I was getting a late start, having taken our obstreperous new dog to his obedience class that morning; something unexpected had kept me from walking on Friday as I’d originally planned. Kelly Knob from Rte. 42 is a long and stiff climb, but the Appalachian Trail crossing is no more than 15 minutes from my house, and I wanted to revisit that familiar spot and take notes for my trail guide.
It was a favorite hike for Michael and me back in the day, when he was living in Clover Hollow, and we would drive up to Rocky Gap; the horizontal and vertical distances are much less from that side. Friend KC and I climbed it from three directions—Rocky Gap, Johns Creek Mountain Trail and 42—when we were hiking regularly, and I climbed it again from 42 with bodyguards in 2015 after she moved to Staunton.
The wind was keen as I parked Old Blue and leashed the bodyguards to take them along the road to the trailhead. There’s new causeway across the field on both sides of the bridge over the creek, taking the hiker dry-footed over areas flooded by a beaver dam just above the bridge. That day, the causeways were unnecessary, as dry weather had shrunk the beaver pond. Water was foaming through a gap in the dam. Sinking Creek Valley is one of the few places where the A.T. crosses a wide zone of private property. After crossing the creek, we passed through a fence and headed up a ravine, up over red soil exposed in steps held in place by logs, under scrubby redcedars where a towhee lurked, calling unseen, and a field sparrow trilled. We emerged into open fields growing up in broomsedge and wild cherries, saluted by crows, and exchanged a few words with a fit through-hiker in his 50’s, from Pittsburgh. Soon we passed a young woman from Rochester; both told me they’d started in February. The A.T. isn’t exactly crowded this time of year, but you won’t have it to yourself; you’ll pass several through or section hikers, and if it’s a weekend, which it was, you’re likely to see day hikers (like me) at popular spots.
The trail looped around a field of tawny broomsedge (a sign it needs lime), with our goal standing proudly to the left, a tiny blue butterfly leading the way and dandelions and common violets dancing in the wind. Up and through a fence gap, across a hill capped with farm road, and Johns Creek Mountain’s crest was visible ahead before we crossed into the shelter of dark woods of pines, hemlocks and rhododendrons. Lycopodium and Christmas ferns, which stay green all winter, carpeted the forest floor, and two switchbacks took us up the ridge, where we met a section-hiker from New York state. On the other side of the ridge, open fields with lines of round bales could be seen through the trees, with the rampart of Johns Creek Mountain beyond. Songs of vireo and junco encouraged us as we descended along a ravine, crossed its head, ascended diagonally along its other side, and continued to climb a modest gradient. A bird I didn’t get a good look at might have been a female goldfinch. Switchbacks took us up into stands of mountain laurels, and we paused for a snack break as a raven croaked somewhere above.
Beyond, the trail continued to loop across and along spur ridges, and we crossed a saddle from which I could see, below to the right, a dell where the remnants of an old homestead used to stand. It’s gone now, the buildings fallen and decayed, the site taken over by trees. Our climb took us back into the wind and the trail became steeper and rougher; roots and rocks underfoot and cut logs forming steps. I paused to catch my breath (one of many such pauses) and looked back at Sinking Creek Mountain across the valley. Trees that had fallen across the trail had been cut away. The trail leveled off briefly and followed another ravine, past shiny new galax leaves showing off their bright green. Then we descended and began to hear running water. The trail crosses two creeks, one right after the other, and I think the second is Laurel Creek. Down towards the water, over two steep places with high stone steps, we entered a rhododendron tangle before reaching the first creek. The large rocks one must cross are far enough apart that I wasn’t sure the bodyguards, especially short-legged Addie, could jump across safely; the water was deep, steep and fast enough that a small dog that fell in might be carried away and drown. So I took each in turn and tossed her across before crossing, carefully, myself. I am neither a rock climber nor young. Between the two streams, the trail winds confusingly through the rhododendrons, but the distance between the two creeks is short, and we crossed the second one in the same way. Then we were at the side trail to the Laurel Creek shelter, a good place to take a break.
We walked down to the shelter, sat down at the table, and I started a conversation with a young woman who was a section-hiker. Soon a couple, day-hikers, joined us, the well-fed man maybe my age and the woman somewhat younger. They’d headed up but not made it all the way to the top and were on their way back down, although two younger companions had continued to the top. I mentioned that we were on our way up. “With THOSE dogs??” said the woman, rolling her eyes derisively. “Those dogs have been up Kelly Knob at least three times,” I retorted. “They’ve been to Dragon’s Tooth twice, climbed McAfee’s Knob in Roanoke County, and walked the entire length of Brush Mountain.” I could, in fact, have made an extensive list of all the places the bodyguards have been, all on their own small furry feet. I was picking up my pack to head on when the couple’s companions, two young men with two Golden Retrievers, strode into the clearing. “My lab teacher from last year!” exclaimed one when he caught sight of me.
So we went on our way, up and up. The trail up Kelly Knob is really not very good; unlike many parts of the A.T., it doesn’t have switchbacks to mitigate the gradient, but goes essentially straight up. As it got steeper and steeper, I paused every 50 steps or so to pant and rest my legs. I can climb almost anything, as long as I have enough time. Steep places were followed by slightly less steep ones, over and over, past stands of mountain laurels and last year’s dried-up squaw-root. Behind us, a vulture soared against the backdrop of Sinking Creek Mountain. Loose slabs of iron-cemented red sandstone rocked under my feet, and I caught sight of Potts Mountain to the right, a sign we were nearing our goal. The best sign is reaching a solid stand of laurels; here the trail starts to level out and the ascent gets easier. A bird I didn’t recognize called, weechee-weechee-weechee, a towhee answered, and something suddenly emerged from the brush, startling me. It was Addie, who’d taken an unnoticed side excursion.
The trail flattened out; we were on top, although the footing was still rough and rocky. I exchanged a few words with a through-hiker from Spain, who said the mountains in his country are as nice as ours, but they aren’t as extensive. A mourning cloak butterfly, dark wings with pale edges, swooped past. It overwinters as an adult, and sometimes may be seen on warm days even in the dead of winter. Kelly Knob has two knobs, and the overlook is on the first one (if coming from 42), just as you begin the descent to the swag between them. The faded blue blaze and sign for the side trail are easy to miss, but I knew where to find them, and we wended our way through the laurels to the rocky cliff at mountain’s edge. It was a perfect day to walk to a view: clear blue sky and unlimited visibility, but the overlook isn’t what it was 30 years ago. Trees have grown up and obscured much of the panorama, but with the leaves down, I could identify Draper Mountain in Pulaski County, 28 miles away, with ridges even more distant beyond.
We took a good break, I took photos to base drawings on for my trail guide and ate my lunch, and we headed back. I broke out my trekking pole before we reached the steepest section, and was plodding down as a through-hiker announced his approach from behind and went charging past us, not even exchanging greetings. Some of them are like that—they just want to make maximum mileage and not waste time on mere words. We were back at the shelter at about 4 PM to take another break, with Addie approaching the several hikers who were there, telling them she was absolutely STARVING and they should share their food. She is a shameless food thief. The young people all said they were intending to head on to the next shelter, the Sarver shelter, and I described the trail that lies between. I’ve been over all of it several times.
Then we were on the home stretch; down to the creeks, toss bodyguards across, up the stone and wood steps, where a chickadee chattered, and then down, down, down. Even with trekking pole, my knee began to hurt. A sweet scent from a source I couldn’t locate filled the air, a bee fly hovered as we passed, and downy woodpecker swooped from tree to tree. Low sun shone in from behind us under pine saplings, mature pines, and hardwoods, lighting up acres of Lycopodium. The shadow of a soaring vulture flickered over, and a rotten, woodpecker-chipped log lay at the forest margin. We stepped out into the open fields, to the songs of Carolina wren and meadowlark, and caught sight of the cell tower near Huffman. Horizontal trails in the hill across from us, carved by cattle in the bright new grass, were brought into relief by the sun behind them. Vehicles driving along Rte. 42 became audible. As we descended the last ravine, a smallish and clueless rabbit sat in the trail and watched as we approached, only bolting when Addie caught sight of him. Bluebirds and redwinged blackbirds sang as we crossed the causeway and bridge and Old Blue came into view.
When we got home, I totaled the steps on my pedometer, which suggested we’d walked 14 miles. I’m morally certain we did no such thing; the distance up Kelly Knob isn’t that far, and more to the point, I can’t walk 14 miles in a day. It’s too far for me. My step count of 2100 steps/mile is for relatively level ground, and my steps must be much shorter on steep slopes, either climbing or descending. A little map work with string gave the probable distance as about 4 miles one-way, which is more in line with my known abilities.