I did not intentionally sign up for a Hollywood-inspired hiking adventure.
The fact that I ate my packed lunch on top of McAfee Knob in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia – the very same spot where Robert Redford and Nick Nolte stopped to admire the view in last year’s film “A Walk in the Woods” – was mere coincidence.
My plan for a three-day trip to Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, a mecca for outdoorsy folk, originally involved a different trio of activities: I aimed to hike one day on the Appalachian Trail, kayak the Upper James River from Buchanan to Alpine, and then explore the mountain bike trails at Carvins Cove, all from my base in Roanoke. My bucolic version of “Eat, Pray, Love” would be rebranded “Hike, Paddle, Bike.” That was about as Hollywood as my trip was going to get.
Then plans changed just the way they do when you’re on the road: I got talking to a fellow in a pub who didn’t mince words when I told him of my goal to hike McAfee Knob: “Don’t stop at McAfee,” he shook his head. “Toss in Tinker Cliffs and Dragon’s Tooth and you’ll have completed Virginia’s Triple Crown.”
So that’s what I did.
The Triple Crown is a 32-mile (50-kilometre) backpacking loop along the Appalachian Trail that includes three unique rock summits near Roanoke, Virginia. You can hike section by section on consecutive days as I did, or follow in the footsteps of the Appalachian Trail “thru hikers” who camp in designated spots along the way. Expect stunning rock formations, trails that switchback through forests of Virginia pine, challenging rock faces and panoramic views.
Day One: McAfee Knob
Distance: 14 km round-trip
Difficulty: Moderate. A gradual uphill hike on mostly shaded trail.
Time: Most hikers take 4 to 6 hours, depending how much time you spend at the picturesque overhang at the top
Elevation gain: Expect a 1,700-foot hike to the Knob, which is at 3,200 feet.
McAfee Knob is the most Instagrammed image of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The recognizable rock-ledge overhang (where Robert Redford and Nick Nolte hiked in “A Walk in the Woods”) rewards hikers with a 270-degree view of the surrounding mountain valley. It’s an ideal lunch spot and an excellent opportunity to talk to the Appalachian Trail “thru hikers.” If you’ve got lots of energy and have arranged a car shuttle (see Trip Tips below), you can continue hiking the next leg of the Triple Crown to Tinker Cliffs, which will add another 9 kilometres to your hike (or save it for Day Two, as I did).
Where is the McAfee Knob trailhead? The trailhead is at the Appalachian Trail/McAfee Knob parking lot off Route 311. (Do not park on the side of the road.)
Day Two: Tinker Cliffs
Distance: About 12 km in and out
Difficulty: Difficult; some steep elevation gains, non-stop incline. Very few flat sections.
Time: 4 to 5 hours
Elevation gain: About 2,000 feet.
Also known as the Andy Layne Trail, the terrain and scenery differ from the McAfee Knob hike. Expect streams, farmers’ fields, dense forests, wooden bridges to cross, and incredible limestone rock formations at top. Much of this trail is on private land. From the top, hikers can see McAfee Knob, Broad Run Mountain and much of Catawba Valley.
Where is the Tinker Cliffs trailhead? Start at the gravel parking lot off Route 779 (Catawba Road), near Troutville.
Day Three: Dragon's Tooth
Where: Off Route 311, past Catawba Grocery and Gas station
Distance: 4.7 mile (7.5 km) out and back (or, rather, up and down)
Difficulty: Moderate to difficult. It’s a steady climb upward, with difficult terrain and rock faces to navigate.
Time: It takes about 4 hours in total; don’t rush the tricky, boulder-strewn descent
Don’t be fooled by the short length of this hike which ascends the spine of Cove and North Mountains – it’s strenuous and challenging. Hikers must navigate steep rock walls (with narrow ledges to plant your feet), climb metal rungs, and rock-scramble in several places. Trekking poles are highly recommended for the descent – which is difficult on the knees. The 35-foot tall quartzite rock spire at the top – “the Dragon’s Tooth– is worth the effort.
Download a map of the Triple Crown: alltrails.com/virginia-s-triple-crown-loop
Shuttle system: Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club offers a shuttle service to trailheads ratc.org/trail-info/shuttle-drivers
Best days to hike: Weekdays are best. Weekends are busy on all three – especially Dragon’s Tooth.
For more information: visitroanokeva.com//triple-crown
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