On Friday, September 7th, myself and my two roommates, Nick and Matt, set out on a hike. This was just a day hike. However, it was a day hike unlike most. We decided that we were going to do a sunrise hike along the Appalachian Trail up to McAfee’s Knob in Catawba, VA.
Before the Hike:
This hike was my idea, and it was probably something I was going to do, regardless of whether or not anyone wanted to come with me. At first, I wanted to go alone, but then my roommates expressed interest in coming. I thought this would take away from the solitude of my hike. However, it was probably better off that they came, in terms of safety. I personally enjoy experiencing hikes in all different weather conditions, and at all times of day. So while, yes, a perfectly sunny day is the best time to hike, I enjoy taking on the same hikes in the rain. While yes, I would prefer to wake up at a normal time, I enjoy getting up extra early to experience that hike at sunrise. So, ultimately, my goal was to experience McAfee’s Knob in a way I never had before, at sunrise (and hopefully, without crowds).
At the trailhead, there were no other cars. I thought I would be able to get my wish of avoiding crowds. I think it takes a rare person to start their day hike at 4 am. Ultimately, I don’t think the experience of solitude and quiet that I was seeking would be compromised on this trip…we were the only ones there! the
During the Hike:
As expected, we did not see anyone else on our hike up to McAfee’s Knob. It was dark, it was quiet. This was great, because it was a prime opportunity to listen to the wildlife, the woods, and the wind. We actually saw the eyes of multiple deer reflect back due to the light of our headlamps. I will admit, I’m not terribly used hiking so early in the morning, in the complete dark. I would be lying if I told you I wasn’t a bit skittish. The idea of a bear encounter was on my mind. One time, when confronted with deer eyes, I was nervous. At first, I didn’t know it was a deer, so I yelled at it to try to scare it off. Judging by the way in appeared to run, it ended up being a deer. So, crisis averted. We also saw a very cool centipede (or millipede, not sure). It was huge!
We didn’t stop much on the way up to the knob. We needed to make it up there before the sun rose. However, we did take a quick stop in a powerline cut in the forest. This was essentially the only open (unforested) spot along the trail. It was nice to look at the stars for a moment. But ultimately, me moved along pretty quickly.
We made it to McAfee’s Knob around 6 am. Sunrise wasn’t supposed to happen until 7 am. We took this time to relax, look at the stars and moon, and just listen.
When arriving on the knob, we expected to not see anyone. However, I stumbled across someone bivouacking. Bivouacking is sleeping outside without a tent or shelter. I was surprised to come across this person. He was essentially in the spot on the knob we were hoping to hang out. This changed our recreation experience, because out of common courtesy, we had to change the place we relaxed on the knob. We also had to be more quiet than we may have been otherwise. Despite these changes in plans, it really wasn’t a big deal, and did not detract all that much from the recreation experience and/or sense of solitude.
When the sun began to come up, it was really beautiful. We tried to take the time to admire it and soak it all in, but also take a few photos. It was truly one of the most spectacular times I have ever been at McAfee’s Knob. It was breathtaking.
The person sleeping up there also woke up. We ended up talking to him. He was in fact a southbound Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, his trail name was Beat Feet. It was really cool to hear his stories from the trail. This certainly added to the recreation experience. It was fun to share stories and talk about places along the Appalachian Trail that we were familiar with (such as places in PA, NH, VT, etc).
However, after the sun had arisen, it was time to start heading down. We were at the top from 6-7:40 am. When we began down the trail, my roommate Nick’s ankle was bothering him. He had rolled it on the way up the trail, but didn’t really express too much pain.
Had he told me about it, I definitely would have helped him out with it. I had a cold compress with me, and some ankle tape and an ace bandage. However, we did nothing to treat it. On the way down, he really felt it would be easier for him to take the fire road down the parking lot, rather than the Appalachian Trail. It can definitely see his logic. He tends to have weak ankles, and sprained his ankle many times in the past playing basketball.
The fire road is a lot flatter, wider, and less rocky than the trail.
I also gave him my trekking poles to use, in order to take some of the weight off of his legs/ankle. Taking the fire road definitely changed the recreation experience. It didn’t seem like as much of a wilderness/recreation experience. It felt more like an efficiency trip, if you will. Just a way to get down quickly, rather than enjoy the forest and it’s treasures. However, trying to make the best of it, it was nice a see a slightly different route down, rather than take the same trail over again in an out-and-back fashion.
On our way down, it was still early morning, and the wildlife was very active. In fact, we actually had a close encounter with two deer, one buck and one doe.
They didn’t seem to scared of us so it was cool to observe them from a rather close distance. Last, and to my great excitement, we spotted a bear near the end of our hike. While I am terrified by bears, and more particularly seeing a bear out on the trail, I also love, admire, and am fascinated by them. Thankfully, we had a great distance between us, but we none the less saw a bear! In all of my years of hiking, including the past two summers of hiking in New Hampshire (which has the highest concentration of Black Bears in the nation), this was my first time ever seeing a bear out on the trail. A very cool milestone for me.
After the Hike:
This was definitely one of my best hikes since being a student at Virginia Tech. I accomplished everything I set out to do, which was experience solitude and see McAfee’s Knob in a different light (excuse the pun). I successfully avoided crowds, which is almost impossible on McAfee’s. The only thing that really detracted from the hike was having to take the fire road down due to my friend’s ankle pain. However, health is far more important than a desired recreation experience, so the decision to take the road was in the best interest of the group. I think the people who planned the Appalachian Trail were trying to provide a great solitude experience, particularly for long distance hikers. While it’s intent may be for long distance backpacking, it sure can provide some monster day hikes, and in Virginia we have quite a few great ones. Ultimately, this hike was stellar.