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Tinker Mountain is familiar, and unmistakable, to those who drive I- 81 north from Roanoke into Botetourt County. With a shape resembling that of a Conestoga wagon, its steep-sided slopes are covered with gray boulders that reflect the sunlight and its ridgeline bristles with communications and powerline towers. This may not be one of the most pristine of places to take a hike, but the ascent of nearly 1,000 feet provides a good cardiovascular workout and leads to a multiplicity of views that take in McAfee Knob, Botetourt County and Carvins Cove.
Begin by following the unmarked trail (actually an old road) from the back of the commuter parking lot, intersect the Appalachian Trail in 0.2 mile, turn left and follow the white-blazed pathway to descend and cross Tinker Creek on a concrete bridge. Made famous by Annie Dillard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” the clouded water of the stream passes through cow pastures and housing developments, but remains surprisingly vibrant with aquatic life. On one of my walks here I watched a large crawfish climb out of the creek, claw its way up a muddy bank, and head overland.
Step over railroad tracks at 0.4 mile and onto a gradually rising terrain whose woodlands at this time of year is carpeted by the umbrella-like leaves of mayapples.
Despite its name, the plant’s fruit, which looks more like an egg-shaped berry than an apple, does not begin to develop until mid to late summer. Euell Gibbons, possibly America’s best-known proponent of wild foods, felt that a bit of Mayapple juice squeezed into lemonade improved the drink’s flavor. I once met a couple of Appalachian Trail thru-hikers who were using the juice to help mask the taste of iodine-purified water. Just be careful if you decide to do so – the apple is known to be a strong (and quick-acting!) laxative. Also take care in handling or using other parts of the plant. The roots and, to a lesser extent, the leaves contain a poison so toxic that Native Americans are said to have used it to commit suicide.
The real climbing, via switchbacks, begins at 1.5 miles as the lush forest begins to give way to gnarled and stunted evergreens clinging to life in the soil’s diminished nutrients. The huffing and puffing doesn’t last too long, though, as the trail tops Tinker Ridge at 2.0 miles for a view of I-81 passing through the Great Valley of Virginia, bordered on the east by Fullhardt Knob, Read Mountain and other Blue Ridge summits.
Continue along the rough and rocky ridgeline to a view of Carvins Cove at 2.6 miles. McAfee Knob soars above the southern end of the reservoir, but what may capture your eyes the most are the pearl-white blossoms of the Serviceberry trees beside the rocks of your aerial perch.
Serviceberry trees are usually about the size of large shrubs, but some reach heights of close to 40 feet. In early summer, the flowers give way to berries of one half inch in diameter that are a favorite food of ruffed grouse, wild turkeys, deer, bears, raccoons, and other wildlife. At one time the fruits were widely harvested and eaten fresh or cooked into puddings, pies, and preserves. The Cree Indians made pemmican by mixing the dried berries with cured meat and animal fat. Most hikers of today overlook this sweet treat that nature provides to them within an arm’s reach of the trail.
A powerline right-of-way provides another lookout point at 2.7 miles before you reach Hay Rock, an exposed and upturned portion of the sandstone spine of Tinker Mountain, at 3.9 miles. There will be no mistaking it because, sadly, it’s stained with spray-painted graffiti. If you are sure of foot and unafraid of heights, climb the backside of the rock for better views of Carvin’s Cove and McAfee Knob than you’ve had all day. I must admit I only did that the first time I was here. On subsequent visits I’ve been content to enjoy lunch at the base of the rock before retracing steps back to the car at 7.8 miles.
Getting there: Take I-81 Exit 150B (a few miles north of Roanoke), drive under the interstate on U.S. 220 north, and almost immediately turn left into a commuter parking lot at Va. 816.
Total length: 7.8 miles roundtrip
Nearby after-hike treat: The Mexican pizza at Three Little Pigs Bar-B-Q in Botetourt Commons on U.S. 220 is tastier—and healthier—than a traditional pizza