Dragon's Tooth hike, popular, but harder than you think

The trail is easy until you get to the rocks. Then it's not really hiking.

By John Carlin - Anchor

The hike to Dragon’s Tooth is one of the most popular in the region. 

After McAfee Knob, it’s likely the most popular. It’s with good reason -- the view, but not everyone who can handle the trek to McAfee can do the sister hike to the Tooth. 

My wife Mary and I gave it a try on a beautiful Sunday morning in early September. The trail is well-marked beginning at the parking lot just off Route 311.

The first 1.7 miles are uphill but otherwise unremarkable. It’s basically an uphill walk in the woods with a couple of creek crossings. 

On the day we were there, the creeks were almost dry – so that was no issue.

When you arrive at the sign that says 0.7 miles to the top, everything changes. You’ll be scrambling over rocks, so be ready.  In fact, it’s considered one of the hardest sections of the entire Appalachian Trail.

With about 3-4 tenths of a mile to go, the trail narrows and the rock scrambling becomes dodgier than the rest. 

The space narrows and hikers traverse several layers of rock as if they were climbing edge of a deck of playing cards. 

It’s not immediately obvious where to put your foot.  The ledges are narrow and the drop is over 10 feet toward the top of this short traverse.  If you can make it past this, you can do everything else.

I slipped once but without consequence and Mary slowly picked her way to the top, admitting once she was safely up, “… that was scary.”

Despite the challenge, Dragon’s Tooth is considered a bucket list hike. Along with McAfee Knob and Tinker Cliffs, a part of Virginia’s Triple Crown. And the view from the top makes up for that challenging half-mile or so of rock scrambling.

“I am a cancer survivor I have neuropathy in my hands and my feet so they're numb all the time and with their help I made it through and I'm so glad I did it,” said Karen Bollinger, of North Carolina.  She said the effort was “absolutely” worth the view.

At the top we found about 20 people enjoying the view, including Shelby Houlahan, of Newport News and Sasha Thompson from Northern Virginia.  They agreed that the rock scrambling was a worthwhile endeavor pointing at the view they were enjoying with chips and hummus.

“I'm kind of short, so the rocks,” Thompson said, referring to the hardest part. “I had to stretch a little bit to get up some of them.”

Once at the top you have the option of climbing the tooth itself.  It’s a piece of Tuscarora quartzite that resembles its name.  The climb is a bit tricky.  I went up for the first time in about 20 years.  I stayed just long enough for a photo and felt better safely back at the base.

Lots of people bring their dogs on this hike. During our hike we saw more than a dozen of all sizes and shapes.  Most took their dogs all the way to the top, but some stopped at more difficult sections.

Jeremiah Bowling, and his dog Dank made the trek.  Jeremiah advises that a dog harness or vest helps.

“This is on the tough guard. Just get a good grip and yank him up,” Bowling said, grabbing a handle on the harness in the middle of the dog’s back. “He's not fond of it. But he knows when he can't make it up something that I have to get a hold of him. And he just allows me to pick him up and really no troubles with him.”

Bollinger’s husband, Don agreed.  The couple had a full-sized German shepherd named Nicki with them.  Don pointed to a red dog vest hanging from his backpack and said he had just removed it from the dog once they were past the rough stuff.  “Everyone should have one of these,” he said.

Don’t forget.  You still have to get back down those all those rocks on the return.  The uphill sections that burn your hamstrings and other muscles on the back of your legs, are now steep downhills that work your quads just as hard.

If you want, you can take a longer route back once you are back on normal trail.  When you arrive at the intersection with one arrow pointing to the parking lot and another to the Appalachian Trail, try taking the trail and follow the white blazes 1.1 miles to the Boy Scout Trail.  Take the Boy Scout trail back to the main trail and the parking lot.  The descent is a bit more technical if you go this way, but there are some beautiful overlooks.

It’s a hard hike and we were satisfied -- if a bit tired -- when we finally returned to the parking lot.

Roanoke County Fire and EMS reports that about five people need to be rescued for injury every year and the number seems to be rising.  Over half of the "rescues" are for people who don't give themselves enough time and get lost when they try to complete the hike after dark.  Fire and EMS reminds you to take plenty of water, and food. 

Want to go?  Great information here:  https://www.hikingupward.com/jnf/mcafeeknob/

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