CATAWBA — Through the windshield, Robin Browning’s expression was evident.
A car was pulling out of the parking lot at the McAfee Knob trailhead on a recent, unseasonably mild early winter Saturday afternoon. Thrilled, Browning steered her hatchback into the open spot.
“The morning hikers are leaving now,” said Browning, a 53-year-old from Raleigh, N.C. “I was hopeful I’d get a spot.”
The hike to McAfee Knob can be strenuous. But the first big challenge — finding that parking spot — often comes before a hiker takes any step.
Crowded parking lots are just part of the deal.
The trails are busy, too, and some hikers even blare tunes from portable speakers as they walk.
Visitors fill bear boxes meant to protect campers’ food from hungry bruins with bags of trash.
Camping areas and shelters are often overflowing.
Such is the norm for what has become known as Virginia’s Triple Crown — McAfee Knob, Dragon’s Tooth and Tinker Cliffs — the three day hikes on what very well could be the busiest stretch of the 2,190-mile Appalachian National Scenic Trail.
And it’s why the National Park Service has launched a process to establish a plan on how best to manage the beloved section of what most of us know simply as the AT.
As one of the early steps in the process, which should be complete in 2023, the Park Service is accepting public comments through the end of March.
The Park Service and other partners invested in the management of the trail section — including the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club and Roanoke County — recently held the first of two informational Zoom meetings to lay out the situation, explaining how the process will unfold and taking questions and suggestions. A second meeting will be held on March 17.
Comments and suggestions from stakeholders can be submitted through an online form or, for the old fashioned, via letter.
The first Zoom meeting drew about 40 people, an impressive figure and one that reflects just how much interest there is in the management of the 35.6-mile stretch between VA 620 (Miller Cove Road) in Craig County and VA 652 (Mountain Pass Road) in Botetourt County.
Diana Christopulos of Roanoke is a recent past president of the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club, which established a McAfee Knob Task Force several years ago as use on that particular hike exploded.
On one fall weekend day, she said, volunteer ridge-runners affiliated with the club and carrying clicker counters tallied more than 1,000 hikers on the McAfee Knob trail alone.
“That’s too many,” Christopulos said, bluntly, adding that visitation averages 600 to 700 even on average weekends.
In addition to volunteers carrying clicker counters on weekends, the National Park Service has deployed infrared counters on the trails. Crunching those numbers has shown that the McAfee Knob hike sees roughly 50,000 visitors a year. The Dragon’s Tooth hike gets about 30,000 visitors.
It’s tougher to gauge the numbers for the Tinker Cliffs day hike — via the Andy Layne trail — because the parking lot also services the North Mountain Trail. But that hike is clearly the least-visited of the Triple Crown jaunts.
The Triple Crown. There’s that name again.
Christopulos said a hiking blogger from Washington D.C. first used the moniker about a decade ago.
“That popularized the name,” Christopulos said.
The three landmarks can be accessed via a loop that utilizes the North Mountain Trail, but most visitors tackle the treks a la carte.
The hike from the Dragon’s Tooth trailhead to the peak is 2.4 miles, the first 2 miles of which are a steady climb before a final stretch of challenging rock scrambling. The total elevation gain is 1,500 feet.
The trek to McAfee Knob from the main parking lot rises 1,700 feet in 4 miles. Hikers who make that gradual climb to what many consider the most-photographed location on the AT are rewarded with a stunning 270-degree view.
The view from Tinker Cliffs is also spectacular. The outcropping can be reached by continuing north on the AT from McAfee Knob or by tackling the 3.8-mile trip up the Andy Layne Trail, a route that climbs a whopping 2,000 feet.
The landmark hikes have long had attention in the hiking world, including in numerous hiking guide books. Lead art for the movie “A Walk in the Woods” even featured stars Nick Nolte and Robert Redford standing atop the iconic McAfee Knob. (The actors didn’t actually make that hike.)
But social media has been a primary driver of the explosion in attention in the past decade. Visitors share their scenic pictures and glowing reviews, which in turn attracts more visitors.
“I knew it was the most-photographed spot on the Appalachian Trail,” Jennifer May of Baltimore said after completing the hike to McAfee Knob on a recent Saturday.
After the ongoing informational campaign and public comment period, the partners will spend the next year developing a draft management plan. There will follow another public review and comment period, with implementation set to begin in the summer of 2023.
While heavy use is a driver for the project, the goal is not necessarily to substantially curtail use.
“What we’re focusing on is ensuring a quality visitor experience while also ensuring proper protection of the resource,” Christopulos noted.
Goals include the possible redesign and active management of campsites, including potentially adding more designated camping areas, as well as identifying options to manage parking lots. The needs and desires of both short-term users and the thousands of thru-hikers who pass through the section must be balanced, too.
Plans are already in motion to add a pedestrian bridge from the McAfee Knob parking lot on the west side of VA 311 to the trailhead on the east side of the road. Construction is set to begin in the fall of 2023 and take about a year. Parking will be reduced during that time.
On that recent Saturday, more than 75 cars were crowded into the McAfee lot. A couple dozen more were parked on the shoulder of Old Catawba Road.
A few miles north, the Dragon’s Tooth lot was nearly full, spaces open only because morning hikers were leaving. Two dozen cars were on the shoulder of 311.
Two miles up from the parking lot, Chris O’Dell and Chelsey Looney were on the way back down with their kids, 9-year-old Aubrey O’Dell and 7-year-old Brennan Looney.
“We were going to do McAfee but as soon as the kids heard me say ‘Dragon’s Tooth’ of course they wanted to come here,” O’Dell said, laughing.
Brennan was leading the way down.
“I was afraid of heights,” he said.
“He was,” said O’Dell, pointing at the youngster as he scrambled down a steep section of the trail.
A quarter mile up the trail, the feature for which the trail is named jutted toward the sun. In its shadow 24-year-old travel nurse Jodie Dalton of Roanoke lounged in a portable hammock strung between two trees. Her fiance Collin Robertson, a 24-year-old Marine reservist, filled up a dog bowl with a snack for Echo, their towering Great Dane.
“She pretty much pulled me up here,” Robertson said, laughing.
Other hikers relaxed in the area, and a few had even scurried up the craggy peak of the Tooth itself. Moments after arriving, two young women sat on the edge of rock, pulled out their phones and shot selfies that were likely destined to be immediately shared with their Instagram followers.
Heavy use of the area was evident. Not a blade of vegetation grew in the 75-foot diameter area at the base of Dragon’s Tooth.
Having plenty of company on the hike and even as they relaxed before heading back down did not bother Dalton.
“It’s just so nice,” she said. “I just love it up here.”
That is the kind of sentiment that the powers behind the Visitor Use Management process want to ensure continues as they seek the best balance between popularity and peacefulness on the Triple Crown.