Pics from the trip: https://photos.app.goo.gl/wf4qn44nfdDkqcoD8
It felt refreshing as we donned our packs at 9:30 PM, and started hiking the Dragon’s Tooth trail on Friday night. The sky was full of bright stars and the temps were near freezing. When we – that’s Maria, Shane, Mark (Bright Side) and I – got to Lost Spectacles Gap, we met Mark (Mountain Slayer). The Mountain Slayer had just settled in his bag and was cowboy camping. He notified us about other backpackers camped nearby, so we tried to be quiet as we settled in too.
Shane realized at this point that he was without his valuable tent pole for his Tarptent Moment. But perhaps after attending MacGyver’s talk 2 days ago, he channeled his inner MacGyverness, and went about setting his tent using bear lines and a nearby tree. Maria, Bright Side, and I decided to cowboy camp. Just as we settled in, Kyle, Cassie, and Kate joined us, setup their shelters, and soon we were all asleep.
The next few hours turned out to be quite eventful – in not a nice way. First, 4 hikers showed up around 11:30 PM. After realizing many spots nearby were taken, and having a loud discussion, they decided to head on and camp near Dragon’s Tooth. Around midnight, I thought I felt a snowflake drop on my face. I opened my eyes, and saw stars in the sky. And then felt more snowflakes. It took me some time to finally realize it was snowing – despite visible stars – and I needed to setup my shelter. Bright Side did the same. Contrary to my expectation, the light snowfall continued for an hour or two. At varying points in the night, Mountain Slayer and Maria (proposed trail-name: Snow-Blanket) woke up to find themselves surrounded with snow, and setup shelters in unconventional ways. To top it off, at precisely 5:30 AM, a group of what-felt-like-20-college-kids showed up making their way to Dragon’s Tooth. They must have really liked our tents since they gave it their full attention with their bright headlamps. Some of us were up, and those who wanted to sleep in couldn’t, mostly due to our neighbor group waking up and talking loudly. Around this point, I learned Kate wasn’t feeling well due to cold/flu-like symptoms. After Kylie bailing out hours before the trip, illness had claimed a 2nd victim. Yes, it was a rough start.
From this point on, the hiking gods happened to be on our side, and from here on the trip went on to be pretty perfect. Some of us made the trip to Dragon’s Tooth. We were rewarded by a nice sunrise, mixed with loud music and the smell of weed. Note to future Triple Crown hikers – don’t count on having the Crowns mostly to yourselves even if the weather is well below freezing.
Onwards we made our way NOBO on the AT. The skies were starting to clear and the sun was out. The light dusting of snow was disappearing fast. We said hello to the cows as the miles flew by. As we gained the ridge, the wind picked up. Managing our layers was key as we balanced the sweat from climbing with the gusts of wind. Cassie and I chatted about her upcoming planned through hikes (yes, plural!!) –this was going to be her last DC UL trip for a few months. Joining other folks, we took a snack break at an overlook that provided shelter from the wind.
The McAfee Knob parking lot was not as full as I expected – perhaps due to the cold weather combined with windy weather. Per usual, we passed by a few hikers on our way up. I felt the long, gradual climb to the top – especially the final stretch – but made it. Kyle had been there first – 12 miles by 12 PM – and was taking a break from the wind. We posed for photos at the iconic spot, and took a lunch break away from the windy overlook.
Pretty soon, we had fully regrouped. In the hopes of securing the shelter for us, Kyle led the way. We all enjoyed the stretch between McAfee Knob and Tinker Cliffs due to the significantly fewer number of people. We ran into a hiker who had decided to hike the Triple Crown after taking a year long hiatus from backpacking. I suppose we are good gear ambassadors since he was pitched the insulated pogies twice. We enjoyed the viewpoint overlooking Carvin Cove Reservoir.
The climb to Tinker Cliffs was slow and steady, but the view was worth five stars. I really love this spot because of a) the half mile cliff stretch with open views, and b) the vastly fewer number of people here compared to McAfee Knob and Dragon’s Tooth. Done with the climbing for the day, we made good time on the descent, and made it to Lambert’s Shelter around 4 PM – good time considering the miles and the elevation. The shelter was occupied by two tents eventually (I know!!), but we found good camping spots near the stream. The wind died too. Campfire, dinners, dessert (Thanks Maria!) and alcohol made for good conversations. Everyone was ready to hit the hay by 7:45 and everyone slept well. For the second night in a row, temps were in the 20-25 degree range.
Everyone was efficient in breaking camp the next morning. Two people actually got an early start. We retraced our path on the AT and took the Andy Lane trail. The sun was lighting up the treetops with bright red light as we hiked out the valley. The descent on the Andy Lane trail included a mix of gradual and steep slopes. We crossed SR 779, and took the ‘very difficult’ Catawba Valley Trail. Before the climb got steep, we all made sure to tank water that would last us the dry Great North Mountain ridge. And it was finally warming up enough to be in shorts!
The climb definitely had us huffing and puffing. Once we reached the ridgeline, we were all reminded how not flat this ridge is. Up and down, and up and down we went as the temps warmed up more. While hiking this ridge is not easy, it is extremely pleasant to be surrounded with great views of the nearby ridges, including views of Tinker Cliffs and McAfee Knob. In line with past trips, we ran into a few bikers as we traversed the ridge. We passed Turkey Trail, Deer Trail, and Grouse Trail. We didn’t see any wildlife though. Pretty soon, we were descending and then it was back to the cars. Victory!
For the post-hike meal, we stopped at Billy’s Barn. There were some minor hiccups (if you just renewed your license and have your temporary paper license, you can’t get beer apparently), but the consensus was that food+beer was good overall. The drive back was pretty smooth for me – thanks to the entertaining riders. Shane may or may not be called ‘DJ’ going forward.
Thanks everyone for joining me on this trip! I had a great time in y’all’s company. We faced our different sets of challenges, but it is always satisfying to do such a hard hike and have that after-hike hiker-hobble. Cassie – Hope you have a great time hiking out West!