This is the video companions of our overnight backpacking trip on the Mueller Hut Route in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park.
The steep but short hike up to Mueller Hut in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park is typically hiked as an in & out day hike with plenty of time to make the long drive back to town for a good meal. Being someone that is more about the views than just camping, I usually prefer just a day hike. However, it pays to take it easy and smell the roses sometimes. Rather breaking the hike up, camping on the top of the world, and under the stars was a worthy experience. From our tent, we could hear the surrounding glaciers crack and had a perfect view of the tallest mountain in New Zealand, Aoraki/Mount Cook.
This is the seventh entry of our Australia and New Zealand trip series covering our tramp of to Mueller Hut in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park. You can navigate to the other parts in the index below as they are posted.
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 Triple Crown of Virginia is a small portion of the Appalachian Trail (AT) near Roanoke, Va. It includes the proment points of Dragon’s Tooth, Tinker’s Cliff, and the most photographed outlook on the AT of McAfee Knob. For the typical backpacker of the Triple Crown of Virginia (RATC), it is hiked in a loop that involves rather mundane North Mountain (alltrails). However, I would recommend setting up a shuttle for a point to point hike instead so you can include a lesser known outlook through this section of the AT, Carvins Cove & Hay Rock.
The original hike report of Carvins Cove & Hay Rock was of an early summer hike in 2016 where we were joined by our friends Kevin, Shannon, Mat, and Vrushali. This re-post includes new pictures of the trail since then, a video, and updated formatting.
To complement my trip report on our hike and backcountry camping in Grayson Highlands State Park, we present to you a short video of the hike.
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.
- Dragon’s Tooth Trail / AT southbound from Lost Spectacles Gap
- Boy Scout Trail
- Trout Creek Trailhead & AT northbound
Dragon’s Tooth via Dragon’s Tooth Trail & Appalachian Trail (AT)
- type: in and out
- distances: 4.6 miles
- elevation change: 1558 ft ascent and descent
- time: 2:15 hours moving (3 hours with breaks)
- location: Jefferson National Forest; Appalachian Trail; Catawba, VA (directions to trailhead)
- Since the entirety of Dragon’s Tooth Trail and AT section is in the Jefferson National Forest, camping is allowed under national forest regulations.
- The Dragon’s Tooth Trail is also my recommended return route regardless of starting routes (unless you are doing an in and out from a different trailhead of course ).
The Dragon Tooth Parking lot is located off of VA-311, Catawba Valley Drive (google maps).
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.
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.
The other gap is where you’ll scramble up.
There is a nice ledge here to take in the views, though it can get very crowded on a nice weekend.
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
- type: loop
- 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.
After passing a few more camping spots, the Boy Scout Trail then starts an aggressive, climb over a few switchbacks to meet up with the AT.
There are several camping spots along this section of the AT as well, but with no water access.
After gaining the ridge, the trail continues with a few ups and downs consisting of interesting rock formations to scramble over and
overlooks including Rawie’s Rest. The Dragon’s Tooth trail is coming up this drainage below.
The AT hits a peak before dropping down a switchback to the junction at Lost Spectacles Gap.
From there it’s the same route as above and I’d recommend going down back to the parking lot via the Dragon’s Tooth trail to make it a loop.
Dragon’s Tooth from Trout Creek Trailhead via Appalachian Trail (AT) Northbound to Dragon’s Tooth Trail
- type: point to point
- distances: 7.0 miles
- elevation change: estimated 1500 ft ascend and descend
- time: estimated 4 hours
- It is recommended that you start at the Trout Creek Trailhead (google map direction to Dragon’s Tooth Parking lot then Trout Creek Trailhead) for it is easier to setup a shuttle that way. There was enough room for 5-6 cars at the Trout Creek Trailhead, but you had to forge Trout Creek on Miller Cove Rd. (VA-620) with your car when I last went 6 years ago.
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
before arriving at the spur for Dragon’s Tooth.
- 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.