McAfee Knob in the Cold
Stand in the Valley View Mall parking lot, look to the northwest, and it will be next to impossible to not be able to pick out McAfee Knob. It’s that piece of land that looks like a wave breaking on the crest of Catawba Mountain. The hike on the portion of the Appalachian Trail that goes to the knob is such a significant aspect of the Roanoke Valley that it has almost become a right-of-passage for valley residents. I’ve even heard people say that you can barely call yourself a Roanoker if you haven’t taken the moderately strenuous seven-mile (roundtrip) pilgrimage.
Do the outing on a nice day – weekend or weekday from spring to fall – and you may end up sharing the trail with 100 people. Wait for the cold of winter and it’s a good possibility you may be the only one out there. You’ll also be able to experience some things those warm weather folks don’t.
The entire hike has only a couple of viewpoints when the leaves are on the trees, but the vistas are nearly constant at this time of year. With the ridgeline’s current heavy forest cover, it may be hard to believe that much of Catawba Mountain was open farmland well into the mid-1900s. Farmers raised crops in large gardens and livestock grazed in open meadows. In fact, a pig farm operated just below McAfee Knob until 1982.
Among the other things you may encounter are the jagged spikes of hoarfrost crunching underfoot. This icy moisture forms in still air when it crystallizes onto cold objects such as downed leaves, small rocks and clumps of frozen soil. You may sometimes hear people use the term rime ice to describe hoarfrost, but the two are different phenomena. Rime ice develops when wind-driven droplets of water collide into and freeze onto objects – such as the exposed tree branches and limbs on McAfee Knob – whose outer surface is below 32 degrees. Layer upon layer of the droplets build up, clinging to the windward side of the object to furnish it with a delicate, feathery-like, white outline. (The ice storms that occasionally cover the Roanoke area are a different spectacle all together. This happens when cold raindrops fall onto the frozen tree branches – or any other frozen surface such as roofs and utility lines.)
Of course, the major reward is being possibly the only person enjoying the panorama from the knob. Many Appalachian Trail thru-hikers believe this to be the best view in all of Virginia from the AT. To the west are North and distant Potts mountains. Directly below is the bucolic Catawba Valley, while ridgelines after ridgeline draws your eyes eastward to the far-off Peaks of Otter. One final treat: The clarity of a winter sky may enable you to make out the golf ball-shaped FAA radar atop Apple Orchard Mountain, nearly 60 Appalachian Trail miles away.
Learn more from Leonard Adkins at habitualhiker.com.
Drive I-581 to I-81 South, take Exit 141, drive .5-mile on VA 419, make a right, and follow VA 311 for 5.5 miles to the AT parking on the left atop Catawba Mountain.