Gorgeous Views and Unexpected Obstacles on the Virginia “Triple Crown” Loop

DCUL members Stephen G., Abhi Gautam, Rose, Sean Soby, WB, Yvette L., Chandler Sam, and event hosts Alexander and Mark R. met on Labor Day weekend for a circuit of the most-photographed highlights of the Appalachian Trail (AT) in Virginia: McAfee Knob, Tinker Cliffs, and the Dragon’s Tooth, plus the less-crowded North Mountain Trail.  We planned splits of 10.35, 14.6, and 9.65 miles per day, though we ended up walking more due to detours.  We enjoyed unusually fine weather for late summer, which enhanced the spectacular views of the Blue Ridge, Alleghenies, expansive valleys, bucolic pastures, dramatic rock formations and riotous wildflowers.  Unfortunately, we also confronted some difficulties.

The McAffee Knob trailhead parking lot was full when we arrived, so we parked along the shoulder of a nearby road.  Unfortunately, one of our crew found at the end of the weekend that his car had been towed.  Local residents said police patrol the area often.

Devil’s Kitchen. Photo credit: Mark R.

The entire first day we followed the AT North, climbing the long slope past Johns Spring and Catawba Mountain Shelter toward the first of the three “jewels in the crown:”  McAffee Knob.  We stopped for pictures of the famous site, rejoicing in the beauty of the location and the moment.  When we were refreshed, we descended into the Devil’s Kitchen area of magnificent boulders, then passed the Pig Farm campsite and Campbell Shelter on our way to crown jewel number two:  Tinker Cliffs.  We were carrying lots of water since all the usual sources were dry in the late-summer drought, so it sure was nice to shuck our heavy packs and admire the views.  We then descended past Scorched Earth Gap to the Lambert’s Meadow campsite, past the shelter of the same name.  We were lucky to have the large campsite to ourselves and while Sawmill Branch was low, it had adequate water.  Unfortunately, one of our members slipped and banged up his leg, but he disinfected and bandaged it well.  We enjoyed a dancing campfire and lively conversation with dinner and settled into our shelters early.  At 3:00 AM, however, we learned why there was a steel food box at the campsite, as we yelled to chase a bear away.  Thankfully, the ursine intruder did not come back.

Photo credit: Yvette L.

On day two, we climbed back to Scorched Earth Gap and descended on the Andy Layne Trail through deep hollows toward Catawba Creek, where we crossed the refurbished foot bridge and took on drinking water.  Soon after, we crossed State Road 600/779 and started the long climb up to the North Mountain ridge on the Catawba Valley Trail. 

Scorched Earth Gap. Photo credit: Mark R.

Then the real challenges began.  Almost everyone in the group had been stung by yellow jacket wasps in the previous two days, but one of us is allergic.  When she got stung, the DCUL’ers hiking with her gave her Benadryl and helped her keep moving toward the intended campsite.  A DCUL member who wasn’t with our group, but was out backpacking with two buddies, agreed to walk with us, in case we needed additional hands to help evacuate our sting victim.  She made it under her own power, but the pain of the sting and the sedative effects of the Benadryl combined to make the day the toughest hike she had ever experienced.  On the same day, another member of our group painfully re-aggravated an old injury, so he caught a ride back to his car when he made it down to VA 311, where he slept before driving home the next day.

On night 2, we were very lucky to get a good campsite at the intersection of the Boy Scout and the Dragon’s Tooth trails, considering how crowded the area was on the holiday weekend.  Once again the stream was down to a trickle, but adequate to our needs.  Most of the group walked to the nearby general store for beer, pizza, ice cream, etc. and had a grand time.  One of our members saw another bear (probably a cub) which ran off immediately.  Overnight, we were treated to the soothing pitter-patter of a gentle rain shower on our shelters, which helped mask the crinkle of air mattresses.

On day 3 the woman who had been stung said she was feeling strong enough to complete the trip.  Since it seemed unwise to risk her getting stung again, however, the driver of the car she had been in hitchhiked back to the McAffee Knob lot to get his car, and the four people who had carpooled together left without completing the final leg.  The four remaining backpackers pressed on and climbed crown jewel number three:  Dragon’s Tooth.  They then comfortably made their way the last eight miles back to the parking lot to complete the Triple Crown.  There was definitely an odd mix of emotions seeing that much of the group was now gone.  However, we all were in good spirits once we got some ice cream!  As three members were driving back we heard that the fourth’s car got towed. Ooof!  He successfully hitched a ride and secured his car, marking the end to an odd weekend in the woods.

Dragon’s Tooth. Photo credit Alex

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