CATAWBA, Va. — It’s hard to beat the variety of vistas at Roan Massif, but if you’re looking for one dynamite view along the southern leg of the Appalachian Trail, head to McAfee Knob in southern Virginia’s Roanoke Valley.
Unlike Roan, where the views are easily accessible after a couple of short jaunts, this hike will get your heart pumping. For regular hikers, the trek is easy to moderate, an 8.8-mile out-and-back with about 1,700 feet in elevation gain.
The trailhead parking lot on Route 311 is about 15 minutes from Interstate 81. You’ll pick up the white-blazed AT north after walking across 311. The trail is well marked and you’ll pass an information kiosk about a half mile in and, later, shelters for through-hikers and backpackers. The hike is pleasant, over several wooden bridges and through dense hardwoods and pines, but this is not a “joy is in the journey’’ trek — you’re huffing to get to the lookout.
Shoot to start about a half hour after dawn. By the time you reach the 270-degree lookout, any early fog has burned off, and the light from the young sun slants through the trees, warms and colors the exposed rocks, and gently reveals the Catawba Valley below. With a bit of luck, you might have an undercast, with nothing but blue sky above you and the clouds forming a floor beneath you, a few dotted summits peeking through.
For the thrill-seeker, have a seat at the edge of the thin ledge extending out from the quartzite and sandstone promitory forming the lookout and extend your feet into the abyss.
Nothing but sky above and valley 2,500 feet below.