Introducing Iconic Locations, a bonus series of short segments featuring iconic locations of the Appalachian Trail that will air in between regular Green Tunnel episodes. To kick things off, we’re starting with what is probably the most photographed location along the trail: McAfee Knob. And we’ll tell the story of the nine years when the AT was kicked off the Knob.
Diana is the current archivist and former president of the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club. She is also currently a member of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s President Leadership Council. She hiked the entire Appalachian Trail from 1999-2008 as a section hiker and over the past few years has been very involved in environmental preservation work in the mountains traversed by the AT.
MILLS KELLY: Welcome to the Green Tunnel, a podcast on the history of the Appalachian Trail. Today we’re launching a new series of short segments that will air between our main episodes. Each of these segments will focus on the history of one iconic location along the trail.
KELLY: Of all the iconic locations along the trail, McAfee Knob in Central Virginia might just be the best known. It’s certainly the most photographed.
KELLY: If you haven’t been, the Knob is a promontory that sticks out from the western edge of Catawba Mountain, overlooking the valley below. Because the Knob is more than 1,600’ above the valley floor, the views are pretty spectacular, and especially in the fall.
KELLY: If you check out our Instagram feed, you can see some of the photos just a few of you have taken over the years. There are also some cool historical photos of the Knob on our website, greentunnel.rrchnm.org.
KELLY: If you had tried to take a photo at the Knob in 1978, you wouldn’t have been able to do it.
KELLY: For almost a decade, the AT did not cross McAfee Knob. In fact, during that time, any hiker who tried to get to the Knob might have found themselves in trouble with the law.
KELLY: The Appalachian Trail had passed over McAfee Knob since 1933, but the route wasn’t on public land. Like a lot of the trail in those days, the AT crossed private property. The landowners were not required to keep the trail route open. And for a little while in the 1970s and 1980s, they didn’t.
KELLY: Diana Christopoulos, former president of the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club, told me that the club received a rather forthright letter about the area around the Knob on February 15, 1978.
DIANA CHRISTOPOULOS: The board of directors of the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club got a notice from a group of landowners on the McAfee area, telling them that they were officially prohibited from entering that private property due to slob hikers.
CHRISTOPOULOS: Because remember, in the 1970s that’s when backpacking really took off as a popular thing. And these landowners said, we know it’s not your club members, but these people are coming to our houses. They’re asking us to cook for them, wash their clothes there, and they’re leaving garbage, and they’re using our water, and we’ve had enough of it. So they closed it.
KELLY: In the letter, the landowners on Catawba Mountain also informed the RATC that if they saw any hikers on the mountain they would call the local sheriff and have them arrested. And from the perspective of those landowners, who could blame them? Most people don’t like doing other people’s laundry, especially smelly hiker clothes.
CHRISTOPOULOS: And then they built a trail over North Mountain, which is on US, Forest Service land. So, from 1978 to 1987 the trail did not go to McAfee Knob.
KELLY: For nine years hikers headed north had to cross the Catawba Valley, hike up onto North Mountain, traverse that ridge with no access to water, then come back down, cross the valley again, and then climb back up onto Catawba Mountain just past the north end of Tinker Cliffs. Then they had to descend again almost immediately to cross Highway 220 near Troutville. Frankly, it was a terrible route.
KELLY: Those nine years were a sad time for hikers. But then the ATC stepped in, backed now by the National Park Service. Bob Proudman was the Park Service’s point person for these kinds of difficult negotiations and before he spoke to anyone he took a scouting hike up to McAfee Knob.
CHRISTOPOULOS: You heard what Bob Proudman of ATC said, when he came down to look at it sometime in the late 70s, or early 80s to decide whether it was worth the trouble. And he said, I’ve got bad news. McAfee is beautiful. [Chuckles]
KELLY: Proudman worked his negotiating magic and found a way to convince the landowners on Catawba Mountain to sell a corridor for the trail. He used a combination of careful negotiation and hints of the use of imminent domain to cajole them into eventually selling their land to the Park Service. They weren’t all happy about it, but they did sell. And, McAfee Knob was once again part of the Appalachian Trail.
KELLY: The problems that the Catawba Mountain landowners had complained about didn’t go away. In fact, trash and litter are still a huge problem at this beautiful place.
CHRISTOPOULOS: I’ve personally hauled out 15 to 20 gallons of garbage at a time. But what has really helped, is having a Park Service ranger, because they own that land, who can write a $100 ticket for each violation—illegal camping, illegal campfires, illegal drinking.
KELLY: Litter. Crowds. People camping where they shouldn’t and making fires where they aren’t allowed to. These are all significant problems on McAfee Knob these days, much more significant, in fact, than they were in the 1970s.
KELLY: The Roanoke Club is working hard to educate hikers as they depart on their trip to see one of the most beautiful places on the entire trail, teaching them about Leave No Trace and encouraging them to follow the rules. And the National Park Service has started issuing citations to people who camp illegally on the Knob.
KELLY: Will that all help? I sure hope so.
KELLY: That’s it for today. Stay tuned for more of these short segments in between our main episodes, and don’t forget to share your photos of McAfee Knob and tag us on your socials!
KELLY: The Green Tunnel is a production of R2 Studios at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. Today’s episode was produced by me. Abby Mullen is our executive producer and she also did the audio production for this episode.
KELLY: A special thanks to Diana Christopolous – who you can read more about on our website, greentunnel.rrchnm.org. Be sure to follow our show on your favorite podcast platform. Episode 3 of the podcast will be appearing soon and you won’t want to miss that.
KELLY: If you want to receive our newsletter, please sign up on our website using the “Become a Member” link. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you again soon!