Roanoke offers public transit to hiking trails. Should more parts of Virginia do the same?
The McAfee Knob Trailhead Shuttle in Roanoke County. (Amy Friedenberger)
For many folks, the hardest part about hiking Roanoke County’s famous McAfee Knob isn’t its eight-mile length or its elevation change of nearly 1,700 feet. It’s finding a parking spot in the gravel lot at the trailhead.
The pandemic pushed record levels of visitors to seek adventure and exercise in the great outdoors over the last few years, creating unprecedented parking problems at certain sites. Could a new state-sponsored shuttle become a model for helping Virginians take public transit to the trails?
Lot of issues
As an official trail maintainer and president of the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club, Bill Neilan regularly witnesses the mayhem that unfolds at McAfee Knob’s parking lot. Designed to safely accommodate 50 vehicles, the gravel lot is often overrun with more than 80 cars and even more people parked along the sides of the windy, winding Route 311, according to Neilan. Last October, a dozen tow trucks descended on the lot, hauling off illegally parked vehicles and angering their owners, who returned from the summit with no clue as to where their cars were.
“There are times people are stuck in the parking lot for hours because other visitors will come and just park anywhere and block them in,” he said. “You have people coming from all over the country to hike McAfee Knob, and when they get there they get frustrated and just park anywhere. You could build a lot twice as big, and it would still be short of spaces.”
With more than 50,000 annual visitors, McAfee Knob is one of the most photographed spots on the entire Appalachian Trail. In an effort to reduce the congestion that such intensive use causes at America’s most beautiful sites, in 2017 the National Park Service released a Visitor Use Management Plan. One of the proposed improvements for Virginia’s Triple Crown — the triad of hikes including McAfee Knob, Dragon’s Tooth and Tinker Cliffs — was a trailhead shuttle.
Transit to trails
When Roanoke County won an innovation grant from the Department of Rail and Public Transportation last year, the idea for a hikers’ shuttle was finally ready to be realized. The county contracted RIDE Solutions to operate a dawn-to-dusk McAfee Knob Trailhead Shuttle running Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and holiday Mondays starting Sept. 1.
“This pilot project is a bit of a unicorn for us,” admitted DRPT Director Jen DeBruhl. “There is no traditional funding for this type of program, but we look at this as a way of not just providing a shuttle to the trails but a connection to regional public transportation and Amtrak. This is focused on moving visitors from outside the region more efficiently through the great natural amenities we have around McAfee Knob.”
Virginia residents and visitors alike interested in avoiding the trail’s parking problems can simply book a ride online. The shuttle picks people up at Interstate 81’s Exit 140 park-and-ride lot in Salem, which is accessible via the intercity Virginia Breeze buses as well as the local Valley Metro Smart Way Bus.
Each 12-minute ride to or from the trailhead costs $5 plus a $1.25 booking fee and can be scheduled for the exact hour hikers would like to arrive and be picked up. The shuttle’s last day of operation until spring was Dec. 27. Over its initial 37 days of service, 716 rides were reserved.
“The county had never run any sort of shuttle service like this, so it was a ground-up, learning-as-we-go kind of thing,” said Paula Benke, Roanoke County’s transit planner. “It’s not automatically an up-and-back or round trip for everybody.”
Students would often get dropped off and then only catch the shuttle back to town. Many long-distance hikers would reserve a one-way ride into or out of town to restock gear and provisions in Salem. One lesson local officials learned is that the service is “very weather dependent.” When Hurricane Ian hit, lots of hikers booked one-way trips off the Appalachian Trail to seek shelter.
More than McAfee?
Although the trailhead shuttle is shut down for the winter, the service will return on March 3 of this year and run through at least Thanksgiving weekend when the DRPT funding runs out. To make the shuttle a permanent public service, Roanoke County is currently applying for several grants.
“There is some potential for continued demonstration funding, but the maximum grant is for three years and depends upon performance and availability of funding,” DeBruhl said. “Beyond that, the locality is going to have to figure out how to fund the shuttle itself.”
National Park Service plans to build a pedestrian bridge over Route 311 mean the trailhead’s gravel parking lot will be closed to all visitors beginning in 2024. The county is currently planning to continue operating the shuttle during the construction, but outside funding would make such hopes a certain prospect.
In response to shuttle users’ requests that the service extend to more destinations like downtown Salem and Catawba, Roanoke County has begun conversations with the cities of Salem and Roanoke, the town of Vinton and Botetourt County to add additional stops. Currently, riders must transfer to a local bus or walk the remaining two miles into town to eat, shop or stay in a hotel.
Another option is to add a stop serving Dragon’s Tooth to alleviate parking issues at that trailhead as well. As McAfee Knob is overseen by NPS and Dragon’s Tooth by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, overcoming the jurisdictional disputes to expand the shuttle service may, however, prove too difficult.
No matter the shuttle’s ultimate route, Neilan just wants to be certain of its permanent return: “I would like to see it come back because you’re not going to change the congestion at the trailhead,” he said. “There will never be enough parking. For those who take advantage of the shuttle, this service makes their lives much easier.”
For other parts of Virginia looking to emulate Roanoke County’s trailhead shuttle success, DRPT may be willing to negotiate.
“I’m not going to preclude any other such shuttles, but we have a limited amount of funding for demonstration projects and we need to focus those dollars on areas that don’t have service so they can move people to jobs, education and health care, which are our focus,” said DeBruhl. “But to the extent that we receive other well-thought-out ideas that could become more long-term projects, we are not opposed to taking those under consideration.”
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