Tuesday, January 3, 2012

New Year's Appalachian Trail Backpacking Trip: Virginia Triple Crown

The plan was to get a three-day snowshoeing trip in for New Year's weekend.  The snow, unfortunately, didn't get the memo, leaving the highlands of West Virginia bereft of the white stuff.  We still wanted to get out, though, so we decided to a three-day backpacking trip on a section of the Appalachian Trail (AT) near Roanoke, Virginia, commonly called Virginia's Triple Crown. 

Day One (12 miles):  On New Year's Eve, we met up with a friend of ours (author of Horizontal Tread), left a vehicle at the end point for our trip, and headed to the Dragon's Tooth trailhead.  The relatively warm, humid weather made it feel like March, rather than the last day of December.  The climb up the Dragon's Tooth access trail to the AT was a nice warm-up and not too hard.  None of us had been able to do much hiking in December, much less carry a pack loaded down for winter camping, so it was nice to start on a moderate note.  Once on the AT, we stashed our packs and walked the 3/4 of a mile to Dragon's Tooth. The trail was pretty rocky in places and there were even a couple of ladder rungs in one place.  Dragon's Tooth lived up to its name:  a giant wedge of nearly vertical sandstone that resembles a large tooth.  We took a few minutes to scramble up it and admire the view.  This was one of my favorite spots on the trip.

We returned to our packs and headed north on the AT, descending into a valley and then passing over another ridge.  At the bottom of the next valley, we passed a cool little, now disused, hydroelectric dam.  Just below the dam we encountered our first stile, an A-shaped ladder over a fence, with rungs on each side.  From there we entered the first of several pastures that we had to cross.  We surprised a flock of Eastern Bluebirds, which was a nice surprise and we had a good view of the next ridge we had to climb.  The last two stiles were over live electric fences, so we made sure to keep our trekking poles clear of the wires.  We crossed Catawba Creek and began our ascent to the top of the ridge the quick way:  straight up a power line cut.  The rest of the hike that day was up and down small knobs on the top of the ridge.  Unfortunately, we felt a bit rushed because we were running out of daylight.  When we reached Hwy 311, we had a mile left to get to the John's Spring Shelter, where we were hoping the ephemeral spring was actually running.  The last half-mile of our hike was in the dark, but we were pleasantly surprised to find both water and an empty shelter.  John's Spring Shelter feels sort of urban.  The highway and the small town of Catawba are visible at night from the shelter, but we had a pleasant night there.  We built a nice fire and had hot chili on a relatively warm New Year's Eve.  All three of us were fast asleep by 10:30. 

Day One Pictures (click to enlarge):
 Looking southeast from Dragon's Tooth.
 Bootshot from Dragon's Tooth.
 Michael on top of Dragon's Tooth.
 Part of the AT getting up to Dragon's Tooth.
 A waterfall over a small, disused hydroelectric dam along the AT. 
A small bird's nest in one of the pastures. 
One of the four stiles we had to cross.
Looking back on Dragon's Tooth as we climbed the power line cut.

Day Two (10.3 miles):  The weather was bright, sunny and pretty warm by the time we got around to hiking in the morning on New Year's Day.  I was actually able to wear a short sleeve shirt for part of the climb up to McAfee Knob.  We quickly reached Catawba Mountain Shelter, about a mile from John's Spring Shelter.  From there, we made the long climb up to McAfee Knob.  Near the top, we passed through a field of giant sandstone blocks before finally arriving at the summit.  The temperature dropped and clouds rolled in not long before we arrived at the top, but they were at least high enough that we had a good view.  We had lunch at the overlook and took pictures before continuing towards Tinker Cliffs.  The descent off of the north side of Mcafee Knob was quite a bit steeper than the ascent on the south side.  Then it was more of the rolling ups and downs that we had done the day before.  The sun came back out, so we took an extended break on some logs.  It was warm enough that Michael took a brief nap on his log.

As we were starting out again, we noticed some rather ominous clouds over the ridge to the west of us.  I hoped it would just be more of the clouds we had seen on Mcafee Knob in the morning.  The climb up to Tinker Cliffs was the steepest section of the entire hike.  The trail corridor is pretty narrow and surrounded by private land, so there isn't much in the way of switchbacks.  About halfway up, the temperature dropped significantly and it started raining.  We kept hiking for a little while, hoping that it would just pass over, but we soon realized that we needed to put on rain jackets.  By the time we reached Tinker Cliffs, it was raining sideways in the 30 mph winds.  Needless to say, there were no views, nor pictures, from Tinker Cliffs.  Since the trail runs right on the edge of the cliffs, it was interesting to walk that section in the screaming-bad squall (fortunately, there was no lightning).  By the time we made it down the switchbacks on the north side of Tinker Cliffs, the weather had cleared again, although the wind stayed. 

We camped at Lambert's Meadow Shelter, which is next to a pleasant stream.  There is a great view of the stream from the door-less privy.  The wind howled all night, making us glad that the shelter was down in the valley.  Camping on the ridge would have been miserable that night. 

Day Two Pictures:

 Sunrise from John's Spring Shelter
 McAfee Knob overlook.
 Bootshot from McAfee Knob
 Michael and I on McAfee Knob.
An old International Harvester mower along the trail.

Day Three (9.4 miles):  The temperature was much, much colder when we woke up on Monday.  Water froze in our bottles and camelbacks, but it was bright and sunny again, so we hoped it would warm up some.  Snow flurries fell in spite of the sun and mostly blue sky over the first few miles of our hike.  The trail was relatively easy. We hiked along the ridge and occasionally had clear views on both sides.  The sun was not to last.  By the time we stopped for lunch, the wind had picked up in a serious, biting cold way and the temperature had dropped precipitously.  We passed graffiti-strewn Hay Rock (Someone with a can of spraypaint is a serious Ron Paul 2012 supporter.  I am not sure how many voters they are reaching there, though).  The trail follows the ridgeline for the next several miles.  It is actually a pretty interesting part of the hike, with lots of fascinating rock formations and views.  Unfortunately, the wind and cold kept us moving at a pretty fast pace.  By the time we reached switchbacks to get down off the ridge, we were all ready to have some shelter from the wind. 

Overall, this joins my list of favorite hikes in Virginia.  Except for at Dragon's Tooth, I would guess we saw fewer than 25 people on the entire three-day hike.  The views were spectacular and we experienced quite the variety of weather.  Actually, given the season, I can't complain about the weather at all.  We will definitely do this one again.

Day Three Pictures: 

 A sandy section of trail while the sun was still out. 
Cladonia rangiferina (Reindeer Lichen, Reindeer Moss) - a lichen - in a bed of moss. 
 Michael at one of the overlooks along the ridge.
 One of the rock formations along the ridge on the last day.
 Another interesting lichen on the rocks.
Carvin Cove Reservoir. 


  1. Outstanding photos and commentary SPW! Thanks again for the opportunity to tag along with you folks on this mighty fine hike.

  2. Beautiful hike and pics!

  3. Very nice! I always wondered where that iconic overhanging overlook was on the AT. Thanks for clearning it up for me!