When asked about the crowds at McAfee Knob, Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club (RATC) volunteer Jean Warren says, “There have been so many times after volunteering on the A.T., I have come home energized and appreciative of the opportunity to meet locals as well as those from around the world. The exchange of dialogue enhances their experience as well as mine. We come together to be inspired by the beauty of this area.”
Before 2015, it was less common to hear a volunteer from the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club speak so favorably of visitors at McAfee Knob. The local Trail maintainers have always been proud of the crown jewel of their 120-mile A.T. section — it’s featured on the club’s logo — but visitation was increasing about 55 percent each year. The visitors came with enthusiasm, but some of them left graffiti, trash, illegal fire rings and trampled vegetation. RATC volunteers were doing all they could to clean up behind the crowds, and still watching their most beloved stretch of Trail get trashed every weekend. The same thing was happening at nearby Dragons Tooth and Tinker Cliffs, and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s (ATC) seasonal Catawba Mountain ridgerunner couldn’t be in three places at once.
The Catawba Mountain section of A.T. — often referred to as the “Virginia Triple Crown” these days — has been patrolled by an ATC ridgerunner since 1986. A ridgerunner is a seasonal employee who hikes a popular section of Trail during periods of peak use, educating visitors about Leave No Trace practices, mitigating impacts like litter and fire rings, and reporting on Trail conditions. From Georgia to Maine, about 30 ridgerunners are deployed along the Trail each year to talk to hikers about how the small choices they make — like where to camp or how to store their food at night — can make a big difference to the natural resources and the next hiker’s experience. Part park ranger, part Trail maintainer, and all hiker, ridgerunners share the “why” behind local regulations and the Leave No Trace principles to encourage low-impact habits in the backcountry. Since it’s impossible to prevent all impacts through education, they also protect the resource by minimizing damage when they find it.
Since the A.T. along Catawba Mountain is on a narrow corridor of National Park Service land, camping and campfires are restricted to shelters and designated campsites for about 27 miles. The Catawba Mountain ridgerunner’s role was originally designed to keep things friendly with adjacent private landowners by making sure a few hundred backpackers each year knew about those regulations. For the first 30 years, it was a part-time position patrolling the Trail on weekends only, in the spring and the fall.
Fortunately, a strong partnership already existed for the management of this section, and that partnership has grown both broader and deeper in the years since. In 2015, the ATC, RATC, and National Park Service (NPS) partnered to create the McAfee Knob Task Force — a special group of RATC volunteers dedicated to untangling the knot of challenges related to visitor use at McAfee Knob. It was quickly determined that volunteers were both able and interested in doing the same work as the staff ridgerunner, and the volunteer ridgerunner program was born.
Diana Christopulos, who was president of RATC at the time, led the effort and recalls, “I started thinking about it when I filled in for the ATC ridgerunner when he was out West fighting wildfires in 2014. Most of the hikers had never been to McAfee Knob, and they kept getting lost or attempting the hike without water or proper footwear. We needed more than one ridgerunner, and it is actually a lot of fun to meet college students, their extended families, people with babies, thru-hikers, new doctors in local medical school, and people from all over the world who modify their travel plans just to do this hike. Sometimes there is a lot of trash and frustration, but then you are on top of McAfee Knob and get to enjoy the view again, just like everyone else. It never gets old for me. And I enjoy helping them get the picture from the right spot. It’s also the perfect volunteer activity for busy people, since we sign up on our own and try to go out at least one day a month.”
By Greg Lester
That first year, 18 volunteers were trained to be volunteer ridgerunners — and five years later, 99 volunteers have been trained. While some volunteers have come and gone, new folks have stepped up so that in 2019, 52 volunteer ridgerunners reported 211 patrols on the A.T., at both Dragons Tooth and McAfee Knob. In 2019, they spoke with over 15,000 visitors and removed 468 gallons of trash and 56 fire rings. That’s in addition to the work of the ATC staff Catawba Mountain ridgerunner, which is now a full-time position for eight months of the year. Where the ATC ridgerunner used to be a lone ranger whose main contact with the management partnership was a weekly report sent by email, the Catawba Mountain ridgerunner now spends about 20 percent of their time training, supporting, and communicating with a vibrant community of volunteers who patrol the same stretch of Trail each weekend. This means that David Youmans, the staff ridgerunner, spends more time sitting at a desk or attending meetings than before, but with the needed support, can focus more when out on the Trail. “Having motivated volunteer ridgerunners patrolling the very high use areas has proved invaluable,” says Youmans. “I spent every week on the hot spots, but the volunteer ridgerunners allowed me to get out on the more remote areas of my section. They definitely had my back on what were always crazy weekends.”
Of course, education can’t address every problem — not even over 60,000 friendly conversations this amazing team of volunteer ridgerunners has had over the past five years. Over the same time period, the ATC has regularly convened meetings and conversations with our partners in the RATC, NPS, and U.S. Forest Service, as well as a much larger group of stakeholders known as the Triple Crown Partnership. In groups large and small, we’ve brainstormed solutions, pooled our resources, and made some seemingly pie-in-the-sky dreams come true.
In a few years, the Virginia DOT plans to build a pedestrian bridge over Virginia highway 311 — thanks to federal highway safety funding that was secured with the help of dozens of letters of support from local organizations attesting to the hazardous nature of the road crossing. Brett Randolph is the VDOT Salem assistant district traffic engineer and championed the application process with the Federal Highway Administration. “The project was introduced as a proactive safety measure where obvious pedestrian safety concerns exist including limited parking area, lack of a safe pedestrian crosswalk, and limited sight distance due to a sharp horizontal curve where the Appalachian Trail crosses the highway,” says Randolph. “Luckily, no one has been seriously injured when crossing Route 311 from the trailhead parking lot. Too often organizations are reactive in nature, and the proactive development of a project application is a testament to the camaraderie that has formed over the years with the ATC’s Triple Crown Partnership Committee.”
By Sarah Jones Decker
Reflecting on the process so far and the work still to be done, Diana Christopulos says, “To me, the McAfee Knob Task Force is a perfect example of the A.T. cooperative management system at its best. The RATC volunteers are doing most of the work (and having most of the fun) while ATC staff are the glue that holds everything together. They make sure we are trained and operating in coordination with our partners, including the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, the ATC ridgerunner, and local fire and rescue crews. I guarantee you that this task force would not still exist, let alone have over 50 active volunteers, if not for ATC staff support.”
Susan Terwilliger, who has been part of the McAfee Knob Task Force from the start, says it is truly a labor of love. “It is so gratifying to be a resource to people new to our section of the A.T. Being a ridgerunner has taught me the value and fragility of wild places,” she says. “Encouraging the public to practice Leave No Trace and to tread lightly is one way to help protect wilderness trails.” Like a well-constructed rock wall that supports a weak spot in the Trail’s tread, the McAfee Knob Task Force took many hands to build and is a source of pride to everyone involved. We hope our solutions-focused, collaborative approach is a model that can help protect beloved places all the way from Georgia to Maine.