Hiking guide: Craving a big view? Here’s how to hike to one of the most iconic spots on the Appalachian Trail

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McAfee Knob hike. Photo by Ely Portillo

This is part of our Hiking Guide series rolling out this spring and summer.

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If you follow any serious hikers on Instagram, you’ve probably come across this shot while scrolling through your feed: A small figure floating on a thin shelf of rock, framed by nothing but mountain, valley and sky.

McAfee Knob is one of the most famous spots for photos along the Appalachian Trail and it’s easy to see why. The views are breathtaking and the rock lip that juts out over the valley is awe-inspiring, creating a unique setting in the rolling mountains and foothills in the surrounding area.

McAfee Knob is also the setting for a poster photo of Robert Redford used in the film adaptation of “A Walk in the Woods,” Bill Bryson’s best-selling memoir of an attempted Appalachian Trail through-hike. So if you’ve bought that book in the past few years, you’ve likely also seen this shot on the cover.

The knob is one part of the “Triple Crown,” a stretch of the Appalachian Trail just outside Roanoke, Va., about four hours from Charlotte. The other “jewels” in the crown are the Dragon’s Tooth, a jutting, rocky prominence that sticks up like, well, a dragon’s tooth, and Tinker Cliffs, a series of sheer cliffs the trail meanders alongside, providing magnificent views.

Hiking the whole thing is about 30 miles end-to-end. And because of the heavy use and skinny corridor of public land that the Appalachian Trail passes through, there are some special rules to follow (you can find a great description of the route, maps and the rules online here). For example, you can only camp at seven designated shelters along the trail in this section, unlike in many national forests where you can pitch a tent anywhere that looks appealing.

Do it as a day hike

It’s possible to reach McAfee Knob via a day hike. Park at the lot on Va. Route 311, about 3.5 hours from Charlotte via Interstate 77 and the much more scenic Interstate 81. The parking lot can get very full on weekends and holidays, so go early or on a weekday if you can. From there, it’s a simple 4.5-mile hike to McAfee Knob, following the white-blazed Appalachian Trail the whole way. Snap your pictures, enjoy the view, maybe have a picnic, then turn around and hike back to your car.

Do it as a camping trip

But, since the trailhead is almost four hours from Charlotte, you’ll probably want to spend more than a few hours on the trail. There are plenty of options for longer hikes if you can stash a car at the end of your trip or arrange a shuttle (though again, the parking lots might fill up early).

For a two-night, three day trip, my friends and I decided to cut out the first leg of the Triple Crown, the Dragon’s Tooth. That reduced the amount we had to hike to about 20 miles, which was ideal, since we didn’t get started until about 10 p.m. on a Friday.

We left one car at the Daleville Park-and-Ride lot, just off an exit of I-81, where the Appalachian Trail pops out of the woods and crosses some busy roads.

Then, we drove to the McAfee Knob parking lot (shown in the first map), where we started our hike. The first night, we camped at the John’s Spring Shelter after a brief night hike, then woke up on Saturday to hit McAfee Knob and Tinker Cliffs. The second night, we scored a great creekside campsite at the roomy Lambert’s Meadow area, the last place you can camp before returning to Daleville, where our second car was parked. That left an easy eight-mile stroll out the final morning, with plenty of time left over for a Waffle House run.

What you need to know

  • Be very careful, obviously, when taking the iconic “sitting on McAfee Knob, floating on air” photo. We didn’t actually sit on the ledge and dangle our feet over the void. Instead, we sat on a small ledge over that, and propped our feet on the true precipice. It’s about 1 percent less scenic and 100 percent safer this way, in my opinion.

  • Water can be an issue on some parts of the trail. Despite the name, John’s Spring Shelter didn’t have a working spring, just a dry pipe. We didn’t get to a real water source again until the creek at Lambert Meadows, a good day’s hike away. Pack extra water if it hasn’t rained in a while.

  • Don’t expect solitude here, unless you can come mid-week. The crowds that build up around McAfee Knob mean this isn’t a hike where you’ll find your inner voice in the silence.

Photos by: Ely Portillo

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