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 (Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club) 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.
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.