During peak hiking seasons in the spring and fall, McAfee Knob sees about 600 visitors a day, contributing to an estimated 50,000 hikers who annually make the trek to what has often been called the most photographed landmark on the entire Appalachian Trail. Photo courtesy of Barry Nathan Hale.

Hikers love Virginia’s Triple Crown.

The diverse group that manages the section of the Appalachian Trail that includes the Dragon’s Tooth, McAfee Knob and Tinker Cliffs landmarks in the Roanoke area wants to ensure that the area isn’t going to be loved to death.

How to participate

The National Park Service will hold two meetings — one virtual, one in person — to gather input on the draft Visitor Use Management Plan for the Triple Crown.

Virtual: Aug. 14, 6-7:30 p.m.

  • Teams Meeting link: https://bit.ly/3NHtdgT; Meeting ID: 282 181 355 327; Passcode: BjgSji.
  • Call-in: 202-640-1187; Passcode: 741 430 500#

Public open house: Aug. 15, 5-7 p.m.

  • Salem Civic Center community room, 1001 Roanoke Blvd.

The National Park Service recently released a draft Visitor Use Management Plan for the Triple Crown. The agency will host public meetings on Aug. 14 and 15 to discuss the document and to invite feedback on its contents. 

The draft plan contains a mix of strategies — some already underway, others conceptual — to address how to balance increasing crowds with the elements that draw those crowds. 

“This is a framework,” said Andrew Downs, the senior regional director for the trail’s South Region, which runs from Georgia through Virginia. “Independent projects will move forward within that framework, and hopefully that will make the projects work well together.”

The National Park Service’s Denver Service Center facilitated development of the plan. That office is called in to help with major Park Service projects.

More than two dozen representatives of stakeholder and management groups — including local municipalities, the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club, the Virginia Department of Transportation, and tourism and parks and recreation departments — formed an interdisciplinary team that helped with the plan’s development.

“A very diverse group informed the development of this document,” Downs said. “We had standing meetings every two weeks, though sometimes it felt like it was every 25 minutes.

“Participation was excellent.”

Key ideas include improving parking and facilities at trailheads; refining and better managing camping along the trail section; encouraging preservation of viewsheds; and honing marketing, promotion and education to help make sure hikers are doing their part to help preserve the magic of one of the AT’s most heavily used sections.

The National Park Service and a team of regional stakeholders have been studying the segment of the Appalachian Trail that’s home to the so-called Triple Crown: Dragon’s Tooth, McAfee Knob and Tinker Cliffs. Map taken from the draft plan.

Just how busy?

Downs says the Triple Crown section is right up there with Roan Mountain in Tennessee, Max Patch in North Carolina and Franconia Ridge in New Hampshire as one of the busiest areas of the trail.

During peak hiking seasons in the spring and fall, McAfee Knob sees about 600 visitors a day, contributing to an estimated 50,000 hikers who annually make the trek to what has often been called the most photographed landmark on the entire trail. Dragon’s Tooth, just to the south, gets 20,000 annual visitors.

The National Park Service’s draft plan includes data on just how many people visit the popular Triple Crown sites. During peak hiking seasons in the spring and fall, McAfee Knob sees about 600 visitors a day.

From 2011 to 2015, visitation to the Triple Crown section increased eightfold, and that was before a big bump during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Crowds create work. The 700-member Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club maintains about 120 miles of the trail in the region. 

“About a quarter of their total volunteer service is concentrated on the 4-mile stretch from the [Virginia] 311 parking area lot to the summit of McAfee Knob,” Downs noted.

Goal numbers of visitors outlined in the plan align with current peak use, so it will take several strategies to keep visitor numbers from expanding significantly and to ensure no further negative impacts — and, in some cases, a reduction of impacts — on resources, both natural and created.

Trail managers point to several factors generating the increase in attention, including the proliferation of social media, mentions on popular hiking blogs and even the conspicuous inclusion of McAfee Knob in the book and film “A Walk in the Woods.”

The area is within about an hour’s drive of the 700,000 people who live in the Roanoke, Lynchburg and New River Valley areas. Many day-use visitors hail from metro areas within four hours, including Washington, Richmond, Charlotte and North Carolina’s Triad. That’s a base of about 14 million people. Attention from local colleges, including Virginia Tech and Liberty University, is also increasing.

When you put tens of thousands of people on a footpath, impact is inevitable. The plan seeks to minimize and mitigate those impacts while also ensuring safety for trail users.

A major improvement is already in the works to address what is one of the Triple Crown’s most vexing and public challenges: crowding at the parking lot atop Catawba Mountain where the trail crosses Virginia 311.

In 2017, the Virginia Department of Transportation secured funding to build a pedestrian bridge across the road from the parking area to the trailhead for hikers walking north to McAfee Knob.

The $3.43 million project is to get underway in 2024. The project will provide an opportunity to improve both safety for pedestrians and the parking area.

“VDOT has to be commended for this work,” Downs said. “They have been proactive. Fortunately there was no loss of life [from an accident], but they, along with the Park Service, really came out and said, ‘Let’s do this before there’s an emergency situation.’”

Even when the parking lot is improved, the 8-acre site has only so much room. That’s why planners are also enthusiastic about using a formal shuttle to trailheads. Roanoke County secured a grant for a pilot program that launched last fall, running a shuttle from a park-and-ride lot near Interstate 81 to the McAfee Knob trailhead.

In 37 days of operation, the shuttle drew 488 riders. The shuttle service resumed in early March and has been operating on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and holidays since. 

“It’s still in a proof-of-concept phase,” Downs said of the shuttle. “But I think it’s been a great success.”

Downs said there could be opportunities to expand the shuttle operation, adding other stops and perhaps even other outdoor recreationists. Because river trips are popular in this area, shuttling is an understood concept.

“Every paddler knows the worst part about a paddle trip is the shuttle,” he said, chuckling. “But you have to do it. So people around here are used to it.”

Parking at Dragon’s Tooth is also addressed in the draft plan. That parking lot — on land owned by the U.S. Forest Service — fills to capacity during peak seasons, prompting many visitors to park on the shoulder of the highway. There may be opportunities to expand that parking area.

“The Dragon’s Tooth [parking] facility is by far the best, but it still needs improvement,” Downs said. 

Parking will also be improved in Daleville. Downs said the Appalachian Trail Conservancy was able to purchase a tract behind the Goodwill store that would provide a good spot for day-use hikers to head south on the trail to the Hay Rock viewpoint. 

“We want that to be an amenity for overnight parking,” Downs said. “It’s a much more functional place to park a car for a couple nights than McAfee if you’re doing a backpacking trip.”

Backpackers heading north across U.S. 220 would be aided by the possible addition of a designated crossing area with safety lights.

The popularity of McAfee Knob has led to parking and safety challenges around its trailhead. A shuttle service was launched last year, and work is slated to begin in 2024 on a pedestrian bridge to carry hikers across Virginia 311 at the parking area. Photo courtesy of Barry Nathan Hale.

Overnight challenges

While an estimated 80% of the hikers on the Triple Crown section of the Appalachian Trail are day users, that still leaves a large number of backpackers on the trail. That has led to crowding at designated camping sites and shelters, as well as a proliferation of user-created campsites, many in areas where dispersed camping is not authorized.

The draft management plan recommends creating a detailed inventory of camping areas in the Triple Crown section, including both authorized sites and nonauthorized sites — although a formal inventory isn’t really necessary to know that changes are needed, as anyone who has rolled into a shelter site on a busy weekend evening can confirm.

Potential improvements could include establishing group-specific sites, and possibly setting up a reservation system for those sites. 

“There are no backcountry, overnight sites that are designed and managed for groups almost anywhere in the South,” Downs said. “This helps us look at how we might look at amenities for groups that won’t detract from the AT experience.”

To alleviate crowding at current camping and shelter sites, additional side-hill tent pads could be constructed. Overnighters should also anticipate more emphasis on enforcing rules against dispersed camping in unauthorized areas.

Impact on the health of the Appalachian Trail itself, as well as connector trails, is also addressed. There may be a need for minor reroutes, for example to ensure separation from camping areas and the trail. The responsibility of maintaining trails will continue to fall to volunteers, in particular the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club. 

Volunteers with the local trail club support “Ridgerunners,” paid staff of the ATC who take to the trail to monitor conditions and minge with visitors. There will be a continued emphasis on such outreach, to include focus on Leave No Trace principles.

Those volunteers will also likely play a role in improvements, such as the tough labor of creating those sidehill tent pads.

“Seven hundred volunteers can move a lot of earth,” Downs said. “Everything on the trail is volunteer-built and volunteer-driven.

“The AT is literally a national park that volunteers built.”

Those volunteers — who love the Triple Crown as much as, if not more than, infrequent visitors — will also play a part in another strategy: encouraging hikers to spread their love, so to speak.

That’s because a key focus of the plan will be to alleviate pressure at hot spots by encouraging visitors to explore areas beyond the Triple Crown, including lesser-used sections of the Appalachian Trail and even other trails in the region.

“The AT is an anchor,” Downs said. “I used to say it’s like a Sears in the mall. Once you have the big store at the mall, other smaller options will populate it.”


Correction 1 p.m. Aug. 11: The Appalachian Trail Club purchased land in Daleville that will be used for parking. Additionally, Ridgerunners are paid staff of the ATC. These facts were incorrect in an earlier version of the story.

Mark Taylor is Trout Unlimited's Eastern Communications Director. Based in Roanoke, he is also a freelance...