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On The Old At - North Mnt/at Loop, Catawba, Virginia
Hey, From Blue Heaven...Chapel Hill, NC...the Southern Side of Heaven,
Assistant Scoutmaster Tonto reporting in on my latest adventure.
Well the Scouting year has come to another end.
The boys are off to summer camp on June 17th.
But I'm leaving that joy to the other Assistance this year.
Been laying fallow for the last few months on the hiking scene.
But I recruited a fellow Scouter in the Troop for future foot ventures.
We initially decided to do a section of the AT near Damascus, VA in the southwest corner of the state.
It is about a 5 hours drive from Chapel Hill, NC.
Being the ASM in charge of Outdoor Program I was assigned to work the plan.
While perusing the maps of the area I took note of the Iron Mountain Trail.
It use to be the Appalachian Trail before the AT was relocated in 1972 south to it's present location.
These sections of the Old AT north & south of Damascus, along with the AT, form two loops of about 85 miles.
This really fired my interest.
Knowing that the AT has been relocated often I wondered if there were other old sections of the AT.
I spent quite a bit of time investigating and found many old sections of varying lengths from Maine to Georgia.
Then my oldest son called & asked if I was interested in doing a hiking trip with him.
He had to ask!!!
Of course I said yes.
I called my Scouter friend to see if he was interested in going along.
But his work schedule wouldn't allow him to go any time soon.
I was again put in charge of the new plan.
Because, there was going to be a family get together at my oldest daughters home in Charlottesville, VA, my son & I decided it was best to make our hiking plans near there.
I noticed one very good option that would include both a section of the Old AT & the VA Triple Crown near Roanoke, VA.
For those who may not know, The Va Triple Crown are the three most scenic overlooks on the Appalachian Trail in VA.
From south to north on the AT they are, the Dragon's Tooth, McAfee Knob & Tinker Cliffs.
This section of the AT is about 20 miles in length.
Just north of the Triple Crown are the North Mountain & Andy Layne Trails.
For about 10 years they use to be the Appalachian Trail till the AT was relocated in 1972 to it's present location.
Together, the AT, North Mountain Trail & Andy Layne Trail form a loop of about 34 miles.
A great scenic & historical weekend jaunt.
It would be a 2 hour drive south to the Roanoke, VA area from Charlottesville to do our planned venture.
I also thought it would be way cool to hike this 14 miles of trail that was the AT the year I graduated high school!
Sunday, at about 8:30 pm, my son & I said our goodbyes to hit the open road from Charlottesville.
Taking I-64 west from town we hit the junction of I-81 near Saunton, Va then turned south for Roanoke, VA.
Making good time, we turned off on Exit 141 and headed west.
First taking VA 419 then a right onto VA 311 west we headed into the mountains.
On a winding road, about six miles in, was the trail head parking lot at the junction of the AT.
The time was about 10 pm and we secured my sons rag top Jeep Wrangler.
Under a near full moon we hefted our packs and put on our head lamps.
Taking the AT north we hiked towards Johns Spring Shelter a mile away.
In about 20 minutes we neared the classic 3 sided shelter.
Coming down the darkened side of Catawba mountain we saw a fire down below us.
Clearing the side of the shelter we entered a small clearing.
A young couple with their backs to us lounged arm in arm before the fire at a picnic table strewn with gear.
A tent could be seen set up just at the edge of the fire light.
Awkwardly, we said hello and announced we intended to occupy the shelter for the evening.
We were informed there was already one shelter occupant.
At that late hour, we attempted to quietly settle in for the night.
But we still managed to awaken the slumbering shelter dweller and said our apologies.
The next morning we woke about 7:15, packed, made breakfast, then hit the AT north at 8:30.
It is a steady climb of over 1000' of elevation in 2.5 miles through hardwoods to reach McAffee Knob from Johns Spring Shelter.
We passed Catawba shelter at one mile seeing no other hikers.
A mile and a half past Catawba shelter we broke free of the trees onto the jutting rocky outcrop of McAfee Knob.
McAfee Knob is said to be the most photographed location on the AT.
After seeing all the dramatic photos of this scenic spot I can only say I was...underwhelmed & slightly disappointed.
The spot is lovely with great views but smaller than life as photographically depicted.
We each took the obligatory posed photo shots on the brink of the rock then moved on north.
At a half mile we soon passed Campbell Shelter.
One is no doubt wondering why there are three shelters within 4 miles of the road?
It' s because McAfee Knob is a very popular weekend hiking venue.
There is no water for the next 6 miles past Catawba shelter.
Our goal was to reach Lamberts Meadow shelter were we would find water & rest for the night.
But the hike turned out to be tougher than we anticipated on the way to Tinker Cliffs.
After descending 1000' in 2 miles its a 1000' climb up in 3.6 miles to the Cliffs.
In that distance one ascends several 100' up precedes a short distance then relentlessly up yet again & so on.
One consolation was a very fine view east through a gap in the trees down onto Carvin Cove Reservoir, Roanoke's municipal water supply.
After several short breaks to catch a breather we reached Tinkers Cliffs at about 1:30 pm.
Stretching for a half mile Tinkers Cliffs is much more impressive than McAfee Knob.
We took a stop for a lunch & water break on the windy rock ledge.
The wind was stiff & steady and we enjoyed watching several ravens soaring over the Catawba valley.
Away toward the west stood the blue tinted ridge of the Allegheney mountains.
We speculated on the possibility that a darkly forested, high and imposing saw toothed ridge in the near distance to the west might be North Mountain.
Dark clouds two ridges distance showed veils of rain falling.
They appeared to be approaching quickly towards us.
Though we were sitting in bright sun light a cold shower began to fall on us.
Grabbing our gear we quickly packed and dawned our rain gear in the shelter of some trees away from the cliff face.
We proceeded north on the AT which skirted the open cliffs exposing us to the rain.
But it soon tapered off and quite in about a half hour.
We soon reached the junction of the AT and Andy Layne trail at Scorched Earth Gap.
We swung right and followed the AT north.
It was a steady .6 mile hike down toward Lamperts Meadow shelter.
We reached the empty shelter at about 3:15pm and settled in.
After changing out of our sweaty hiking kit it was time for camp chores before supper.
After gathering water I noticed a fine wild cherry tree to the left of the shelter front with ripe fruit.
Snack time for sure!!
After 5pm four Thru-hikers straggled in.
One old guy from Chatanooga, TN, a young guy from Poland, and two young guys (I can't remember from where).
One of the young guys was the hiker we woke up at the Johns Spring shelter the night before.
After dinner one of the young guys, with apologies, lite up a stogy.
The old guy waxed eloquence about his old stogy habit and how to purchase Cubans online.
The Polish guy talked with wonder about how his relations managed to survive German & Soviet occupation.
Another young Thru-hiker from CA stopped in to eat an avocado with hot sauce for super and some conversation before heading out again.
My son asked an open question for information about his up coming plan to hike the Colorado trail this summer.
He got a response out of the Polish guy who had hiked some of it.
Trail life...yah just can't beat it!
It was a great shelter spot with a nice stream below, but also a lot of little annoying little black flies.
Just before sundown, my son and one of the young guys decided to vacate the shelter for tents in the creek valley to escape the flies.
The old guy set up his hammock and retired early.
The rest of us also hit the sack just before sundown at 8 pm.
A really loud Pilated woodpecker decided to wake me up at sunrise by hammering away at a tree next to the shelter.
One of the Thru hikers, preparing for an early start, packed up at the picnic table in front of the shelter.
The Polish guy was sitting on his mat at the other side of the shelter meditating on moving on.
Soon the old guy was up and packing too after a quick breakfast.
The Thru-hikers where off to work!!
After they all left I got up dressed & packed too.
I went down too my son's tent to borrow the shared stove to heat water for breakfast.
Soon after my son was out, packing up and joined me for breakfast.
We hit the trail about 8:15am leaving the last Thru-hiker slumbering in his tent.
My son, perceiving my struggles to hike on the upgrade decided to show some mercy.
He allowed this old guy to set the pace by going in front to leading the hike for the day.
I'm a very proud dad knowing I raised such a kind and compassionate young man!!
What must go down also must go up.
Which is what we did for .6 miles south via the AT to reach the Andy Layne trail at Scorched Earth Gap.
It was all down hill into the Catawba valley on the Old AT thank God!
The trail passes through mostly cow pastures in the valley.
I got to make my acquaintance with many female bovines on that excursion.
At about 2.5 miles we passed through an empty gravel parking lot to cross VA 779 and pick up the Catawba Valley Trail and the northern terminus of the North Mountain trail.
After crossing an open field we entered the woods at the base of the mountain ridge.
What can I say without recalling those painful memories.
From there it was a grueling 1000' climb in one mile!!!
Even with frequent switch backs it was a tough haul to the top of the ridge in low gear.
I decided then my new trail name should be Snail Pace!
But eventually we reached the junction with the North Mountain trail.
We headed south on a little used and overgrown footpath.
We passed through the long grass, and low brush on a barely visible trail.
The yellow plastic diamond and occasional faded yellow painted blaze where very widely spaced.
Yet we still managed to find our way along the narrow rocky ridge.
I recalled that renowned trail curmudgeon and first AT Thru-hiker Earl Shaffer.
He had also passed this very same way, in the same direction no less, on the first north to south AT trek in 1965.
It felt like following the same little used & poorly marked post WW2 AT Shaffer described on his first south to north thru-hike in 1948.
The ATC guide for Central VA describes the trail as having only one unreliable spring.
We missed it.
Low on water we knew we had a dry 8 miles ahead.
There was a nice cooling breeze on top of the ridge & occasional views through the well spaced trees of the hardwoods.
All and all it was a really nice and pleasant sunny ridge hike...except for the DAMN ROCKS!!!
Just about the whole damn 8 miles of ridge was nothing but rubble & more rubble punctuated by an occasional up or down.
The only other notable distracting interruption in that rocky ordeal was twice flushing a mother grouse & her chicks.
Eventually, over winding switchbacks, the trail took a long descent back into the Catawba valley at VA 311.
Totally exhausted, demoralized & thirsty I tried hitching a ride back to our vehicle with no success.
The Dragon's Tooth parking lot was in sight to our right down the road.
I knew that there was an unreliable stream about a quarter mile up a trail from the parking lot.
My son hearing a stream next to the road suggested we head for the lot and seek out some water there.
Shuffling into the parking lot we sat down on a rock at it's edge to rest & recoup.
We finished the last dregs of our water & I was anxious for more.
I informed my son of the camping spot & stream up the Dragons' Tooth trail at the junction with the Scout trail.
He volunteered to go check it out.
I stretched out on the rock and nearly fell asleep while waiting.
He soon returned with a good report and we headed to our camp for the night.
We found a decent though overused site with quite a bit of trash strewn about.
We settled in and set up camp, got water, dinner etc, etc...and went off to bed.
It rained off & on that night but by morning things had cleared up to a nice & sunny day.
It's amazing how being fully hydrated, fed & rested can make one actually believe one can overcome an aching old body.
To cap our epic adventure, the plan for the day was to hike the 6 or so miles back to the car then drive back and hike up to Dragon's Tooth.
We broke camp and took the .3 mile Scout trail to hook up with the AT.
The trail appeared short & easy on the map but turned out to be a steady up hill to a ridge.
We followed the AT north crossing several roads and eventually into a field.
After taking several switch backs across the field the trail eventually went straight up the field about a half mile toward the woodline.
After that it continued up & up through the forest for over 600' in less than a half mile.
The rest of the hike was a just more uneventful ups & downs through the woods for the next 4 miles.
Eventually following switchbacks we entered the parking lot on VA 311 to finish the hike.
On arriving we found that some one had broken into my son's Jeep by slashing the driver's side & rear window with a knife.
A gym back with his travel clothing and other things had been stolen.
Needless to say that changed the hiking plans for the rest of the day.
We decided to just head home instead.
Thanks for the report, tonto. I could imagine the events as you told them.
Sorry that some moron(s) broke into you son's vehicle. I'm hoping that more get caught in the act and get what they've got coming to them.
I'm glad you got to get out.
Here Today, Gone Tomorrow
Hey, Glad you liked the report.
My son showed up yesterday from NYC for our annual 4th of July cookout.
Word must have reached NY there was free food in NC.
He'll be flying out of Raleigh/Durham on Thursday for Denver & 5 weeks on the Colorado trail.
He's leaving his Jeep here while he's gone.
It's got a nice new top on it too!
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Since I took this hike further research indicates that the North Mountain trail was the Old AT route from 1978 to 1987. The National Park Service eventually cleared up the land issues on Catawba Mountain through land purchases. In one case the landowner refused to negotiate and the property was condemned and taken for the greater good of the hiking community.
Source: Along Virginia's Appalachian Trail by Leonard M. Adkins
"Due to landowner problems the AT was moved off Catawba Mtn and onto North Mtn...in 1978...In the early 1980s the NPS purchased land on Catawba Mtn enabling the AT to return. In 1982, Roanoke AT club members built miles of new pathway eventually routing the Trail directly to McAfee Knob"
Source: The 2001 Summer issue of Trailblazer the newsletter of the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club
"McAfee Knob fell on hard times in the late seventies. At that time much of the surrounding land was privately owned and there were several cabins and vacation homes accessible by the fire road. An architect drew up plans for a house that was to be canterlevered over the edge of the cliffs. And, from the perspective of the landowners, hikers were persona non grata. As a result, some of these landowners banded together and moved to block access to the Trail. This forced RATC to relocate the AT off of Catawba Mtn and onto North Mountain-where it remained until 1987.
Over the intervening years, the NPS bought up the old trail corridor lands (going to condemnation in at least one case) with the goal of returning the trail to the Knob. RATC, working in parallel, rerouted part of the trail to remove it from the fire road and built the Catawba shelter. An expanded parking lot was constructed at the former site of Bunk Sweeney's Mountain Top Inn (EATS!) on route 311.
Finally, in the spring of 1987, the AT ran over McAfee Knob once again-this time protected by what is, in effect, a linear National Park."
Online I was able to obtain the USGS Catawba 7.5 minute quadrangle map dated 1963.
The map indicates that the Old AT route followed a fire road (which still exists) east from VA 311. McAfee Knob was accessed via a long and winding side trail from the fire road. The 1984 revision of the 1963 map shows the current AT route where it was relocated off the fire road in 1982. It also shows the old access trail from the Old AT/fire road route to McAfee Knob.
I was disappointed to discover that Earl Shaffer never set foot on the crest of North Mountain on his record setting through hike in 1965. I'll just have to return and hike the fire road if I want to follow in Earl's steps.
Last edited by tonto : 09-01-2012 at 07:31 AM.
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