Tinker Cliffs and McAfee Knob: Doubling Down on the Triple Crown (Part 1)

Lisa, my wife and editor, is out of town producing an opera. To give her a break from the responsibility of helping me prepare posts for publication, I am digging into the “archives”. The following two-part post and associated restaurant review were written 2015 but not previously posted. Enjoy!

Lisa and I were headed to the Appalachian Trail in southern Virginia. We had a score to settle with Tinker Cliffs, the only hike in the Virginia “Triple Crown” that we hadn’t conquered. In February of 2015, we completed Dragon’s Tooth (read here) one day and McAfee Knob (read here) the next. We were slated to tackle Tinker Cliffs the following day, but The Knob had been a seven hour, nine mile, post-holing trudge-in-a-snowstorm, and we just couldn’t face it. Instead, we slept in, ate a massive Waffle House breakfast, then went and got the Jeep stuck in a snowbank at Foamhenge. Yep, Foamhenge, a full scale model of the prehistoric monument near Wiltshire, England, built out of … well you know. Don’t believe me? I have pictures.

Update: When Natural Bridge, Virginia became a state park in 2016, Foamhenge was dismantled and moved to Centreville, VA where it reopened to the public in September of 2017.

We returned to the Roanoke area three weeks later.

After checking in to the Motel 6 in Salem, VA we headed out to The Homeplace to fortify ourselves for our next day’s trek. Read our review of that stellar chow house here. Now for a good night’s sleep. The Salem Motel 6 is clean, cheap, and the rooms are huge! The downside? The candy machine requires exact change. A detached, but not unpleasant, desk clerk unenthusiastically provided the coinage we so desperately needed. Then we hit the sack. Wait  … they get the Discovery Channel!?


At 7:30 the next morning, bleary-eyed from staying up half the night watching Myth Busters, we hit the Andy Layne Trail. This is a three and a half mile track that connects with the Appalachian Trail just north of Tinker Cliffs. Much of the Andy Layne Trail is on private land, owned by the Roanoke Cement Company, and unfortunately you can hear nearby factory noise for the first couple of miles. Stay on the path, and you needn’t be concerned with the “No Trespassing” signs you may see. After descending into a creek valley, we crossed Catawba Creek and an open cow pasture. As we climbed back out, a tiny tributary of Catawba Creek babbled nearby and mixed with birdsong to underscore our hike. Then the climb began in earnest, and the trail fought back hard for the next four miles. There were two precipitous sections where the Andy Layne plowed straight up a steep spur. Without switchbacks, timber steps were provided, but were inconsistently placed, so the result was a grade A, regulation workout! Eventually, we arrived at Scorched Earth Gap and the junction with the AT.

Turning south (to our right), we continued the climb towards Tinker Cliffs. There were more switchbacks now, and the gain was less intense. As we neared the cliffs, we passed through a prodigious rock formation where a cube-like boulder of astounding proportions sat slightly askew atop another. I told Lisa that it wouldn’t be long (in geological terms) before it tumbled into the valley below, causing untold destruction. Lisa suggested that perhaps we should get moving. Soon, the trail leveled and we emerged onto a craggy precipice: Tinker Cliffs. The cliffs extend for a quarter of a mile along the ridge, and the AT winds along them the whole way, weaving in and out of small trees and scrubby bushes. The view was astonishing – the most incredible we’d seen in Virginia. Catawba Valley lay 1600 feet below, speckled with tiny homes and postage-stamp fields. Visibility was in excess of twenty-five miles, and the undulating landscape stretched out before us in shades of late-winter tan and brown. In the distance, the pale sky met hazy paper-cut-out mountains. Four miles to the southwest, McAfee Knob stared obstinately across the valley as if challenging Tinker Cliffs to a stony duel. The Knob’s precipice (the most photographed spot on the Appalachian Trail) makes for some truly dramatic photo ops,  but for a magnificent view, Tinker Cliffs wins the day. When the wonderment faded, we shrugged off our packs and stretched out on the soft humus, staying for the better part of 30 minutes, snacking and enjoying the near 70 degree day.


The AT followed a ridge south toward our destination for the evening: Pig Farm Campsite near Campbell Shelter. The campsite is less than 200 yards from the shelter and about eight-tenths of a mile north of McAfee Knob. For most of the next five and a half miles, the Knob looms ahead to the west as Carvin’s Cove Reservoir and the outskirts of Roanoke appear through the eastern trees. The trail snaked along the spine of the mountain, gaining and losing elevation as it passed over lesser peaks on its way toward the Tennessee state line. At one point, it became as wide as a fire road for a half mile or so, before narrowing to traverse several precarious rock slopes. As we neared the 10 mile mark and were beginning to flag, the Campbell Shelter finally came into view. It was time for lunch.

The shelter is moderately sized but has a low ceiling – if you are six feet or taller, watch your head! It also has a spacious, uncovered deck. The deck faces east, but was still in full sun when we arrived at around 1:00pm. We spent about an hour at the Campbell shelter, 20 minutes of which was frittered away just lying in the sun. After resting, we enjoyed a comfortable lunch on the picnic table, and then set out to filter water. The spring was located about 200 yards southwest of the shelter. A nearby sign pointed the way to a footpath, which crossed beneath power lines, then widened into a fire-road-sized track. The spring is to the right of the path several yards before a large, metal swing gate. It was covered but looked murky, so we took our water from the brook it feeds on the other side of the path. The water there was moving and looked clearer.

After our respite, we grabbed our gear and headed the short distance up the trail to the Pig Farm Campsite. As we made camp, the skyline of Roanoke was clearly visible 10 miles away. The site was empty, so we pitched our tent next to the communal fire pit and discussed the remainder of our day. We decided we’d head up that afternoon and again for sunset; we had discussed making the climb for sunrise and sunset, but Lisa wanted to see McAfee Knob in the sunshine since our last hike to this iconic Appalachian ledge felt like one of those survival movies where eventually someone has to resort to cannibalism. Eventually, we decided that three trips up the mountain was excessive. Also, Lisa had a meeting near Washington DC at 3:00pm the next day, so skipping sunrise would allow us to get an early start the next morning.

The hike from the campground to McAfee Knob is about eight-tenths of a mile and gains 516 feet. It took us about 30 minutes, and we spent some time up there enjoying the weather and additional magnificent views of the Catawba Valley. We suspected that, for an unusually warm and sunny day, the traffic at the top was light, but there were still plenty of folks enjoying the sights, many of them college age. Naturally, we wanted to get that iconic photo on the ledge, but there was a young man sitting there, all alone, reverently appreciating the awe-inspiring grandeur of the sun dappled valley and hazy purple mountains beyond. I am kidding of course … he was looking at his mobile phone.

IMG_4957IMG_1732This young person just hiked four miles (or more) uphill to a spot with a magnificent sweeping view of the Virginia countryside, and had managed to claim the single most photographed spot on 2,200 miles of American long trail. Even so, the thing that was holding his interest was on his phone. Maybe he was texting with a pretty girl from his Bio-Chem class. That would be an excuse – kind of. With supreme effort, Lisa stifled the urge to shout, “Why are you even up here?”. Instead, she politely asked if we might excuse ourselves to snap a photo or two. In the time it took us to take our shots, he had wandered off. Hopefully that was evidence that he had gained a speck of social awareness, but we’re not counting on it. Maybe Bio-Chem-girl was ghosting him.

IMG_4938IMG_1730We would be back that evening, so we retraced our steps back to camp to make dinner and relax for a bit before revisiting the Knob for the third time in as many weeks. ♦

Next: Dinner, the Knob at sunset, and the hike out …

Date: March 16, 2015
Location: Catawba, VA
Trailhead: 37.45754, -80.01730
Distance: 24.22 miles (total)
Elevation Gain: 4,442 feet (total)
Difficulty: Moderate to Strenuous

One thought on “Tinker Cliffs and McAfee Knob: Doubling Down on the Triple Crown (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Switchback Jacks, Trail Hogs, and Trash Trolls | BIT|Hiker

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