I could tell it was going to be a great trip when it was one of the smoothest departures I've ever experienced from Vienna. As Felipe and I both got off the same train a few minutes ahead of the planned meeting time, Karan was just finishing up parking his car so we could all hop in Andrew's and be on our way.
The car thermometer was giving us temperatures that we expected as we approached the empty McAfee Knob parking lot around 10:30pm, but when we got out of the car with the wind whipping around us it felt a whole heck of a lot colder. We quickly got ourselves geared up, donned headlamps, and hit the trail. Once on the lee side of the ridge and climbing we quickly warmed up and some of the initial layers were pulled off. Arriving at the Catawba Shelter we spread ourselves out on the floor and called it a night.
We were up an on the trail Saturday morning well before daylight, successfully getting up to McAfee Knob several minutes before dawn so we could position ourselves well for the sunrise, which came with a gorgeous red horizon.
With the sun up and some more light it was back to the knob for the obligatory sitting/standing on the edge photos. It was cold on the knob, with air temperatures around 5*F, and with wind chill taking it well below 0*F, so we didn't dally much longer and headed down to Campbell Shelter to finish up breakfast.
With breakfast and hot coffee fueling us, it was on to the views along Tinker Cliffs. Along the way the trail passed through leaves piled knee high by the winds dropping them on top of the ridge. Without being able to see the trail itself, there was a lot of noisy shuffling and some occasional slips. This would continue to be a theme for much of the rest of the trip while along the ridge tops. A few more pictures were snapped along Tinker Cliffs.
Heading down the Andy Lane trail we began to encounter day hikers on their way up to the top. The temperature started to warm up as the day progressed and we descended into the valley. We crossed the bridge over Catawba Creek and found a nice spot in the sun along the creek on the next climb for lunch. The climb to North Mountain warmed us up after the lunch break. Walking along the rolling ridge top of North Mountain resulted in a constant flux of being almost too warm on the short climbs but a bit chilly on the windy descents.
We arrived at camp just before dusk. A small fire was started as a psychological win, but it didn't give much warmth and we struggled to make it past 7:30.
We were up with the sun an on the trail by 8:00. The walk along the rest of North Mountain is much more level and progressed quickly, and we were soon descending to the Dragon's Tooth parking lot. Even though the air was damp and cold in the valley, there was a quick changing of clothing and layers in preparation for the climb. We ascended in the Dragonís Tooth Trail in fine fast DC UL style. A few dropped their packs at the junction with the AT, and we all headed off for the views from Dragon's Tooth. A big patch of ice on the trail nearly led to disaster for Felipe. The sun came up and warmed us on the climb, or maybe it was the last heat of the dragon's breath before Karan slew it. We ventured onto the tooth of the dragon for some fantastic views, then it was on the way back down.
A few more miles of walking across ridges and through fields awaited us before the anticipated feasting after slaying the dragon. A few more obstacles awaited us - slippery leaf covered stream-side trail, and a v-gate so narrow that some packs barely fit and a few didn't.
In the final mile we could see our goal for the end of the trip, the Homeplace. The lack of visible cars in the parking lot was a bit worrisome, but maybe it was just a lull after the lunch rush? We bumped into some day-hikers, and they too said they wondered about the empty Homeplace parking lot an hour or so earlier, during the prime lunch hour. Back at the car, a call to the Homeplace confirmed that they were closed until almost the end of the month, enjoying a very extended holiday season. Yelp came to the rescue for an alternative, and within a few minutes we were in Billy's Barn Restaurant, enjoying beer that wouldn't have been available at the Homeplace, and being satisfied with some quality grub.
All in all it was another great crew doing a round of the VA Triple Crown. We came up with a few alternate variations to the loop starting at the southern end that should allow for larger groups to do the trip and avoid the dry camp on the second night, so look for those in the future. If you haven't done this loop, it really needs to be on your list.
Nice trip report Brian. It was a lot of fun to revisit this loop. Sure, Mcafee Knob was chilly - still the views were worth the freezing cold temperatures. Dragon's Tooth - as always was ever so majestic. I like the scramble on this one. I am glad we didn't have to deal with snow/ice on the trail (except for that one giant slab on the way to Dragon's Tooth) - made this trip more enjoyable. I'll look out for future variations of this loop you post.
P.S. : I like the idea of posting pics here for a visual glimpse - I'll keep that in mind for future trip reports.