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.
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 Roanoke Star sitting atop of Mill Mountain is the largest free-standing illuminated man-made star (wikipedia). It is where the city of Roanoke, VA gets its nickname, Star City. On the way into the city or atop prominent peaks in the area like McAfee Knob and Fort Lewis Mountain, the star can be seen above the city (though you’ll need to know where to look and maybe squint).
In the middle of COVID-19, the trails on Mill Mountain was as local as it got.
Again, videos are still a new thing I’m playing around with and I have plenty to learn about what works and what doesn’t work. I’d welcome any suggestions as well. If you like these, please subscribe to my Youtube Channel to let me know, thanks!
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.
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.
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.