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sw virginia hikes: pilgrimage to Tinker Cliffs, October 24 2015

2020/10: The updated report of this hike is available here with standardized formatting, updated photos, and a video.

For much of my travels, I don’t mind the number of people on the trails. I understand it; everyone wants to see these most aesthetically pleasing views out there. If people are going to spend their hard earned money to fly across the world, the least we all can do is share the experience. Plus they can all be potential drinking buddies. This is why I don’t include seclusion as a criterion on my rating system. While traveling, most places we will walk are going to be popular.

I do also enjoy the aspect of getting away from it all when I am hiking, this is especially true when I’m close to home. Here in the southwest Virginia area, there are many well-known hikes and sections of the Appalachian Trail within an hour drive from my front door. It’s not uncommon that on a sunny day, you’ll see a traffic jam on the on the curves up Catawba Valley Dr and people trying to squeeze their cars anywhere they can at McAfee Knob or Dragon’s Tooth trailheads. Both are well worth the hike and I eventually write about them (see links above). However, my local favorite is Tinker Cliffs via the Andy Layne Trail and it is the only hike that I will make the yearly pilgrimage to in the fall.


  • Tinker Cliffs via Andy Layne Trail
  • type: in and out
  • distance: 7.7 miles
  • elevation change: 1945 ft
  • time: 3.5 hours (depends on how long you hang out on the cliffs)
  • location: Appalachian Trail (AT) between Catawba and Mt. Union, VA (directions to trailhead)
  • Since Tinker Cliffs is on the AT, there are several options to set up a shuttle and connect with other hikes in the area. They are McAfee Knob to the south (12 miles), Carvin Cove/Hay Rock (est. 12) to the north, or both (est. 22 miles). To make is a full on backpacking trip, you can also add Dragon’s Tooth (est. 32 miles total) and even go down Dragon’s Back (est. 41 mile total). There are also a loop option where you can take advantage of North Mountain Ridge and will cover Dragon’s Tooth and McAfee Knob. I will write about these other hikes as individual hikes eventually.


On this rendition, our friends Yi, Iris, and Vik joined us for our yearly fall Tinker Cliffs hike. I have hiked this trail in all the seasons and fall remains my favorite with all the colors. This was also Yi’s last weekend in Roanoke before returning to China so we thought she needed to hike onto the AT at least once before she goes.

The beginning of the hike has changed since the first time I hiked it. Now it heads up onto the first small hill before going through a happy cow pasture and crossing the two forks of Catawba Creek. The old trail use to follow the creek more so and you get a better view of a very cool rock face along the creek (seen in the background here).

From here is a consistent uphill with a decently steep section after a short downhill. Recently, the Roanoke AT club put in steps here so that there are better foot holds (this use to be real mudslide before if wet). After some switchbacks where you get some really nice forest views, you’ll reach the gap where the Andy Layne Trail intersects the AT. 0.5 miles southbound (right at the intersection) on the AT and you’ll reach some rock faces and then onto the cliffs. What’s wonderful about the cliffs is that there are several outcroppings and all but the first have nice views of the valley. Since there are more cliffs and there are less people that hike to them, it’s nice to just relax and sunbathe on your very own private outcrop.

ratings (1-5)

  • views: 3
  • difficulty: 2 (a steady climb, easier now with the trail work done)
  • technical: 1

pictures through the years

This was the first time on these cliffs. We ran a shuttle and hiked the 12 mile stretch from Andy Layne to Tinker Cliff to McAfee. Thanks to Drew and Christen for first introducing me to the hikes here.
The spring of 2012 with Jeff for an afterwork hike.
Dogwoods are all abloom.
White flowers on the Cliffs.
The summer of 2013 with Meg in the picture now.
Paul, Lara, and Roger joined for this hot summer day.
Early November of 2013.
A windy fall day at the end of all the colors.
Last vista of the season.
The pilgrimage of 2014, at the end of October.
The colors through the trees on the switch back always gets me.
Meg on the edge.

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