This report is an repost with updated video, new photos, and standardized formatting.
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 and I don’t hold a the number of hikers on the trail against a hike with a few exceptions.
Ofcourse, I still do enjoy the aspect of getting away from it all when I am hiking. This is especially true when I’m close to home. Within an hour from our former front door in Southwest Virginia, there were many well-known hikes and sections of the Appalachian Trail. 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, however my local favorite is Tinker Cliffs via the Andy Layne Trail. Here I find the cliffs all to myself for the perfect sunset and a pilgrimage I will make every fall.
- Tinker Cliffs via Andy Layne Trail
- type: in & out
- distance: 7.6 miles
- elevation change: 1978 ft
- time: 4:06 hours (3:12 moving)
- 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). These section hike options of the Appalachian Trails would be my recommendation over the typical Virginia Triple Crown loop option (RATC, alltrails). The loop takes advantage of North Mountain Ridge and will cover Dragon’s Tooth and McAfee Knob, but North Mountain is viewless in a tunnel of green. Please follow camping and other regulations listed on the RATC website as the trails in the areas has gotten even more popular.
On the original rendition of our report, our friends Yi, Iris, and Vik joined us for our yearly fall Tinker Cliffs hike in 2015. I have hiked this trail in all the seasons and fall remains my favorite with all the colors.
The hike begins at the Andy Layne Trailhead, named for a Andy Layne (1912 – 1991). He was a WWII air force veteran who served many posts in the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club and help maintain and build many of the trails in the area. You can read his full biography on the posted board at the trailhead.
This is also the trailhead to access North Mountain, which allows the Virginia Triple Crown loop. North Mountain was the official Appalachian Trail at one point in 1978 when local landowners forced the relocation of the AT away from McAfee Knob (RATC). Andy Layne Trail was part of that reroute.
Form the trailhead parking lot, the trail starts up a small hill for a few steps before dropping down into the the valley for the next half mile, which is steepest immediately as you start down at roughly -20.2% grade before mellowing out. You will surely not remember this last uphill on the way back and curse it.
On an evening hike in August of 2020, I found myself coming face to face with a fairly large black bear at the crest of this hill and he bolted for the woods as we locked eyes. This was the second bear I’ve seen on this trail in my few years in the area.
Next the trail crosses a fence and comes to a bridge crossing a small creek, where local cattle frequently cool off.
There have been several reroutes here in the past few years, but now the trail heads directly across the open field. From here, we can see our work ahead of us. Watch your step for cow pies here. Should you be here at night after a sunset hike, this is a nice open area to watch the stars or to do some night photography.
At the end of the field is another fence that you’ll weave through before entering a restoration area and coming to Catawba Creek. There is a now a fully build bridge across the creek with railing on both sides, a new edition courtesy of the the RATC. The old trail use to follow the creek more so and you would have a better view of a very cool rock face along the creek (seen in the background here from the bridge).
For the rest of the Andy Layne Trail, the trail is on private property donated by the Roanoke Cement Company. After the bridge, the trail goes through a few muddy steps before turning left and starting the uphill. For the next third of the a mile, the trails heads up the side of a gualey at roughly a 13.1% grade.
There are a few turns at the top as you find yourself at a old metal gate. Follow the markings here and turn left to continue on. In a few steps the trail dead ends on an old service road. From the wear on the trail, it is clear that you should turn right here. The trail here is flanked by low shrub trees. During a hike here in 2019 with Jeff, we these were Eastern Redbuds (Cercis canadensis, wikipedia). During the summer time, you’ll also find plenty of other wildflower lining this section. The trail here is a little rocky, so still pay attention to your steps. In another third of a mile from the junction, the trail reaches the top of the hill after a 9.5% grade uphill before a short reprieve downhill
before the steepest climb of the hike. 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). Only 0.2 miles, but at about a 23.6% grade.
Thankfully, the next 0.6 miles of the trail involves several switchbacks to make the the uphill easier at roughly 12.8% grade. The first couple of switchbacks have gotten a bit muddy and slick or worse after heavy rain. However, make sure you look around in the fall as this is where you get some really nice forest views. Please don’t cut the switchbacks as it will lead to further erosion of the trail.
At the top of the climb, we round a large boulder and it’s another third mile rounding the side of the mountain on a sign track to reach
Scorched Earth Gap and the junction with the Appalachian Trail. The name of the gap comes from an unhappy and foul-mouthed female hiker we did not like a 1982 bushwhacking hike (anniedillard-blog tumblr).
To continue on to the Tinker Cliffs, turn right to head Southbound on the AT. There are 2 more uphill pushes to reach the top. The first is the next quarter mile at 16.3% grade and then a 15.4% grade uphill for only 0.1 miles after a flat section. Overall, it is only a half a mile to from the gap. Along the way, we hiked under a few of the rocks that we’d be exploring the tops of.
Once on top, there are plenty of outcrops for you to explore. The first couple may not have the best view as the Roanoke Cement Company occupies the valley. However as you curve around the side of the cliffs, the views open up. I was in for eye opening views as I headed for an outcrop for the first time back in 2011 in the picture below on a 12 mile section hike from Andy Layne to McAfee Parking lot with Drew and Christen, who took me on plenty of hike in my early days in the area.
Form Tinkers Cliff, the direct view is of McAfee Knob on the left and ridge of North Mountain to the right (not seen in the picture below). Meg saw if from here in the summer of 2013.
The westword view here actually provides for the sunsets of the third Virginia Triple Crown Peaks. I would often recommend backpackers to start in the morning on McAfee Knob and and take low mileage day to end at Tinkers Cliffs. Sunset hikes make up most of majority of the times I’ve headed up there in recent years. I tend to bring a drink and some friends for a happy hour hike.
Also be sure to stick around for the light show after the sun disappears from the horizon.
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 like Iris and Vik here back in 2015.
or Paul, Roger, and Lara back in 2013.
You can even search for the USCGS marker among the cliffs.
I wouldn’t recommend sitting on the very edge as the drop can be a bit harrowing. Maybe not for you, but for others around. Something Meg did on our 2014 fall pilgrimage.
This is especially so when the wind is howling like our 2013 visit.
Ofcourse, the same hike isn’t the same with a different season. While my favorite is by far the fall, Jeff and I found plenty of wildflowers blooming on a spring hike in 2012. These specific ones I believe are Allegheny serviceberry flowers (Amelanchier laevis, USDA).
Likewise, photographers would like the year round bonzi like pine trees along the ledge to provide contrasts.
For the in & out hike, simply retrace your steps back to the Andy Layne Trailhead. I typically do this in the dark now days. If you have some time, I’d also recommend connecting McAfee just 6ish miles further southbound on the AT.
The rating below are based on an unevenly distributed scale of 1 (lowest) to 5 (highest). For full description of the ratings and the categories, see the explanation here.
view: 3. The view from Tinker Cliffs is a vista that is the definition of the Appalachian Mountains in Virginia. Long ridges that snake back on itself to create the most perfect layering.
However, the vista isn’t the only definition of the hike. The switchbacks up the steep mountainside also provide for a perfect view of the gauly and the open forest. Lastly, Catawba Creek and the rock wall formations along it are worth an exploration. All this and how easy it is to find your very own ledge to sit on is the reason this is my 3rd favorite hike in the region and a definition hike of the Virginia Appalachian Mountains.
difficulty: 2. The hike is a steady climb, but is easier now with the trail work done. While parts of it still seems a bit steeper than other hikes around, they are short in distance. With more traffic and wear, small portions of the trail has gotten muddier and slicker, so keep an eye out for that.
technical: 1. The trail is well signed and easy to follow despite a couple disused service roads that intersects the Andy Layne Trail.
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