Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Jefferson National Forest: Appalachian Trail to Dragon’s Tooth (Blog Hike #330)

Trails: Dragons Tooth, Appalachian, and Boy Scout Trails
Hike Location: Jefferson National Forest, Dragon’s Tooth
Geographic Location: northwest of Roanoke, VA (37.37859, -80.15614)
Length: 4.7 miles
Difficulty: 10/10 (Difficult)
Last Hiked: October 2010
Overview: A difficult, rocky hike featuring good views and unique rock formations.

Directions to the trailhead: Near Roanoke, take I-81 to SR 419 (exit 141).  Exit and go north on SR 419.  Take SR 419 0.5 miles to SR 311 and turn right on SR 311.  Take SR 311 north 10.5 miles to the signed trailhead parking on the left.  Take care driving up the short entrance road to the parking area: it is rather bumpy, but with careful driving even my low-clearance Chevy Cavalier made it without problem.  Park in the large gravel parking area.

The hike: Located about 30 miles northwest of Roanoke at the end of Cove Mountain, Dragons Tooth is an inverted cone-shaped sandstone rock jutting out from the nearby cliff line.  The tooth has drawn visitors for many years, hence the recreation area formed as part of the Jefferson National Forest.  In the 1950’s when the Appalachian Trail (AT) was being rerouted west of the Blue Ridge, this route was selected partly to take the AT past the tooth.
Some hikes are rated difficult because they feature steep areas or large elevation gains, but this hike is rated difficult because of the rocks.  Indeed, the 1100 feet of elevation gain is considerable, but you will get sore and stiff from climbing over rocks before you get winded climbing the hill, especially once you reach the AT.  It took me over 4 hours to complete this loop, so be sure to leave yourself enough daylight, especially if you are hiking in the fall when the days get shorter.
Despite the difficulty, the hike to Dragons Tooth is a popular one.  When I hiked this trail on a Saturday afternoon at the peak of leaf peeping season, the Dragons Tooth Trail was almost as busy as I-81.  However, the adjoining AT and Boy Scout Trail saw little traffic.  Thus, to view the tooth and get some hiking solitude, I recommend the difficult 4.7 mile semi-loop described here.
Trailhead: Dragons Tooth Trail
            The hike begins tame enough.  Start on a wide gravel path at a wooden sign that says “Dragons Tooth Trail” and an old information board.  The trail, which is blazed with grey rectangular paint blazes, climbs gradually as it crosses a few small streams, some by wooden bridge and some by rock hop.  At 0.2 miles, you reach an intersection with the blue-blazed Boy Scout Trail which exits left.  The Boy Scout Trail will be our return route, so for now angle right to remain on the Dragons Tooth Trail.  A campsite with a fire ring is also located at this intersection.
Past the campsite, the trail stays close to a small creek for a short distance before curving right to begin the real climb.  The climb starts with a switchback held up by some fine rock walls.  This switchback and another like it further up were paid for by the 2009 federal economic stimulus.  I don’t know how many jobs were created or for what cost, but these are some Cadillac-caliber switchbacks, far nicer than you will see on almost any other trail.  Some brown carsonite posts warn against cutting the switchbacks, and they should be heeded if you want the switchbacks to stay this nice.
Climbing the switchback
              For the next mile the trail winds itself up a steady moderate to occasionally steep grade with the ravine dropping down to one side, usually the left.  The forest is dominated by broadleaf trees such as maple and oak with a few small pine trees populating the understory.  At 1.5 miles, you reach the crest of the ridge and an intersection with the AT.  This hike will eventually turn left and head northbound on the AT, but to visit the tooth, turn right and head southbound for now.
Intersection with AT
Now the hard hiking begins in earnest, as the rocky, rugged landscape that makes the AT so famous (or infamous) becomes fully apparent.  In numerous places you will have to use both hands and feet to climb up and over steep rocky outcrops.  Fortunately, some boulders have been moved and some steps have been cut into the stone, so this climb is not as bad as it has been in the past.  Also, the rocky outcrops create some gaps in the trees, so some views can be had of Catawba Mountain to the southeast.  The large number of broadleaf trees make for above average leaf peeping in late October.
Climbing the rocky AT
              2.3 miles into the hike and just after climbing up a particularly high rock outcrop, you reach the signed spur trail to Dragons Tooth.  Angle left to hike the short trail to the tooth itself.  The tooth is an unusual shaped rock that juts up from the main cliff line.  From this point, you get a sweeping view of Catawba Mountain, Tinker Mountain, and even the Peaks of Otter (located over 50 miles away) in addition to other points to the south and east.  The views are no better if you rock-climb to the top of the tooth, and several people have fallen and become seriously injured attempting such a climb, so I do not recommend it.
The AT continues south to Georgia, but having seen the main point of interest in this direction, you should retrace your steps north 1 mile on the AT to arrive back at the intersection with the Dragons Tooth Trail.  The Dragons Tooth Trail heads left and downhill to take you directly back to the parking lot, but for some more AT hiking and to get away from the crowds, continue straight on the white-blazed AT.  The trail ascends rather steeply but only for a short distance through a dense rhododendron thicket to arrive at Devil’s Seat, a large rock formation.  The rock not only provides a comfortable place for a well-deserved rest, but behind the rock is another nice view of Catawba Mountain, this time over some small pine trees in front of and below you.
View along AT
Past Devil’s Seat, the trail traverses a rare flat spot before dropping down a 15 foot cliff.  Some ledges in the cliff make the descent possible without any technical climbing skills.  After climbing down a few more rock outcrops, you reach Rawrie’s Rest.  Unlike the other overlooks on this trail, this one offers views both toward the northeast and toward the south.  The road you see cutting through Catawba Mountain is SR 311, the road you drove in on.
View northeast from Rawrie's Rest
              Just past Rawrie’s Rest, you reach the only true knife-edge on this hike.  The trail takes you over several jagged, rocky outcrops that drop off sharply on either side.  Careful stepping and holding (with your hands) will get you across without incident.  After a final steep, rocky descent, the rocks begin to go back underground, the grade lessens, and you are through the hardest part of the hike.
The remainder of the AT hike is a very pleasant moderate descent on sidehill trail with the hillside rising to the right and falling to the left.  At 4.1 miles, you arrive at the top of the blue-blazed Boy Scout Trail, which exits the AT at a sharp angle to the left.  This intersection is marked with another wooden sign.  Turn left to begin the Boy Scout Trail.
Intersection with Boy Scout Trail
The rather narrow Boy Scout Trail immediately begins descending toward the parking lot.  At other times you might complain about the steep grade, but this descent is much easier than the rocky hiking you did on the AT earlier.  Using a couple of switchbacks, you soon arrive at creek level, where the trail heads downstream.  A few hundred feet later, you arrive at the campsite you passed several hours ago and close the loop with the Dragons Tooth Trail.  A right turn here will take you the final 0.2 miles back to the parking lot to complete the hike.

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