McAfee Knob Hike Route Map

McAfee Knob

McAfee Knob is no doubt one of the most iconic places on the entire Appalachian Trail. Though not the highest or most rugged of Appalachian mountains, its bill-like overhanging summit cliffs have been the subject of countless photographs. In fact, a recent Google image search of simply “Appalachian Trail” turned up five photos of McAfee Knob in just the first twenty pics! Needless to say it’s famous, and equally needless to say I’ve wanted to hike this one for a while. Located just to the northwest of Roanoke, McAfee Knob isn’t so much a stand-alone peak as it is a high 3,197-foot bump near the northern end of 50-mile-long Catawba Mountain. Still though, it’s an imposing sight when approached from the north or south as its steep slopes rise dramatically from the valley floors to either side. The most common way to ascend McAfee, and the route I’d be using this day, is via the Appalachian Trail heading north from the gap where Virginia 311 crosses Catawba Mountain. The route ascends some 1,500 vertical feet but that climb is stretched pretty evenly over 4+ miles so it’s never super strenuous. That’s likely why, despite it being over 8-miles round-trip to the top, throngs of people hike this peak. I was warned ahead of time if I planned on visiting on the weekend to get there good and early as the parking lot fills quickly. I kept that in mind for this trip but I also picked a day with the best kind of conditions to keep crowds away…COLD. I would have McAfee almost all to myself on this hike, which is a rare treat indeed.

Stepping out of my car at an all but abandoned parking lot I at first wondered if I was prepared for the cold. With my thermometer reading only 5-degrees and a steady wind of at least 20 mph I was going to be dealing with wind chills in the -15 to -20 range. Summoning reserves of cold resistance from my years in the Upper Peninsula I cinched my hood down tight and donned an extra pair of gloves before setting off. The trail immediately attacks the ridge which, on this morning, meant once reaching the crest I was subjected to even more of the winds biting cold. Luckily the rocky ridge top walk didn’t last long as the trail dropped to the lee side of the mountain at a large kiosk, just over a quarter-mile in. It was a relief to be out of the worst of the wind and, as I soon discovered, the trail remained on the protected south side of the mountain almost all the way to the top. That said it’s not all that exciting of a hike. The trail for the most part gently ascends along the ridge through a fairly uniform pine-hardwood forest. Excitement comes in reaching trail-side features such as shelters and old roads to mark how much progress you’ve made. Just over a mile in I passed the John’s Spring Shelter and then, right around the halfway point I reached a second shelter, named for Catawba Mountain. Continuing to climb, the trail then crosses an old forest road at just over three miles then soon passes under some unsightly high-tension lines. In the last half mile, though, things finally get interesting.

Interesting in that, finally, you get some views as the trail reaches the crest of the ridge and offers a first taste of the scenery coming at the top. It also gave me a good taste of the wind I’d have to deal with at the top. It was literally breathtaking. After this first viewpoint the trail soon entered an interesting area of large boulders before finally emerging at the summit where a short spur trail breaks left to the cliffs. It was everything I imagined it would be. The iconic overhanging ledge and the incredible 270-degree views of the Catawba Valley and the mountains beyond were awe-inspiring. There was the problem of the cold, however. The winds raking the summit frequently threatened to blow me off my feet and the cold cut right to the bone. My time at the top alternated between quick bursts of pictures from the cliffs and hasty retreats to the shelter of the woods. In fact, my time at the summit ended when my camera finally succumbed to the cold and refused to operate. To be honest, at that point, my fingers were almost refusing to operate as well so I began the walk back without too much complaint.

The return journey was as uneventful as the ascent and, as I was soon out of the wind and the midday sun was shining, I even managed to feel a bit warm for the first time on this hike. I passed a decent amount of people on the way back but, I’m sure, nowhere near the throngs I would have met were it 50-degrees warmer. I made good time and was soon back at the car and its wonderful heater. I have to say, despite the cold and the relatively boring hike, this trip was a positive one. This probably has a lot to do with being able to experience another iconic spot on the Appalachian Trail. The views are tremendous and, if you go on a 5-degree day like me, the crowds aren’t a problem either. So, without further adieu, I present the famous McAfee Knob…as always, ENJOY!!!

Trailhead GPS Coordinates:   37.380190, -80.089300

Route Type:  Out-and-back               Difficulty:  VERY HARD  (Petzoldt Rating:  11.50 )

Mileage Hiked:  8.4 miles                    Hike Duration:  4:15

Trailhead Temp:  5'F                           Trail Traffic:  10-25 people

Min. Elevation:  1,920'                          Max. Elevation:  3,197'

Total Vertical Gain:  1,550'                   Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile:  369'

Trails Used (blaze color):  Appalachian Trail (white)


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  • Dave Kathy Weemhoff

    on July 26, 2018

    Wowed by how much and far you can see! Quite the trail, too, with all the rock formations!