The Virginia Triple Crown: 34 Iconic Miles of AT Backpacking
Dragon’s Tooth. McAfee Knob. Tinker Cliffs. Hike all three of these spectacular destinations along the Virginia Appalachian Trail to complete the coveted Virginia Triple Crown (aka the Roanoke Triple Crown).
The terrain is rugged, but you’ll be rewarded with lush forests, cool streams, pastoral scenery, and iconic AT viewpoints.
This hike is the perfect length for a long weekend adventure if you begin at VA 620 and end 34 miles north at the Daleville, VA Park and Ride. Because there’s more than one way to skin a cat, we’ll also outline a few alternate itineraries at the end of the post for day hikers and longer section hikers.
How to Hike the Virginia Triple Crown: At a Glance
Length: 33.6 miles
Elevation Gain/Loss (ft.): 6700/7400
Starting Point: VA 620 Trout Creek Trailhead (37.390438, -80.196098)
Ending Point: Hwy 220Park and Ride, Daleville, VA (37.391499), -79.905996)
Navigation: The AT Guide by David “AWOL” Miller, Guthook Guides (smartphone app) Appalachian Trail Southern Virginia section
Best Direction to Hike
Alternate Itineraries: Day Hikes and Longer Sections
Conditions / When to Hike
Parking and Transportation
There’s technically a way to complete the Triple Crown as a loop hike, but it involves many miles on steep, rugged, little-used side trails with limited views. We think it makes more sense to complete this trek as a point-to-point journey, shuttling between the two trailheads.
If you have access to multiple vehicles, this should be a cinch. Otherwise, you leave your car at the Daleville Park and Ride (37.391499), -79.905996) and pay one of the many shuttles serving this region of the AT to ferry you down to your starting point, the Trout Creek trailhead off VA 620 (37.390438, -80.196098). (We find it’s always better to leave your car at the endpoint and hike back to it—that way, you can jump in the car and drive off and won’t have to worry about logistics, timing, or cell service when you finish the trek).
Best Direction to Hike
You can hike the Virginia Triple Crown northbound or southbound. We recommend northbound for the following reasons:
- The Daleville Park and Ride is likely the safer option for leaving a car overnight as it’s in a well-trafficked area. It’s also right off the highway, so easier to navigate to for most people.
- Most hikers travel northbound. If you travel in the same direction as most everyone else, you won’t cross as many people going the opposite direction and will likely enjoy more solitude during the day while hiking.
- Less climbing, more descending heading north. You will experience several steep, severe descents going this way (Dragon’s Tooth stands out as an example). If you have knee problems, you may prefer going south and taking these severe grades uphill.
Dragon’s Tooth | Mile 702.3: Approached from the south, you’ll have a long, six-mile, rolling climb from Trout Creek trailhead to the summit. There, you’ll be rewarded with sweeping pastoral views and an opportunity to climb the eponymous Tooth, a dramatic stone monolith at the very top. Descending the mountain’s north side, you’ll encounter about three-quarters of a mile of technical, rocky trail. You’ll have to do a significant amount of rock scrambling, shimmy along narrow ledges, and stow your trekking poles to make use of rebar handholds in places. This stretch is a lot of fun as long as you’re prepared for it.
McAfee Knob | Mile 714.2: This distinctive rocky outcropping is one of the most iconic spots on the Appalachian Trail. In fact, it’s the most-photographed location on the entire 2,193-mile AT. It’s pretty awesome to stand out on the jutting rock ledge with the farm-and-woodland patchwork of the valley bottom some 1400 feet below. Tinker Cliffs is visible to the east as a dark smudge near the high point of a rolling ridge in the foreground.
Tinker Cliffs | Mile 719.3: Enjoy continuous, stunning, 180-degree views during an easy half-mile stroll along Tinker Cliffs. On one side, you’ll see rocky ledges with westerly views of Catawba Valley (including a glimpse of McAfee Knob). On the other side of the trail is open, grassy woodland. Tinker Cliffs is an ideal place to watch the sunset.
Hay Rock | Mile 726.3: After enjoying multiple dramatic vantage points of Catawba Valley from each of the three Triple Crown points, change up your perspective with a glimpse of Corvin’s Cove Reservoir and Brushy Mountain from Hay Rock. There’s a short spur trail that leads to the best vantage point.
Three Li’l Pigs | Mile 730.3: There’s nothing quite like a big meal after a long hike. After finishing your trek, reward yourself with a pulled pork sandwich at Three Li’l Pigs. Daleville’s local barbecue joint is just a quarter-mile off-trail near the Kroger.
A quality headlamp is a must for this hike, particularly if you plan to catch sunrises and/or sunsets from any of the Triple Crown spots. Camping isn’t allowed at Dragon’s Tooth, McAfee, or Tinker Cliffs, so you’ll be hiking in the dark at some point to get there for the big show. We like the Petzl Actik Core because it’s bright and has plenty of battery life for night hiking, but you can also check out our picks for the best backpacking headlamps of the year for some other great options.
Also, be sure to bring adequate sun and bug protection. Mosquitos and ticks (including Lyme disease-bearing deer ticks) are abundant in the area. The trail can be grassy and overgrown in places, so in addition to bug spray for your skin, you may want to wear long pants and treat your shoes and clothing with permethrin before hiking.
Although the trail is primarily a green tunnel, the canopy is pretty open in places, and there are numerous rocky viewpoints in full sun, so sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses are a must. Not sun-related, but a foam sit pad for hanging out on said outcroppings and enjoying the view is also really lovely.
Other than that, your standard multi-night packing list will be adequate for this trek. Check out our Appalachian Trail Gear List if you’re unsure what to bring.
Depending on the season, you’ll be treated to a range of brilliant wildflowers in this section. These include trillium, several species of aster, lady’s slippers, mountain laurel, and rhododendron. Sassafras is also abundant in the herb layer (rub the leaves to get a whiff of root beer or Froot Loops).
American chestnut sprouts can be seen in the undergrowth, clonal remnants of the iconic trees that once dominated Appalachian forests before being wiped out by blight in the early twentieth century. Meanwhile, an abundance of maples in the canopy provides shade and beautiful fall colors late in the year. Mid-October through early November is typically the best time for leaf peeping in this region.
In less exciting news, poison ivy thrives in this area, particularly in late spring and early summer. Keep your eyes peeled for hairy vines and leaves of three. Note that black bears are quite active in this area and have been known to enter campsites, so (as always) be sure to store your food and smellable items properly. Catawba, Campbell, and Lamberts Meadow shelters all have bear lockers.
Camping and Water Sources
Stealth camping is forbidden along most of this route because it’s such a high-use area. This restriction expressly includes the tops of Dragon’s Tooth, McAfee, and Tinker Cliffs. You’ll need to camp only in designated sites between VA 624 and Daleville.
Because planning is confusing, we’ve detailed our recommended itinerary below. This plan keeps the mileage to a leisurely 7-10 per day, places you at campsites with water sources each night, and includes the option to take sunrise at McAfee Knob and sunset at Tinker Cliffs on Day Three.
Note: If you arrive at the Trout Creek trailhead late in the day, Pickle Branch Shelter is just 1.2 miles in and has water.
Fill up your water at mile 698.2 (last water for seven miles—don’t miss it!), hike up and over Dragon’s Tooth, and stay the night at Four Pines Hostel. This option keeps the mileage reasonable for the first day and avoids the necessity of hauling tons of water to a dry campsite.
The hostel is accessible via a half-mile road walk from mile 704.5. Altogether, it’s an 8.3-mile day (including the road walk). We recommend calling ahead to confirm that the hostel has availability.
Hike to Campbell Shelter at mile 714.9. This is an 11.1-mile day including the walk back from Four Pines. There’s ample tenting here, and the Pig Farm campsite at mile 714.8 provides even more space to set up. The spring at this site is reliable. This shelter is less than three-quarters of a mile north of McAfee Knob. This is an ideal place to camp if you want to catch the sunrise the following morning (highly recommended).
Day 3 is a 7.4-mile day. From Campbell Shelter, retrace your steps for 0.7 miles to McAfee Knob for sunrise. Then, continue north past Tinker Cliffs to Lamberts Meadow Shelter (mile 721). If you’re comfortable with night hiking, you can spend the afternoon at Tinker Cliffs (mile 719.3 – roughly mile 719.8), catch the sunset, and night hike down to the shelter area.
There is space for many tents at Lamberts Meadow (as well as a reliable, gushing stream). Still, you may not want to wait until after dark to set up if you’re hiking during a busy time. There’s nothing quite like getting to your intended campsite only to find there’s no room left to set up.
From Lamberts Meadow, you have just nine more (mostly downhill) miles to Daleville and the end of your hike. You’ll get pretty views at a series of power line crossings. However, be aware that this section can be hot and sunny. There’s no water until basically the very end of the hike, so fill up before you leave camp. Grab a cold beer at the Three Li’l Pigs in Daleville at the end to quench your thirst.
Day Hike the Virginia Triple Crown
Dragon’s Tooth: Park at the Dragon’s Tooth trailhead on VA 311 (37.378620, -80.156082). Follow the blue-blazed Dragon’s Tooth Trail 1.5 miles to link up with the AT at Lost Spectacles Gap. Turn right and follow the white blazes up a steep, technical, 0.7-mile rock scramble to the top of Cove Mountain. A 0.1-mile spur trail will take you to Dragon’s Tooth from there. The total hike is 4.6 miles. You’ll gain 750 feet on the Dragon’s Tooth trail and a further 400 between Lost Spectacles Gap and the Tooth.
You can change up the scenery on the way back by continuing north on the AT past Lost Spectacles Gap. One and a quarter miles later, turn left on the Boy Scout Trail. The Boy Scout Trail meets the Dragon’s Tooth Trail 0.3 miles later. Hang a right and head down the remaining quarter-mile to the parking area. The total length of the hike is a hair longer at 4.8 miles when you do it this way.
McAfee Knob: Park at the trailhead on VA 311 (37.380196, -80.089569). Try to get there early, especially on weekends and holidays, as the lot can fill up quickly. Cross the road to head north on the AT for 3.7 miles to reach McAfee Knob, gaining 1,00 feet along the way. The AT is rocky and, at times, steep on this stretch. A quarter-mile into the hike, you have the option to bear left on a fire road. This gentler, smoother alternate parallels the AT for two miles. The fire road links back up with the AT 1.3 miles below the summit.
There is limited access to water on this route. Both shelters (accessible from the trail but not the fire road) have springs, though they sometimes dry up in summer. There’s also a small, intermittent stream a few tenths north of where the fire road rejoins the AT. The round-trip hike is 7.4 miles.
Tinker Cliffs: Park at the Andy Layne Trailhead on Catawba Rd. (37.457569, -80.017159). Head up the steep, 2.8-mile blue-blazed trail to meet the AT at Scorched Earth Gap. Then, hang a right to travel southbound on the AT for half a mile to access the Cliffs. Enjoy the easy, half-mile stroll along the ledges before retracing your steps back to the parking area. The round trip, including the Cliff walk, is seven and a half miles.
You’ll gain a thousand feet of elevation climbing the Andy Layne Trail to Scorched Earth Gap and another 400 feet from there to the start of Tinker Cliffs.
Make the Hike Longer
Instead of starting at the Trout Creek Trailhead, start 20 miles south at the VA 42 AT crossing (mile 677.7). And instead of ending in Daleville, continue on another 28 miles to Jennings Creek at mile 758.5. Middle Creek Campground is a couple of miles up the road from the Jennings Creek trail crossing. You can stash your vehicle there safely for $5/night. Also—just putting it out there—they have burgers and milkshakes at the camp store.
Highlights of the Extended Version
- The stately Keffer Oak (mile 678.9), the largest oak tree on the southern half of the AT.
- The Eastern Continental Divide between Atlantic Ocean drainage and Gulf of Mexico drainage (mile 685.2).
- The Audie Murphy Monument (mile 693), the site where America’s most decorated WWII veteran, Audie Murphy, died in a plane crash.
- Multiple gorgeous Blue Ridge Parkway overlooks. The first crossing is at mile 744.7 and there are five subsequent crossings.
- Swimming hole at Jennings Creek. Just off the gravel parking lot, there’s access to a deep swimming hole beneath the bridge. It’s a perfect place to cool off and celebrate the end of your hike.
- Return to top.
Weather / When to Hike
Timing is everything. You can hike this trail year-round, but there are a few things to note about conditions in each season. No matter when you head out, always bring rain gear and extra layers.
Winter: Best for maximum solitude and numerous peekaboo views through the leafless trees, but bring warm clothing and microspikes. Be EXTREMELY cautious of slick ice. Particularly on the northbound descent from Dragon’s Tooth and the rock ledges at McAfee and Tinker Cliffs.
Spring: Especially late April-mid-May, when you can see blooms including trillium, rhododendron, and mountain laurel. Be aware that this is a high-use time. The thru-hiking bubble is typically passing through the area during these weeks. So along with lovely flowers, you’ll have to contend with crowded campsites, overworked privies, and a general lack of solitude. In April, the weather can range from late-season snowstorms to unbearable heat waves. Best to be prepared for anything.
Summer: Be aware that it gets VERY hot and humid. Many water sources can dry up around this time, so plan ahead. Try to hike in the early mornings and avoid the heat of the afternoon. Carry plenty of water at all times. You’ll definitely want rain gear but probably won’t need many warm layers. Poison ivy is in full swing by now, so tread carefully—especially around trailheads and other woodland edge habitats.
Fall: Who doesn’t love a little crisp fall hiking? The weather typically cools down in this region by mid-October, and color change starts in November. Late-autumn hikers will be rewarded by a spectacular color change, largely thanks to the abundance of maples in the canopy. Some water sources will already have dried up in the heat of the summer, so be prepared for longer water carries. Nights and early mornings can turn chilly by this time of year.
The Virginia Triple Crown hike is among the state’s premier backpacking destinations. No matter how (or when) you choose to hike it, you’re sure to have a great time. The Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club maintains this section. Be sure to check out their site for more information when planning your trip.
All mileages are from the Guthook Guides Appalachian Trail: Southern Virginia map.
Featured image: Graphic design by Stephanie Ausfresser. Photo by Kristen Fielder.
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