Four of us - that's Logan, Shane, Kylie and me - left Vienna metro one fine, Friday evening. We were pleasantly surprised to observe that traffic was moving along smoothly on a busy Friday evening. One stop at Sheetz for dinner and we got to the trailhead at 9:30 PM. It was my first time starting out from Dragon's Tooth parking lot, in the past I've started from the Mcafee Knob lot for the regular VA Triple Crown version.
Headlamps on, we marched the short 1.5 miles to Lost Spectacles Gap. Here, we met Gen - who welcomed us with a warm fire. We setup camp, chatted for a few minutes and then settled in for the night by 10:30 - which wasn't bad considering the long drive.
We woke up early to catch a sunrise to Dragon's Tooth. Gen and I decided to go with full packs to the top. On our way, we could see the sky lit with an awesome glow. Halfway through, I happened to step on an old trail which was a shortcut fast-forwarding to a different point ahead on the AT. Luckily, as the AT takes a U-turn at Dragon's tooth, I could head SOBO on the AT (instead of NOBO) and still get to Dragon's Tooth. It did work out and a little later, all of us were enjoying a nice sunrise atop the iconic overlook. I like Dragon's Tooth more than the other icons - because it is relatively not-so-popular and has some really cool rock formation.
We reversed our path to campsite, where some of us packed our tents and had breakfast. Our plan from here was to head SOBO on the AT. The clear skies were slowly being occupied by thin clouds. I enjoyed the solace on the trail as we climbed to the Catawba mountain ridge. After the ascent, we rode the ridge until we hit Mcafee Knob parking lot - which was unsurprisingly full. There were many people here and we were a bit annoyed that we started with a large group just ahead of us. They turned out to be nice people and let us pass without even asking. The gradual climb to the knob stretched our muscles and we were all ready for a lunch/snack break when we got to the top. We got lucky as we had the knob to ourselves for a few minutes.
Not for long though, of course. Taking a nice break and some pics, we headed off to the next checkpoint - Tinker's Cliffs. In this part, the AT gradually descends and then climbs towards the cliffs. There was a decent amount of leaves on the ground (not thigh high as it was on Brian's trip last January).
We barely saw any people on the way which was nice. The climb was also pretty testing - still we all made it to Tinker's Cliffs in really great time - around 3 PM. We had covered an impressive 18 miles already.
We met a group here who also started with the same itinerary as us. They admitted that they were going to skip some of the section since "We overestimated our capabilities". Note : they had pretty huge packs. Oh wait, the plan was to enjoy a sunset at Tinker's Cliffs? Yeah, its only 3 PM, so no way. Time to change the plan. I suggested that instead of heading to Lambert Shelter, we camp on our way up on Catawba Valley trail. It was an easy sell - anything to make Sunday shorter. We descended, hopped on the Andy Lane trail, crossed the road and hit Catawba Valley trail. A few hundred yards onwards, we got to the stream and saw some flat spots. We made it work - we'd camped in worse conditions before. The tents were either Tarptent Moment or Gen's Yama Swiftline (3 vs. 2).
As soon as we pitched, it started drizzling lightly spoiling our campfire plans. It drizzled for an hour and picked up later forcing us in for an early night. I reckon we were all asleep by 8. It stopped raining around 11 PM in the night.
It was clear and beautiful when we hit the trail the next morning. The climb got steeper as we neared the top of the ridge - always nice to begin a day with a climb. The winds also increased as we climbed up. Panting, we reached the top of North mountain ridge.
It was 9.5 miles to the cars on this *flat* ridge - yeah, I always forget how unflat this ridge actually is. The winds were relentless on top. With the sun on the left and winds coming on the right, there was quite a temperature gradient between my left ear and right ear (or my left hand and right hand). Over time, the temps warmed and the winds calmed down - conditions became more pleasant. Up and down we went. There were some nice patches of green moss along the way. The names of the side trails got us excited and wondering if we could catch some wildlife, but no, we didn't see no turkey, grouse and deer in that order. Our only encounter was with mountain bikers - first few groups of small bikers and then a huuuuuuggeeee group of about 30 bikers on their (they were all part of the same event going on) as we were descending off the ridge. Man, it was tough seeing some of them slog their bikes up. We got to the parking lot, changed into better clothes, waited for everyone to get there and drove for 12 minutes to get to Billy's Barn. The food was pretty good, the drive home was smooth and non-eventful. We were home by 7 PM.
Splits were 1.5/22/11 miles. Elevation gain, as per caltopo, were 900/4800/2600 ft. (the north mountain ridge seemed to have elevation gain of approx 1600 ft.). Here's what we did : http://caltopo.com/m/V8VV
Thanks to everyone for providing me company on this trip. I enjoyed this variation a lot. Catching sunrise at Dragon's Tooth was a pleasure, and so was camping on Catawba Valley trail. The only downside of this route was to deal with the crowds heading to Mcafee Knob.