Catawba Mtn Fire Road Reopened to Hikers Following Improvements

Both of Scott Whittaker’s machines in use to construct broad-based dip at top of Overhanging Rock Hill.

(Roanoke, VA). The Catawba Mountain Fire Road has been reopened to hikers following major work to improve the road for both emergency vehicles and the hiking public. The gated Fire Road runs parallel to the Appalachian National Scenic Trail (A.T.) on National Park Service (NPS) lands northerly from the A.T. Trailhead Parking Area on VA-311, approximately 10 miles north of Salem, VA. It serves as emergency vehicle access for incidents in the McAfee Knob area, a popular panoramic viewpoint and hiking destination, as well as forming a loop hike opportunity with the A.T. The road has been closed to all public use since January 11 for this project.

Volunteers with the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club (RATC) planned and implemented the project, with support from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) and the NPS Appalachian Trail Park Office (APPA). The project involved heavy equipment work to improve water drainage and stabilize eroded sections of roadbed on 2.6 miles of the road. RATC contracted with Scott Whittaker of Callaway to perform the road improvement work, using funding from both the Virginia A.T. Specialty License Plate Program and RATC Club funds. RATC volunteers served as “Spotters” to ensure public safety by informing hikers, trail-runners, dog-walkers, rock-climbers, sightseers and all area visitors about the project and advising them on how to enjoy the area safely during the project, including using the A.T. and the Catawba Greenway Trail. A total of 30 RATC volunteers, ranging in age from 20 to 78, contributed more than 770 hours of effort valued at more than $ 21,900 over twelve days of active work.

RATC Spotters Daily Safety Briefing. L to R Pete Irvine, Mike Vaughn, Gene Rose, Wayne Leftwich.
Fire Rd Spotters “A Rose 4 Thorns”-L to R Terry Shipley, Pete Irvine, Dee Lamb, Bill Neilan, Mark Farrell.

In addition to the priority safety work on the Fire Road itself, the project included surfacing improvement work at the VA-311 A.T. Trailhead Parking Area, and grading to smooth out the gravel access road at Dragon’s Tooth Trailhead Parking Area, located 4 miles west. RATC is grateful to Rockydale Quarries for discounted gravel pricing and to contractor Scott Whittaker for donating his labor and equipment time for the A.T. Trailhead surfacing work.

“This project to improve the condition of the Fire Road is a great example of the unique cooperative management system of the A.T. In action,” according to RATC volunteer project coordinator Pete Irvine. “Roanoke A.T. Club volunteers identified the issue, engaged other partners and stakeholders in crafting a solution, and leveraged hard-dollar contract costs by nearly 210% to improve the area for all users, especially for those requiring emergency assistance. Huge thanks to all the RATC volunteers who contributed their time and talent.”

RATC volunteer project lead Pete Irvine & contractor Scott Whittaker on Catawba Mtn Fire Road 2-7-22

RATC would like to thank Pete Irvine for heading up this project. It was a huge undertaking and Pete pulled it off smoothly. In addition, RATC wishes to give a big shout-out to Scott Whitaker for donating his equipment and personal time to this project. Without him, we would not have been able to complete such a large project with our limited budget.

RATC stresses the importance for all area visitors to use only the A.T., not the Fire Road, for the first 1/4-mile north of VA-311. This busy highway, trail, and trailhead parking area junction requires concentration to avoid pedestrian-vehicle accidents, and has been the scene of many close calls. The lower 1/4-mile section of the Fire Road including the steel gate at VA-311 is located in a blind curve and should not be used by the public for safety reasons. On-site signage is in place to inform the public. A hiker overpass across VA-311 is planned in the future to separate vehicles and hikers, and improve safety for all. Visitors are reminded that horses and mountain bicycles are never allowed on the Fire Road.

For additional information, visit: www.RATC.org, or the RATC Facebook page; or www.appalachiantrail.org, or the ATC Facebook page, or www.nps.gov/appa.

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