The purchase of nearly 600 acres around McAfee Knob will further protect the scenic vistas surrounding one of the most popular spots on the Appalachian Trail, conservation groups said Tuesday.
Aided in large part by a contribution from Mountain Valley Pipeline — which will cross the trail about 60 miles to the west — the groups spent more than $1 million on three private parcels of land.
Buying the property will preserve the views from the Roanoke County, Virginia, landmark, improve access to the Appalachian Trail and better conserve the surrounding area, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy said in an announcement with The Conservation Fund and the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club.
“The conservation efforts surrounding McAfee Knob continue the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s work to improve access for visitors, conserve the world’s most famous footpath and protect views cherished by millions of visitors,” said Andrew Downs, a senior regional director for the conservancy.
In August, under a voluntary stewardship agreement struck between the groups and Mountain Valley, the joint venture of five energy companies building the natural gas pipeline pledged up to $19.5 million for trail improvements.
The land purchase was the second announced use of the money. In October, $150,000 was designated for grants to nonprofit groups to strengthen the ties between the 2,000-plus-mile footpath and eight Virginia and West Virginia counties through which the pipeline will pass.
One of the purchases announced Tuesday was of an 8-acre parcel adjacent to the McAfee Knob trailhead on Virginia 311, which has seen growing use in recent years.
Although the land is likely too steep to serve as a much-needed expansion of the parking area, it could host a building that would provide public bathrooms and an information center, Downs said.
Earlier this year, the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club began to raise money to buy the land, which is immediately adjacent to the south side of the trail parking area.
Hundreds of individuals donated more than $44,000 before the effort was stalled by the coronavirus pandemic.
Mountain Valley’s gift provided the rest of the money needed for that parcel and two others: a 197-acre property along Blacksburg Road where the trail passed through a narrow easement, and another 353 acres just below the McAfee Knob summit.
“Piece by piece and property by property, securing these lands adds to our ongoing efforts to protect the beautiful viewshed from the A.T. of the landscape surrounding the ‘Triple Crown’ from Dragon’s Tooth to McAfee to Tinker Cliffs,” Heather Richards, Virginia state director for The Conservation Fund, said in the announcement.
The land next to the trailhead will now be included in an ongoing study to improve safety at the heavily used site. Construction of a pedestrian bridge that will allow hikers to avoid a tricky crossing of 311 is planned by the Virginia Department of Transportation.
McAfee Knob’s growing popularity is attributed in part to a social media buzz that began after the 2015 release of “A Walk in the Woods,” a movie based on the nonfiction book by Bill Bryson that highlighted the rocky outcrop. With its panoramic, nearly 270-degree views, it's known as one of the most photographed spots on the Appalachian Trail.
Mountain Valley’s contribution to the trail came after discussions with conservation groups about the environmental damage caused by running the 303-mile pipeline over panoramic mountain ridges and through unsoiled forests.
Plans call for the pipeline to be buried under the trail along the ridgeline of Peters Mountain, not far from the West Virginia line.