A Hiker at Tinker Creek (Part 2)


This post is a continuation of the previous post, A Hiker at Tinker Creek (Part 1)

After checking out Annie Dillard’s former neighborhood, it was time for Petey and me to hike the Appalachian Trail to see some of the places she mentions in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek up close. To do that we drove to Four Pines Hostel near Catawba, Virginia, a few miles southwest of Roanoke, to park our car. From there we got a shuttle to where the trail crosses US Highway 220, to the northwest of Roanoke. Our plan was to hike about twenty miles from US 220 back to our car and to spend a night on the trail.

A quick note about hiker hostels, there are many of these along the Appalachian Trail. For the long-distance hiker, they are a place to shower and to spend the night for very little money. For someone on a shorter hike, like us, they can be a safe place to park the car and to get a shuttle. Information on hostels and other hiker services along the trail can be found in a Thru-Hiker companion guide. Companion guides are available from outfitters or the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

Our chosen route would take us across Tinker Creek, up to the top of Tinker Mountain, over Tinker Ridge, by Tinker Cliffs, and then over McAfee Knob. Many hikers consider this to be one of the more scenic sections of the Appalachian Trail in Virginia.

Although it is very busy, US 220 is a paradise for a long-distance hiker. There are shopping centers, motels, and restaurants only footsteps from the Appalachian Trail. It is a perfect place for a long-distance hiker to take a well-earned rest day.

As soon we left the highway we stepped into the woods and soon approached the easternmost extension of Tinker Mountain. The mountain was between us and Annie Dillard’s neighborhood.

In less than a mile we crossed Tinker Creek several miles upstream from her neighborhood. (The trail uses a bridge from an abandoned road to cross the creek.) On page 102 of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard tells us that the source of Tinker Creek is on the north side (the side hidden from her house) of Tinker Mountain.

Tinker Creek from the Appalachian Trail.

The old bridge that the Appalachian Trail uses to cross Tinker Creek.

Very soon after crossing the creek we walked over a set of railroad tracks. These too are mentioned in the book. The tracks that run roughly parallel to Tinker Creek happen to be a Norfolk Southern branch line that serves a cement plant not too far beyond the headwaters of the creek.

Where the Appalachian Trail crosses the tracks.

One of the mountains mentioned by Annie Dillard in the book is Dead Man’s. Yet if you look at an Appalachian Trail map or a topo map, you will find no mountain or map place name identified as Dead Man’s. I did some searching on the Internet and found a 1930 Virginia Geological Survey document for the Roanoke area that identified the easternmost knob of Tinker Mountain as Dead Man’s. It was the very same knob that we ascended right after we crossed the creek and railroad tracks.

Dead Man’s from a distance. Once the Appalachian Trail reaches the top, it follows the ridge going off to the right.

Once we got near the top of Dead Man’s, the trail turned from the knob and followed the ridgeline of Tinker Mountain (identified on the map as Tinker Ridge). Even though we were walking southbound on the Appalachian Trail, the trail was going in a northwesterly direction. The wooded trail meandered through a series of sandstone formations and offered many outstanding views and overlooks on either side of the trail.

To the left (on Annie Dillard’s side of the mountain), there was the huge Carvin Cove Reservoir tucked in a gap between Brushy Mountain and Tinker Mountain. The reservoir happens to be the City of Roanoke’s water supply and is one of the nation’s largest city parks. On page 262 of the book, Annie Dillard writes about observing an acorn affixing itself to the ground while walking along a forest path at Carvin Cove. I wonder if that acorn took hold tight enough to become an oak tree and if it is still living. How big would it be today, forty years later?

That’s Carvin Cove Reservoir down below.

To the right, Tinker Creek and the tracks run through the woods at the base of the mountain. At times we could hear the lonely distant horn of a fully loaded freight train leaving the cement plant. From every overlook on the right hand side we could see housing developments and small farms nestled in the valley below.

We were looking at the outskirts of Roanoke. What an amazing gift for the 300,000 people who live in the Roanoke area! The Appalachian Trail delivers a beautiful, rugged, wilderness trail right to their doorstep. There are many wooded mountains in the area but without the Appalachian Trail and other nearby trails it would be difficult to penetrate the woods to see how wonderful they actually are.

The outskirts of Roanoke are down below.

And the trail is a wonderful place to wander and look around. The almost continuous series of sandstone ridges and formations are not only amazing to look at; they are fun to walk through and climb over. If you look closer, you’ll see even more. The many varieties of lichen on the sandstone were especially interesting. One type looked like green paint peeling from the wall of an abandoned building.

One of the many sandstone oddities that we saw on our walk.

I thought this lichen looked like peeling paint.

The trees; there were so many varieties of hardwood and pine trees that it felt like an arboretum. You could spend the better part of a day trying to identify all of them. And the ground was almost paved with nuts (acorns, walnuts, hickory nuts, and others). The nuts along with the abundant blueberries and raspberries should provide a nice smorgasbord for the local animal population.

I thought this tree was interesting. That gash might have been caused by a lightning bolt!

Although we did not see any large animals, we saw traces of them. We did, however, see many squirrels and other small animals. We made friends with several toads, tree frogs, lizards, and even a few box turtles. Although Annie Dillard cautions us on page 225 about the poisonous snakes in the area, we did not see any. Everything we saw was great, and we did all of this without stepping outside of the Roanoke metropolitan area.

One of the many friends we made along the trail.

We continued along Tinker Ridge with its many ups and downs and then started climbing another knob to reach Tinker Cliffs. And to no surprise we ran into more spectacular views. At that point Tinker Mountain changes direction and starts running in a southeasterly direction.

Approaching Tinker Cliffs.

Tinker Cliffs area. The white paint on the rocks are blazes for the Appalachian Trail. This is the trail!

The valley down below.

It’s almost as if Tinker Mountain is an upside down “V”. Annie Dillard’s neighborhood would be near the base and looking towards the inside of the “V”. After continuing in the new direction for a few miles, Tinker Mountain changed its name to Catawba Mountain when it crossed the county line.

There the trail starts an uphill climb again to reach the top of McAfee Knob, another one of the mountains identified by Annie Dillard. As spectacular as the scenery has been so far, this is even better. If you have seen an Appalachian Trail picture book or subscribe to AT Journeys, you have seen a picture of McAfee Knob. It is one of the most photographed sights along the trail.

Approaching McAfee Knob. Again the white paint on the rock are blazes for the Appalachian Trail.

Petey and me at McAfee Knob.

From there, it was mainly downhill to the next road crossing at Virginia Highway 311. Had we finished our hike between Thursday and Sunday, we could have made a right hand turn at Virginia 311 and walked a mile into the very small settlement of Catawba to have dinner at the Homeplace Restaurant. The Homeplace is considered to be one the best places, if not the best place, to eat along the Appalachian Trail.

I had better timing on my end-to-end hike of the Appalachian Trail in 1998 and did eat at the Homeplace. The restaurant lived up to its reputation with its never-ending platters of meat and bowls of vegetables served family-style. For a hungry hiker it was a dream come true. It was great!

But we finished our hike on a Wednesday and couldn’t hang around for another day. We headed back to our car to wrap up our excellent two-day adventure on the Appalachian Trail. Even better, we were able to get a closer look at where Annie Dillard wandered when she wrote Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.


  1. Great posts! Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is now on my reading list, for sure.

  2. You are inspiring me to start planning a hike on the AT. The photos are wonderful.

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