers had arrived at the shelter. They were former military and had done a lot of the trail. We chatted about gear and favorite spots along the AT. They told us a tale about finding a body near Tinker Cliffs on a hike fifteen years earlier. They had become lost on the trail headed up the cliffs and found a body from the 1940s or 50s in the woods under the cliffs. It was a crazy story!
After dinner, we headed back down to the tent. It was still too hot to make a fire and we were both pretty tired, so we turned in early. It was a stuffy, fitful night in the tent. It’s hard to get comfortable when you’re sweaty and stuck to your sleeping pad. Still… it had been a beautiful day with lots of amazing scenery.
Day Two (9.5 miles)…
We woke up at daybreak and knew it was going to be a hot day. The temperature was already in the mid-70s. We didn’t have much water to drink or cook with, so we opted to eat some Little Debbie Peanut Butter Pies for breakfast. They are good calorie bombs for some fast energy and didn’t require any water. This was definitely the scariest water source we have had to use, so conserving water until we found something else was our plan. We packed up camp quickly and then made our way back on the Appalachian Trail, heading north to make our way back to our car.
In .3 miles, we came across the Lamberts Meadow Campsite, which also had no water in the stream next to the campsite. We saw the fallen tree that had smashed through the picnic table. Homer had told us that if that picnic table hadn’t been there, it would have likely fallen directly on the tent. He was planning in another week to build and bring another table down there to replace the one that had been smashed. Since there isn’t great access to this area except for a long hike, I can’t imagine hauling a big table through the woods like this, especially at Homer’s age (in his 70’s). Homer is the true definition of a trail angel and has helped so many AT thru-hikers and others along the way.
From the campsite, we continued on the AT. At 2.5 miles, we reached a junction with a blue-blazed trail that led to a nice viewpoint to the west. The trail began to slope downwards and at 4.3 miles we reached Angels Gap. The heat continued to increase and we were already extremely thirsty. We drank when we felt we needed to, but we both were already running low on water. The sun was beating down since the area was more open. At 4.7 miles, we first heard the buzzing of a powerline and soon it came into view. At 5.5 miles, we reached Hay Rock. We skipped climbing up the rock, since we were already getting good views of Carvins Cove Reservoir all along the trail. Many people do Hay Rock as a day hike coming from Daleville.
The trail stayed relatively flat, but was rocky and exposed us to the sun for a bit. We crossed over an open field with tiny little seed pods that were blowing in the hot wind. It looked like snow that was coming down, but the temperature told us otherwise. We had just watched Stranger Things on Netflix and it reminded us of something supernatural or alien that was happening in this area. We came to another powerline at 6.7 miles, but this one gave us wonderful views. We didn’t stay long since we wanted to get out of the direct sun. Christine had run out of water, but I had saved a bit for her to have.
Shortly after we left these views from the power lines, the trail finally ducked back into the woods and began a descent. We ran into a Ridge Runner on the trail that was talking to hikers and seeing if they were alright with the heat and lack of water. Ridge Runners are paid to monitor the trail and assist hikers. I would have loved some water, but we knew we could make it just a few more miles. We told him about the lack of water on the trail, so hopefully they came across others that were in bigger need. We crossed powerlines again at 7.5 miles, 8.3 miles, and 8.9 miles. Shortly after this last powerline, we crossed over some railroad tracks and a bridge. It was only a few more tenths of a mile and at 9.5 miles we made it back to our car exhausted and thirsty.
When we got back to our car, our first order of business was to get something to drink. We hopped in our car and jumped into a gas station across the street and downed some Gatorades in record time. We decided we wanted to eat some barbecue and drink some beer to celebrate. Since we had made an early start to our day, it was just a little after noon when we got off the trail. We made our way to Flying Mouse Brewery and our Maps app on our phones said that it would be closed when we arrived. We thought we would give it a shot anyway in the off chance it was open. As we were driving up, I saw signs for Virginia Momentum and saw runners. Virginia Momentum is a company started by a friend of mine that holds races across Virginia that helps support local charities. When we got to Flying Mouse Brewery, they were hosting a brewery-to-brewery race there, so it was open. We felt that someone was looking out for us and went inside to get a flight of beer samples and enjoyed talking to our friends that were participating. While running these long races is impressive, we did earn some props by just having come off the trail carrying some heavy weight. After some tasty beverages, we made our way to Three Li’l Pigs BBQ, which always has amazing food and is perfect for a post-hike stop.
This backpacking trip had some other significance to us as well. While it was Christine’s birthday, McAfee Knob was one of the first posts that started Virginia Trail Guide. We’ve learned a lot along the way about how to tell our story of the trails. If you’re looking for one of Virginia’s most famous hikes to serve as a backpacking route, try this one out. McAfee Knob is the most photographed spot on the entire Appalachian Trail. We enjoyed taking the ceremonial pictures at the top. We even mimicked the A Walk in the Woods movie poster shot of Robert Redford and Nick Nolte to show how the scale was wrong for that poster. While we had hiked McAfee Knob before, this was our first trip to Tinker Cliffs and we both thought this was something not to be missed. This route makes up two-thirds of Virginia’s Triple Crown (with the other third being nearby Dragon’s Tooth) and it is definitely worth the hype. Just go on a cooler day and pray for better water sources.
- Distance – 20.5 miles
Check out the stats from Map My Hike [Day 1] [Day 2]*
- Elevation Change – 3400 ft.
- Difficulty – 4. Day one is the tougher day with about 2500 feet of climbing. Day two is significantly easier with just over 900 feet of elevation gain.
- Trail Conditions – 4. The trail was in great shape and beautifully maintained by the RATC (Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club).
- Views – 5. The views here are iconic, magnificent, and they just keep coming!
- Streams/Waterfalls – 1. There are small springs and streams adequate for a water source for cooking/filtering, but there was nothing really scenic.
- Wildlife – 4. A yearling bear hung out between Lamberts Meadow shelter and Lamberts Meadow campsite for much of the evening. We also saw fence lizards and deer in a couple places.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. The trail is well-marked and easy to follow.
- Solitude – 1. This is one of the most popular stretches of trail in the area, so expect to see many people – especially if you go in fair weather. Campsites can be crowded and parking is an issue on the Catawba side. Note: Parking regulations were recently changed. Do not park along the road, or you will be towed.
* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.
Directions to trailhead: GPS coordinates for the parking area to start this hike are 37.380125, -80.089694. You will park at the McAfee Knob trailhead parking area on Rt. 311 in Catawba. You must park in the lot. Roadside parking is prohibited and cars will be towed.