We set off to hike the final 40 miles of Pennsylvania’s Baker Trail — part of the great North Country Trail itself — in glorious late November weather. Brian would thus complete his PA State Forest Trails Award as the rest of us continue along in these same footsteps, eager to hike these remote northwestern PA miles together . . .
Ken Burns-Style Narrator Voice: But they would not hike Pennsylvania’s Baker Trail. For you see, it was late 2020. A dark time for COVID-19. Commonwealth pitted against commonwealth. Travel to Pennsylvania from out of state was no longer to be permitted whilst the pandemic raged. DC UL Backpacking took the travel recommendations to heart and remained in Virginia. DC UL Backpacking choose to return to a favorite: a 36 mile VA loop that takes in Appalachian Trail “triple crown” highlights McAfee Knob, Tinker Cliffs, and Dragon’s Tooth, plus a journey across Catawba Valley and Great North Mountain.
On Friday morning, Brian, Dan, Sophie, Jason and I (Evan) assembled for a noon start at the McAfee Knob parking area near Roanoke, VA after making the four hour drive from the DMV. The lot was already filling up on a weekday morning, making us a bit nervous for parking availability for late-arriving Michael, Jen, and Steve. Rumors had reached us that national park rangers would tow cars that were creatively parked. I hadn’t hiked with Jason in years and I was thrilled to be on the trail with him again. We hit the AT going northbound in 60 degree late November sun. We lucked out again: it would be warm and dry all weekend long.
Sure enough, we passed a few day hikers en route to iconic McAfee Knob but had the place mostly to ourselves (and a very friendly ranger) once we arrived for photos and a break. The ranger, assigned daily to this 150-mile stretch of the AT and McAfee Knob in particular since a fatal fall in 2018, gave us a quick note on the original settler, John McAfee, and settled our pronunciation debate (MAC-afee). When I jokingly raised my water bottle in toast to the original McAfee, Sophie loudly piped up, “Hey, drink some whisky for him!” Pivoting quickly next to the ranger, I sternly responded with a smile, “Why Sophie, we would not do that nor have whisky on such a trail — that is illegal!” The ranger let our hypocrisy pass without judgment. While it’s somewhat unusual to have alcohol prohibitions in the outdoors, this section of the AT had some specific regulations posted at the trail head. Proximity to numerous colleges would do that. Virginia Tech is perennially well represented at McAfee Knob.
We marched along, traversing up and down the Blue Ridge, until we reached Tinker Cliffs. I had my eye on the sun as the afternoon came to a close, hoping that we would make it in time. We did indeed. Our crew settled in to watch the sunset together. Steve, a 2017 AT thru hiker who lives the van life as he meanders across the United States teleworking, happened to be in the area in Tennessee. He caught up to us in the middle of the afternoon. We also passed another DC-area backpacking group on the trail who was doing day hike versions of the triple crown out of their base camp. We nearly asked one of their crew who stopped to talk about joining DC UL to pack up and join us for a proper backpacking weekend but we figured that might be considered a little rude to the other group.
As the last rays of sun slipped behind the mountains, we enjoyed the pink-purple hue of twilight and mused that it felt like we walked through a pocket dimension as we finished our final mile for the day and settled in near the Lambert Meadow Shelter. There, we met a fun group of guys we nicknamed the Florida Hammock Gang (for obvious reasons of origin and shelter choice), who drive up for mountain backpacking weekends. Jen and Michael rolled in a couple hours later.
On Saturday morning we hit the trail at dawn and rolled off the AT and down across the Catawba Valley, passing the Tatooine-like Roanoke Cement Factory in the distance. Once across the valley we hoofed it up the steep Catawba Valley Trail to get on the Great North Mountain ridge proper. We spent the day rolling up and down over Massanutten-like knobs with autumn views out to either side of the ridge. We spread out quite a bit in between breaks as the elevation gain and loss took its toll.
We ended our day with a hike up Dragon’s Tooth Trail to connect us to the AT again and a group campsite we were all worried might be occupied by the time we arrived. Dragon’s Tooth parking area was packed to the gills. A steady stream of day hikers passed us heading down. I thought I counted more Liberty University paraphernalia than Virginia Tech. (Maybe each college has a scenic overlook AT preference?) A bunch of us assembled near a creek to fill water. A nice day hiker approached us very perplexed. She seemed a bit shocked to realize we intended to drink the water. Sophie tried to show her how she was treating it but she still looked skeptical.
Our campsite on the AT was blessedly free and we settled in for the evening around our little campfire to chat life, politics, and the future of COVID backpacking. In the morning we rose before dawn and watched sunrise perched on Dragon’s Tooth, which was only another 0.7 miles from camp. It’s been a long time since I experienced a sunrise quite so dramatic.
We hiked our final 8 miles along the AT. I particularly loved the sandstone, loblolly pine, mountain laurel, and rhododendron of our first couple miles of the day, as well as the cows and pasture we traversed before ascending a ridge to bob up and down as we finished out our hike. Steve gave us a little tour of Carmen Van Diego in the parking lot, his impressive vehicle/home/office/project. We jealously mused about the freedom of van life as we packed up and headed back to the city again.
Our splits for the weekend ended up around 10-18-8. The elevation gain was pretty significant for a short hike, however, thanks to the 3,000 foot ridge lines of southern Virginia — a good thousand feet higher than most of what we experience in Pennsylvania. Overall, it makes me sad to put Pennsylvania adventures on hold until the severity of this coronavirus winter passes. Vaccines seem to be on the horizon but that doesn’t mean the end is close. But Virginia too is a land of trails and wonder. I’m glad Michael suggested this hike as a COVID consolation prize. We’ll keep things in-state and using safe loops that allow us to drive individually. As we’ve seen since May, this hobby can be done safe and right in the outdoors — as long as we follow all guidance closely and keep our distance outside.