As president of the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club, Mike Vaughn hikes anywhere, anytime.
Mike Vaughn remembers the day well. He was meeting up with seven or eight other members of the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club for a hike in the Priest Wilderness east of Buena Vista. Leading up to the trip, there had been a lot of discussion about whether it would even happen at all: It was 14 degrees at the trailhead with a steady 20-mph wind, and two inches of snow covered the ground. They decided to press on anyway, and Vaughn is thankful they did.
“We had a great time. We were all experienced and everybody stayed warm. We kept moving; lunch wasn’t very long,” he remembers with a laugh. “It was just a really memorable hike.”
Hiking in the most wintery of conditions may seem nuts to the average person – heck, even the average hiking enthusiast – but the trek highlights two of Vaughn’s favorite aspects of hiking in Virginia. What really makes this a great place for hiking, says Vaughn, is the diversity of Virginia’s four distinct seasons and how they make each experience on the trail differ.
“For every season there are rewards out there,” he says. “In the summer you have creeks to dip your feet in, then spring has all the growth coming out and fall has the leaves changing. And in winter, the leaves are off and you have great views.”
On a clear day in the winter, you can see as far as 40 miles from the peaks of the Blue Ridge, and there are plenty of peaks to choose from. As president of the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club, Vaughn helps maintain 120 miles of the A.T., plus shelters and 25 more miles of side trails. His career as a manager in the federal government helped gravitate him toward a leadership role, but his involvement in the club began more simply, as a way to find new trails and people to go hiking with. Shortly after moving to Roanoke in 1995, Vaughn and his wife had exhausted their personal list of trails, and wanted to find more.
“Some of the trails, to even get to the trail was the hardest part,” he says. “The club was a good way to find some new hikes. We want people to come out and enjoy the hikes, get out and enjoy the trails and the outdoors. It’s nice going out with groups, it’s a social thing.”
While the club’s main purpose is to maintain its section of the trail, especially during thru-hiker season, the secondary purpose is to encourage hiking. The RATC hosts several hikes a week, and anyone is welcome to join, member or not. Just don’t blame them when you find yourself on a snowy trail in the dead of winter. And bring your best gloves.
Where to Go
Mike Vaughn’s Pick: Tinker Cliffs (See opening spread for the visual!)
A Roanoke hiking classic, Tinker Cliffs make up one third of the Triple Crown. This 7.6 mile trek will take you up Tinker Mountain via the Andy Layne Trail, before hooking up with the Appalachian Trail at Scorched Earth Gap. Plenty of views on this hike.
Cascades Scenic Trail
Cascade Falls could be the most scenic waterfall in the state. The 1.75 mile trail is a National Scenic Trail, and crisscrosses Little Stony Creek on its way to the 70-foot falls, making it a great trail for families. Continue on the Nature Conservancy Trail to reach Barney’s Wall, a 700-foot cliff another 2 miles up the trail.
Take the Lower Loop for an easy 4-mile hike along two beautiful streams through gorges with steep canyons, or try the Upper Loop to climb the ridge Montgomery Knob for scenic views. Either way, this trail near Eagle Rock is sure to please.
Apple Orchard Falls
This moderate 7.2-mile loop located in the North Creek camping area is a local favorite and leads to the remarkable Apple Orchard Falls. Climb the trail to the falls, then continue on to the Appalchian Trail for 1.2 miles south to Cornelius Creek Trail which traces the creek back to the trailhead.
Devils Marble Yard
This 8-acre field holds quartzite boulders ranging in size from tables to vans, and is one of the most unique geological features in southwest Virginia. Access the Marbleyard via the steep Gunter Ridge Trail to the Belfast Trail for a strenuous 8-mile circuit, or start on the Belfast Trail for an easy to moderate 3-mile out and back trek.
Grassy Hill Nature Preserve
There are several nature preserves in the area, and this Franklin County spot, featuring an easy 6.6-mile loop, is a great break-in hike for newbies, especially if you pair it with an evening in neighboring Rocky Mount to catch some live music at the Harvester Center.