Triple Crown: McAfee Knob, Tinker Cliffs, and Dragon Tooth

Posted by Michael Martin on

With an apocalyptic storm bearing down on DC, of course the only reasonable thing we could do is load our backpacks and head out for a week of backcountry fun.

Jen, Ryan, Sharon, and I met up at Vienna at 6pm on Friday and were soon rolling west on I-66, planning to reach the Roanoke area and the trailhead for McAfee Knob. We had not reached Gainesville before Sharon, rummaging around in her pack, discovered that she had left behind her tent poles and stakes. We informed her that we wouldn't let her out of the car and she would just have to share space in one of the two Trailstars. Sharon appeared to acquiesce but, as we would later learn, she had other plans.

We arrived at the trailhead just east of Catawba, Virginia, at about 10:15pm, and soon our headlamps were on and we were hiking north on the AT, passing one shelter and then reaching the campsite at the Catawba Mountain Shelter around 11pm. The campsite was already occupied by several tents so, as quiet as mice, we set up on some marginal ground. The night was so mild that Ryan cowboy-camped. I pitched my Trailstar. Sharon, in a display of true DC UL grit, Macgyvered her tent fly into some semblance of its intended shape, using sticks to turn it into a bivy!

We slept well enough, but we were up at 6am the next morning, and were on the trail by 6:30am, as we had planned to make the summit of McAfee Knob to enjoy the sunrise and a cup of coffee. The VirginiaTech students we were sharing the campsite with had similar plans--I think some of them were wondering where the hell we had come fun. We had not walked a hundred yards before the clouds opened up with a cold rain. We put on our rain gear. As we climbed the knob (rather a gentle climb), we passed the students, virtually all of whom were in jeans and hoodies--dangerous clothing for the weather. When we reached McAfee Knob--one of the most iconic views of the entire AT--at 7:15am, it was clear we weren't getting any sort of view, as we were stuck in a cloud of cold rain. It was no place to linger.

We descended quickly and reached the Campbell Shelter, where we enjoyed our breakfast. From there, we set out on a long day's march, heading north along the AT and climbing up to Tinker Cliffs, which turned out to be another spectacular view spoiled by the cloudy weather. As we walked along, we encountered a SOBO thru-hiker. He must have thought we looked serious but rather daft, as he asked if we were NOBO. Being northbound in Virginia in October doesn't sound like a good idea.

By the time we reached Tinker Cliffs, I was worried about the weather deteriorating further, as I had been lulled into warm-weather complacency by the mendacious weather report and was wondering why I hadn't brought a baselayer.

But all was well so long as we kept walking, which we did. We descended Tinker Cliffs and reached Scorched Earth Gap, which Jen communicated was named after the foul language a hiker had used to express her frustration as she climbed up to the gap. Here we turned west and descended the Andy Lane Trail towards Catawba Creek and the valley. We found that footing treacherous between the leaves and the dampness--we all took falls--but as we neared the bottom, I was reassured by the presence of day hikers headed to Tinker Cliffs. Surely, the weather couldn't be that awful.

After tanking up on water for a long dry stretch, we began climbing the Catawba Valley Trail to the North Mountain Trail which runs southerly along the ridge. This was a stout little climb, but we reached the top by the mid-afternoon, and were soon flying south along the ridgeline, enjoying much better views both to the east (of McAfee and Tinker) as well as to the west. By 5pm or so, we'd knocked out our 20 miles, and Ryan and I settled on a campsite just past the intersection with Grouse Trail. He and I started staking down the Trailstars with grim determination. We were camping on a ridgeline and the weather still felt unsettled.

As Jen strolled into camp, she informed us that she had been waylaid on the trail by a mother black bear and her two cubs. We asked her for photographic evidence. She had none, so we concluded it didn't happen. But we did hang the bear line with extra care that night. Seriously, though, the North Mountain Trail was a much wilder place than the fairly domesticated AT--it seems a natural place for a family of bears.

"Singed Sock" campsite--which we dubbed after an unfortunate campfire incident--turned out to a be a lovely spot. Sitting around the campfire, we had views to the west and the east, and a gorgeous orange sunset. Sharon reengineered her tent bivy in a spot where we worried that she needed to tie in using a harness. But we all enjoyed dinner and our flasks and passed a quiet, if breezy, night.

Sunday morning, we were up and on the trail at 7:30am, and quickly we reached the parking lot for Dragon's Tooth. We had considered skipping this part of the trip, as we didn't see much point in climbing into another cloud for no view. The weather, though, was much better, and we all wanted to visit the fabled rock prow. After a quick climb to re-join the AT, we scrambled for a half mile, climbed the prow, and I finally got some decent photographs for my book. We concluded the spectacular view was the highlight of the trip--missing it would have severely impaired the trip's quality.

As we covered the remaining 7-8 miles from Dragon's Tooth to my car on 311, we complained that Evan had sand-bagged us all the way from Latvia. Those miles descended sharply, took us through a pastoral landscape of farms, and then along a ridge that hit every pointless up and down it could. We reached the cars a little later than we had planned, at 3pm, and had to forego our usual trip to a local restaurant, as we were eager to get home before Frankenstorm hit. We were already getting dire warnings from our phones.

But the drive home was uneventful, if a little wet.

The data. We walked 37 miles according to my handheld in just about 41 hours from late Friday to Sunday afternoon, with a split like 2-20-15. Google Earth, with my .gpx file, is giving us just over 9,000 feet of total gain and loss (interestingly, Google Earth is only giving us 34.2 miles total distance traveled).

A big congratulations to Sharon and Jen, who walked their first 20-mile day in good form, on what was really a challenging trail with weather conditions that weren't easy. They then woke up and walked another 15! Holger and Katherine, we wished you guys were with us! All in all, it was a good strong DC UL trip on a short weekend! Thanks, everyone, for making it happen!

Sharon G posted on

I think you earned an extra $1 for using "daft" and "mendacious," but "Macgyvered" is my personal favorite. ;-)

It was a great trip indeed.