This report was reposted on October 17, 2020 to include a video, new photos, and updated formatting.
McAfee Knob is among the most popular hikes in southwest Virginia and said to be the most photographed place on the Appalachian Trail with its own wikipedia page. The popular nature of the hike is a reason I avoid this hike typically and head over to Tinker’s Cliff unless I am doing a sunrise hike. When Keith visited last year, I had planned to write about our sunrise hike and even took a GPS track on it. However, that hike was completely in the fog.
About 1 year to the day, Keith visited us again so we gave sunrise another shot. As you can see, it was quite a nice success. Given we hiked mostly in the dark, I headed up there again to take some updated pictures of the trail for this report a month later during the peak foliage season. With Amtrak restarting train service to Roanoke from D.C the week I’m publishing this post, hopefully this will be just in time for you to plan a southwest VA getaway.
The fall foliage hiking season seems to be getting shorter and shorter each of the last couple of years. This year it was nearly all green one week, peaked for one week, and gone the next. During the beautiful and fleeting peak weekend this year, Whitney and Matthew joined me for a hike and scramble up Devil’s Marbleyard. For future updated foliage report for in SW VA, check out Virginia Department of Forestry Report.
This report is supplemented by pictures of my past hikes.
Looking for some local hikes in the D.C. area, Catoctin Mountain Park seems to be one of the more popular areas. Looking on Hiking Upwards and Alltrails, there seemed to be a nice loop that covers the main viewpoints of on the east side of the park. Being a popular area, it was recommended that to get there early if you’d like to have solitude for the main viewpoints.
An advice I did not heed as we arrived at the park around 1pm. The parking lots were full around the visitor center and we parked on Foxville Road.
After a bathroom break, we started on our loop in a counterclockwise direction heading for Chimney rock first on the trail paralleling Foxville Road for about a mile before turning left and uphills at the next junction. There were additional parking lots found along the road and at the park headquarters in case you want to get a jump start in the morning for Chimney Rock. An interesting feature of the trail here is that there is a decent amount of rocks to hop over on the trail.
The steepest climb of the day starts at this point over the next half of mile. On the way up, you pass a few large boulders before turning left at the next junction as you reach the ridge.
The trail along the ridge is a wide and easy half mile walk. Through the trees, you can start to see a buildup of boulders making the base of Chimney Rock. The trail circles around the base before another incline to the spur for the viewpoint.
Chimney Rock consisted several outcrop of rocks separated by varying sized gaps.
Hopping over a sizable gap and climbing up,
you get a view of the last outcrop that I’d assume is where the Chimney name comes from. To get onto the rock, you have to go back, bushwack and loop around to the left (facing the outlook) to the base of the outcrop before scrambling up. An additional benefit of getting up here early may be a possible of nice sunrises, something I’ll have to see in the future. Be sure of yourselves if you do decide to scramble around these rocks as this can be dangerous.
We then continued along the ridge for less than half a mile toward Wolf rock. The trail declined for a short distance before curving around a rocky ridge protruding out of the ground on the right. At the spur for Wolf Rock, you’ll hike up onto the rocky ridge.
To continued along the Quartzite ridge with many deep crevices, minor scrambling is needed. This area is a place where you can climb around and it looks like there are possible caves that maybe possibly be explored. Again, be mindful of the dangers of the crevices.
Meg rocking her trailrunners in Catoctin Mountain Park.
At the end of the area, there is a wolf looking rock where the area gets its name from. I’d say it looks more like a dog. A couple vultures were hanging around waiting for food scraps dropped by those having lunch in the area.
We returned to the trail and continued on toward the next view point. Before the next viewpoint, there is a trail junction that you can take back toward the visitor center 0.3 miles from Wolf Rock should you want a shorter hike. From the junction, it is 1.5 miles back to the visitor center. It seems like this shorter loop is what majority of hikers were doing as the number of people we saw on the trail dropped as we continued straight on our large loop.
The next viewpoint is the Thurmont Vista and we reached it after 0.7 miles. The view is of the town of Thurmont with a bench to take a break on.
From the vista, the trail descended for 0.4 miles toward another 4 way junction. From the junction you can turn left to return to the visitor center, straight for a parking lot off the Park Central Road, or turn right toward the next viewpoint along the north side of the mountain. We took the last option. The trail starts to descend further among many fresh downfalls, possibly from a windstorm during the previous month, before climbing back up. There were also some more large boulders. It wasn’t the most interesting section, but we didn’t see any other hikers as we
reached the Blue Ridge Summit Overlook after 0.7 miles, which refers to the town of Blue Ridge Summit, PA and not the immediate summit of Piney Mountain.
Shortly after the overlook, the trail crosses the Park Central Road and continues toward Hog Rock. There are again some cool boulders in this section. Hog Rock is part of a small nature walk loop with labels of the trees in the area. The loop itself was only half a mile, but wasn’t very interesting other than chipmunks scrambling around.
Do not leave your trash like whomever did here. I ended up packing out several plastic bottles left behind.
A little over a half a mile from the road cross, there is one more overlook at Hog Rock looking east.
The trail then started to descend over the next mile while crossing a stream and passing more rock features toward Foxville Road with the last portion the steepest and covered in leaves. There is a junction right before the busy road with a left turn back toward the visitor center and our car. However, we crossed over the road with great care and into Cunningham Falls State Park. As you can tell by the name, the Boardwalk Trail on the other side of the road continues along a creek
toward the Cunningham Falls. It’s always cool to see the icicles among the falls in the winter.
The boardwalk ends with warning signs about climbing up on the rocks around the falls and no swimming signs. A gate use to be part of the railing, but now has been boarded up. From all the signage and a bit more trash I picked up around the falls, I imagine this is a pretty popular area in the summer and someone might been stupid and got hurt. The maps are very clear that the Boardwalk trail does not connect with the Lower Trail on the other side of the creek even though it would have been only a few rock skips to cross.
After the falls, we backtracked to the junction crossing over Foxville Road again and hiking the last mile or so back on the Falls nature Trail amongst hauntingly beautiful trees still with their wilted leaves in the golden hour sun
views: 3. The loop we took through the eastern portion of Catoctin Mountain Park took us to several overviews, but it was the rock formations as part of the vistas and along the trail that makes for the best views in the park. My favorites in the park was Wolf Rock and the Chimney Rock. If you don’t want to do the 9 mile loop, a short loop to see those two are worth it. The edge mountain ridges doesn’t have the elevation profile and layering seen in the Virginia so vista are just ok. What pushes it just into a 3 rating for me is the addition of Cunningham Falls. The negative of this hike is the crowds of being near D.C., but we didn’t find it overwhelming at all on this 40-50 degree fahrenheit Saturday in March. You won’t find solitude on this hike, but you can definitely enjoy yourself in the wild if you plan accordingly.
difficulty: 2. The loop had a good amount of elevation change, but that’s spread out across a long distance mostly undulating on the ridges. There are 2 main elevation changes going up to Chimney Rock and down from Hogs Rock.
technical: 1. The trail itself was well marked and easy to follow. There are also plenty of people to ask. Be mindful of your own abilities and the conditions if you plan to scramble and climb around the rocks.
Dragon’s Tooth is one of the 3 peaks of the Roanoke triple crown along with McAfee Knob and Tinker Cliffs. It is characterized by the outcrop “tooth” like rock just off the peak of Cove Mountain that can be scrambled upon for a 360 view. It is also known as the most technical of the 3 with a short section of scrambling on the Appalachian Trail near the peak.
There are actually 4 ways from 3 different trailhead that you can used to access Dragon’s Tooth. The most popular and easiest is an in and out from the Dragon’s Tooth Parking Lot on the Dragon’s Tooth Trail that turns southbound on the Appalachian Trail (AT) at Lost Spectacles Gap. This is also my recommend return route for all other starts. Out of the same Dragon’s Tooth parking lot, the spur Boy Scout Trail splits shortly after the trailhead and connects with the AT quickly before continuing southbound. The other ways are starting on the AT at main trailhead parking lots (Trout Creek trailhead on Miller Cove Road VA-620 to head northbound or McAfee Knob Parking lot on Catawba Valley Drive VA-311 to head southbound).
While I hiked this on an overly warm, 78 degree Fahrenheit, February weekday recently for sunset, this is one of those local hikes that I’ve done multiple times in the past since it’s so close. My preferred route and what I hiked last time is to head up the Boy Scout Trail and returning on the Dragon’s Tooth Trail after summiting. However, I hiked down in the dark on my last trip since I was catching sunset. Rather than describing the exact hike of my most recent hike exclusively, I’ll cover the most popular and easiest way up first and then I’ll follow up with the alternatives using pictures taken across the years.
Even though the parking lot is large, it will overflow onto the road on a nice weekend day. There is a trash can and restroom at the trailhead as well.
Near the trailhead there are several campsites around the first stream crossing.
Right after the first creek crossing, you’ll reach the junction for the Boy Scout Trail, which I’ll cover below. The Dragon’s Tooth Trail turns right.
The trail will cross the stream a couple more times
before the Dragon’s Tooth Trail starts to slope upwards through the forest and up the drainage. I like the view of this section coming down as you’ll get a few nice sweeping views of the forest in the valley.
After a last set of switchbacks and 1.5 miles from the trailhead,
the Dragon’s Tooth Trail connects with the AT at Lost Spectacles Gap. There are some that make their camp here at night. Turn right onto the AT to continue the last 0.7 miles to the top of Cove Mountain and as the warning sign says, there is some scrambling upcoming.
The immediate section of the trail consists of a mix of trail, rock steps, and with a few boulders to skip on top of or around.
Iris & Marije joins us on the cold Janurary day in 2015
Cool icicles in Janurary of 2015
When you reach a section of the trail where you’ll have to scrambling on a few vertical slabs, you’ve reached the final section to reach the top and the most difficult scrambling section.
Before continuing on, you’ll also get a nice view point here.
The scrambles continues upwards with the help of a couple steel rebar steps (a few steps up from the picture below)
before switching back on the final push to the up the rock face. Without the leaves, you can actually see the rocks that make up Dragon’s Tooth at the switchback point.
At the top of the climb, you reach the summit of Cove Mountain. The AT will continue southbound along the spine of Cove mountain to the right, but you’ll want to turn left on the short spur
to reach a couple large outcrop of rocks
known as Dragon’s Tooth.
However, the climax of the hike still lies ahead at the top of the tooth. Work your way around the far side (south) of the rocks and turn left toward the backside of the rock where it opens up. Here you’ll see a couple of gaps between the rocks. One sets up an awesome framing for the Catawba Valley.
sunrise on October 27, 2017
sunset on February 21, 2018
peak foilage on October 29, 2011
The other gap is where you’ll scramble up.
first time at Dragons Tooth during a 17 miles AT hike on September 25, 2011
Dongil & Lusha joined me for the peak foilage day on October 29, 2011
There is a nice ledge here to take in the views, though it can get very crowded on a nice weekend.
Nina’s last hike before her post doc.
traffice jam on the tooth
If you are good with some exposure, there is the top of the tooth you can climb for a 360 degrees view.
For me on this February evening, it was to catch the sunset,
though the pink sky over North Mountain, Tinker Mountain, McAfee Knob, Catawba Mountain, Bushy Mountain, and Fort Lewis Mountain (from left to right) is the preferred view from the top.
Over the years, I’ve been up here many times. The following are some of my favorites reflecting my favorite times to hike up there such as sunrise and peak foliage season.
Other than the tooth, there is a second spire you can scramble up as Drew does here. It’s a little more difficult scramble up to that spires,
but it does provide for a better point of view to take a picture of the tooth itself.
Do be vigilant while returning as scrambling downwards is usually more difficult than upwards. For the return to the Dragon’s Tooth parking lot, you just have to back track on the well signed trail including that of Lost Spectacles Gap, where you turn left off the AT and onto the Dragon’s Tooth Trail.
Dragon’s Tooth via Boy Scout Trail & Appalachian Trail (AT) with return on Dragon’s Tooth Trail
distances: 4.9 miles
elevation change: 1558 ft ascent and descent
time: 2:15 hours moving (2:45 hours with breaks)
This is my favorite variation to hike up to Dragon’s Tooth as it is less crowded and this section of AT is pretty interesting with more rock formations and rock to hop over. Other reports suggest to take the Dragon’s Tooth Trail up and the Boy Scout Trail down, but I personally like to do the opposite. The reason being I like seeing the rock formations on the AT that the Boy Scout Trail connects to and you get more of an open forest view on the Dragon’s Tooth Trail coming down. Plus, the more gradual decline on the Dragon’s Tooth Trail is easier on the knees.
The first time I hiked up to Dragon’s Tooth was actually using this route known as the “Back way to Dragon’s Tooth.” It was with the Roanoke outdoor meetup group, but rather than ending at Dragon’s Tooth Parking lot, we did a 17 hike all the way to McAfee Parking lot on the AT. I wouldn’t recommend the AT section from the Boy Scout junction to McAfee to anyone since it is just through a tunnel of trees.
The last time I hiked this was 6 years ago, so I don’t have a tracking of the hike. But the trail is indicated with the blue line below and you can find the trail information from the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Conservancy.
The hike starts at the location where the AT crosses Miller Cove Rd. (VA-620) with Trout Creek running along the road.
Take the AT north bound and the trail will start to slowly climb. After passing an area of burned trees and the Pickle Branch Shelter, the trail starts to ascend more rapidly and will switchback to gain the ridge of the Cove Mountain Chain. Once the ridge is gained, there is a nice outcrop looking at the backside of North Mountain.
The AT continues along the ridge rocky ridge of Cove Mountain.
Some of the rocks were in particularly interesting formation standing up.
It definitely wasn’t an easy portion of the AT, but reached another vista
views: 3. Dragon’s Tooth provides a nice 360 degree view from the top of the tooth of Catawba valley and the mountain ridges that is a signature of Virginia. Even if you aren’t comfortable with the exposure that comes with climbing onto the tooth, there is plenty that can be seen around the tooth. While the sunrise isn’t as spectacular as McAfee and the sunset doesn’t compare to Tinker Cliff, the rock formation all along Cove Mountain provides enjoyable aesthetics on the hike. Of course, the scramble is added fun. A big negative, although not as bad as McAfee, is the possibility of large crowds on a nice weekend day. However, I’ve had the place to myself aplenty for sunrise, sunset, or weekdays. The shortness of the hike makes it easy for a before or after work micro adventure.
difficulty: 2. Neither the Dragon’s Tooth Trail or Boy Scout Trail to AT are very long, but there is some scrambling that can be demanding with around 1500 ft total elevation gain. So this isn’t the easiest of trails. Even though the AT northbound from Trout Creek is a little more challenging with rocks, it gains the elevation over a more gradual ascend so it is similar in difficulty.
technical: 2. The trails here are very well signed with blazes and markers. The technical aspect is the scrambling that is required after Lost Spectacles Gap going southbound on the AT to the summit of Cove Mountain.