ROANOKE COUNTY (WSLS10)-- It's one of the most photographed spots along the Appalachian Trail. Even if you haven't hiked it, you could probably still recognize photos of Mcafee Knob from the thousands of images posted online and in magazines every year. Every day hundreds of trail climbers and day hikers make their way to the top-- getting pictures on the rock that hangs over the Roanoke Valley.
But with that many visitors, the parking lot around Route 311 often looks more like a football stadium parking lot, than one for a hiking trail, but changes are in the works. Over the next few years we could see some big improvements to the parking lot, making that are of Route 311 much safer.
Throughout the summer, more than 600 people hike McAfee Knob each weekend. During the busy season, in the spring and fall when Virginia Tech students are in town, more than 1,200 people will make the 4 mile trek to the top on an average weekend. The problem is the parking lot is only meant to hold about seventy to eighty cars, so when it gets overcrowded, people start illegally parking along the road. With cars traveling at 55 mph and people trying to get out of their cars to cross the road to the trail, it's a dangerous situation that many are looking to improve.
"It would be redesigning the parking lot," says Andrew Downs, the regional director for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. "Changing the layout, changing the way people go from the road to the parking spot and from their parking spot to the trail. It's thinking about how they enter and exit the parking lot and the safest way to get across the road and the safest way to get around in the parking lot."
The small gravel lot was not built to be a part of the Appalachian Trail, it was originally the parking lot for a Barbecue Restaurant. Downs says the lot isn't living up to it's full potential, providing a safe and educational experience for hikers before they hit the trail. That's why surveying will be done to figure out the best changes to make to the area.
"It's not only people who define their hike by the Appalachian Trail," he says. "Some people are looking for a hike in the woods or a variety of experiences. The Park Service wants to get a handle on what is actually going on here, so they can best determine how to design the facility."
The lot won't be bigger, but will be better designed-- making it easier for hikers to navigate when they come to McAfee Knob.
"I think if it's well designed," says Diana Christopulos, the president of the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club. "It will be pretty obvious, like in a normal parking lot. You can say, 'Is it full? Oh, Okay-- then I need to do something else right now.' It's not really clear what's going on and it makes it really unsafe for crossing the road, because the cars are parked down where people want to cross."
Discussions are still in the very early phases, so it's a process that could take a few years. Until the updates are complete, there are some things that hikers can do now to make the parking lot less crowded-- like carpooling and leaving extra vehicles at the park and ride just a few miles away, off I81 at exit 141 in Salem.
"That's not busy on weekends," says Christopulos. "If you have six or eight people coming, meet there and pool together in one or two cars. You'll have a better chance of getting a parking space up here and it will relieve some of that pressure on the lot."
If the lot is full, there are other good hikes nearby, like Tinkers Cliff in Troutville.