Day 4 – Blue Ridge Mountains (Virginia)
Day 4 started on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia. The Appalachian Trail (AT) crisscrosses the parkway for about 100 miles. Of the “longest continually marked trail in the world” from Maine to Georgia, 25% is in Virginia. This was going to be a busy hiking and sightseeing day on the first designated “national scenic trail” in the U.S.
As I drove along the Blue Ridge Parkway early in the morning, there were many places to pull over and take in the scenic overlook. I stopped to enjoy the vista and also took a short hike following the AT marker. This was the flattest part of my six-day hiking journey as I walked along the ridge. At the Sharp Top Overlook parking area, I read the placard that described Sharp Top Mountain. I was fascinated to learn during construction of the Washington Monument, proud Virginians incorrectly believed this mountain was the tallest in the state. To honor George Washington, they sent a piece of stone from Sharp Top to be part of the obelisk monument. The sign also proclaimed the trail was a mere 1.5 strenuous miles to the peak. My attention switched from the easy ridge trail I was on to the historic mountain in the distance.
Sharp Top is one of three mountains in the Peaks of Otter area overlooking the town of Bedford, Virginia. The description I read of the trail to the summit of Sharp Top as “strenuous” was accurate. It was the first time I felt winded from taking big steps that seemed to be going straight up like an earth ladder. I heard people behind me which only made me go faster. At this point in time in the solo journey, no one had passed me hiking and I was not about to relinquish that minor feat.
At the rocky peak, there were places to sit and places to stay out of the wind. Thankfully many people had spent a lot of energy fashioning smaller stones around the bigger stones to create this little sanctuary. The steady wind was an immediate cool down from the climb and added a sense of danger on top of the huge boulders. There was someone at the top who was willing to snap a quick photo of me so I could record another milestone.
I had wasted no time scrambling up Sharp Top so I figured I would add a side trail while I was here. There was a sign for “Buzzard’s Roost” that caught my attention. Note to self; avoid going to lookout points named after high flying birds of prey. When I arrived at the named outcropping, I saw cameras, hats and other belongings resting at the bottom of a deep crevice. There was no chance of retrieving any dropped items in this fissure. My forward progress was reduced to a crawl using my hands, knees and feet. I decided to err on the side of caution while attempting to climb farther during high winds. Halfway up the rocks was far enough; this overlook was meant for buzzards only.
On the steep walk down, I realized my new hiking boots made a huge difference. No longer were my toes pressing against the front of my shoe. I was delighted I took the advice of the store clerk and bought a pair one size bigger than my normal shoe size. A telepathic thank you would have to suffice.
Roanoke, Virginia was my next pit stop. I needed to re-energize for the 8-mile hike in the afternoon on the AT. I had read about the 270-degree panorama from a formation called MacAfee Knob. This geological feature is located on Catawba Mountain not far away. It was a beautiful Saturday, so I figured I would see more people on this hike than all the others.
When I arrived at the trailhead parking lot to MacAfee Knob it was full. I hoped that a morning climber would soon be leaving and my intuition was right. A parking spot opened up and within a few minutes I was on the trail. I cannot explain my excitement to spend the next 100 minutes doing this cardio challenge to the top. When other hikers heard my footsteps, they would just step to the side. I used a hoo-rag as both a neck gaiter and a protective face mask which I quickly pulled up around my nose and mouth as I passed them. Despite being in the outdoors, I practiced social distancing as best as I could.
This summit was arguably the most famous along the AT. To be photographed on the rock that projects over the cliff is a must for all hikers. Like a diving board over a pool, there was a flat rock on the top that overlooks Catawba Valley. You can sit on the edge of the rock with your feet on a ledge just at the right level below. In the photo you appear to be hanging over the edge. However, with your feet secured underneath, the danger is mitigated. This section of the AT was prominently featured in the 2015 major motion picture, “A Walk in the Woods,” starring Nick Nolte and Robert Redford.
The way down went very quickly. There was only one place that I made a mental note of a hard turn where multiple trails came together. I was alerted to it upon arrival because there was a group of younger hikers at the intersection unsure of the right direction to proceed. After I showed them the trail markers, they were good to go. Another mile later in the descent I heard some other people in the distance. They were the loudest hikers I had ever encountered. Young girls with no masks and no trail etiquette were creating the noise pollution. I thought, maybe they should be warned of the timber rattler in the middle of the trail about a half-mile away. Should I tell them not to worry since the poisonous snake was easy to spot in the middle of the trail? I figured if I made up a tall tale like that, a little focus would replace the noise. For the next 15 minutes, the trail turned into a blanket of roots so they would have been seeing imaginary snakes the whole time. Instead, I bit my tongue and let them carry on as is. The people’s path was for everyone.
After the hike, I ate quickly in the parking lot while contemplating the tedious ride ahead of me. Then I perked up with the idea of a road soda. The combination of my big YETI Rambler, a cup full of ice and a beer would surely be a treat to be sipped for hours on the way to North Carolina. Life was good but the next mountain would be better.