This five mile loop features a fun rock scramble and a view from atop one of Virginia’s most interesting rock formations. It’s considered part of the ‘Triple Crown’ of Virginia hiking that also includes McAfee Knob and Tinker Cliffs.
When Adam proposed doing Dragons Tooth, I had mixed feelings. On one hand, I eventually want to hike every bit of the Appalachian Trail – especially the most famous and scenic parts. But, I’m a bit fearful on rock scrambles and precipitous drops. From reputation, Dragons Tooth is called by some ‘the toughest mile’ of AT south of Mahoosuc Notch. The section includes slick stone slabs, narrow ledges, and even iron rungs affixed to the rocks to aid with the traverse. With my come-and-go vertigo, terrain like that typically isn’t my cup of tea. I also heard the trail was extremely crowded and nothing feels worse that freaking out on a rock scramble with a huge crowd of people watching you and waiting to traverse behind you. In the end, I psyched myself up and we chose a quiet cloudy Wednesday to visit this well-known landmark.
We got an early start and arrived at the parking lot around 9:00 a.m. It was practically empty, just a couple cars and a forest service truck. We started up the blue-blazed Dragons Tooth Trail. About a quarter mile in, we passed the junction with the Boy Scout Trail. Bearing right, we continued a 1.2 mile moderate ascent of the Dragons Tooth Trail.
When we gained the ridge, we found ourselves at a beautiful, large (dry) campsite at Lost Spectacles Gap. This is where the Dragons Tooth Trail meets up with the Appalachian Trail. We turned right and continued south on the Appalachian Trail. We soon passed a sign warning ‘CAUTION: The next mile of trail is rocky and steep’.
They were not kidding! Almost immediately, we found ourselves climbing stone stairs and clambering over roots. As we climbed, the rocks turned to boulders and the hike turned to a scramble. White blazes and directional arrows were painted onto the rocks to direct your route through the jumble. Every now and then, we would get a nice view of the valley through the trees. We came to one spot that was basically a sheer 20 foot cliff-face to climb. There were ledges, each several inches wide, that traversed the cliff and could be used as toe holds. (see a detailed shot of this cliff – notice the arrow pointing straight up!) I definitely panicked and hyperventilated a little bit at this pass, but I made it through with minimal drama.
After the cliff face, there were lots more rocks and a couple sections with iron rungs fastened to the rocks, but nothing as fear-inducing as that cliff. Finally we made it to the top of Cove Mountain and were just a short easy stroll from the actual Dragons Tooth.
The ‘Tooth’ is an impressive quartzite monolith that juts from a clearing in the woods. The views from the bottom are nice, but to enjoy Dragons Tooth in all its glory, you need to climb to the top. Of course, if you don’t feel physically able or have a fear of heights, it’s probably better to skip the crawl to the top. But, I thought the climb was easier than it looked, and was glad I did it.
To get to the top, look for a footpath that circles behind the Tooth. There is a large crack in the middle that allows you to make your way up a fin of rock that leads up the backside of the Tooth. You’ll duck under a boulder that’s wedged in the crack and then pull yourself up to the top. Once at the top, we enjoyed magnificent views! The nice thing about hiking it on a weekday was that we had the entire place to ourselves. We saw very few people the entire day and sat atop Dragons Tooth alone for almost half an hour.
After we sufficiently enjoyed the view, we made our way back down. At first, the hike back follows the same route. This meant doing the entire rock scramble again! Going down, I felt much more confident and didn’t have any problems. However, not everyone was feeling as secure and happy as me. Near the top of the scramble, we came across a mother/daughter pair of section hikers. They had started in Georgia and were aiming to make it to Pennsylvania. The mother had suffered a bad fall with injuries earlier on the trail, and was paralyzed with fear on the first set of iron rungs. I’ll let Adam share the story in his write-up, but I will say that he played the role of a true Trail Angel for them that day.
We eventually arrived back at Lost Spectacles Gap. Instead of taking the Dragons Tooth Trail back down to the parking lot, we continued north on the Appalachian Trail. This involved a little more climbing, but gave us access to several more beautiful views. We followed the AT for almost a mile until it met up with the yellow-blazed Boy Scout Trail. We took a left onto the Boy Scout Trail and followed it for about a quarter mile where it crossed the blue-blazed Dragons Tooth trail. It was just another quarter mile back to the parking area. What a great hike! Even though I’m not a fan of rock scrambles, I thought this hike was fun and very rewarding.
Well, Christine has pointed out some of the rough parts and why this hike may be scary for some people. Part of the reason that we both do write-ups for each post is because we have different perspectives. I would probably put Dragons Tooth in my Top 10 Favorite View Hikes in Virginia That Everyone Should Do. What else makes that list (in no particular order), you ask? Mt. Rogers, Old Rag, Three Ridges, The Priest, Sharp Top, McAfee Knob, Mary’s Rock, Strickler Knob, and Big Schloss. I remember hiking Dragons Tooth when I was in my later high school years and I have been bugging Christine to do it for years. Christine has some real vertigo issues and nobody likes to see their spouse go through fearful moments, but I knew she could get through this. We had planned to do a week of AT hiking in June, but our dogs have been getting older and leaving them behind for a week is getting harder and harder to do. So, I did a stay-cation that week at home and Christine took a day off work to join me for this day hike, we drove down in the morning and were back home in time for dinner.
For our plans for a week on the AT, we had thought about hiking the section that included Virginia’s Triple Crown, which includes Dragons Tooth, Tinker Cliffs, and McAfee Knob. Since we changed our plans, we picked out this loop which provided us with Dragons Tooth, but also gave us some time to try out a few of the side trails that connect close to the summit of Dragons Tooth.
We arrived before 9AM and during the week, so I’m sure this parking lot gets packed on beautiful weekends. We made a pit stop at the toilets located at the elevated section above the parking lot and then proceeded to the trailhead, located by a kiosk at the back end of the parking lot. The beginning of this blue-blazed section of trail is very level and flat. At .25 miles, we crossed a small bridge and came to an intersection with the Boy Scout Trail (your return trip on the loop). We noticed a few nice spots for camping on this section of trail. You cross the creek bed a few times, but the next 1.4 mile section is a very gradual, uphill climb. At 1.65 miles, you reach the Lost Spectacles campsite and the junction with the white-blazed Appalachian Trail . Take a right (heading south on the AT) to start your climb up to the top. Christine talked a lot about this terrain. I agree that it is an extremely tough stretch of trail. You will find yourself watching where you place every foot and it will be slow-going as you have to scramble up a few rocky sections. The roughest spot was the one Christine mentioned where you have to zigzag up a cliff-face on rock that is only as wide as your feet. You have to be very careful through navigating these rocks at times, so if you are not comfortable with this type of terrain this may not be the best choice of hike for you.
Eventually we got to the top of the ridge around 2.25 miles up. There is a nice viewpoint a few feet to the right of the trail, but you will head left to take the side summit trail to reach Dragons Tooth. There are a few side trails to the left that lead to other views, but the best view is at Dragons Tooth. At 2.4 miles, you reach Dragons Tooth. You will see a cleared-out area and a small view between Dragons Tooth and a lesser tooth. There aren’t any good signs pointing how to climb up to the top, but if you head to the right side, you will see a small trail that leads to the base on the right side of the tooth. The fun part for me was trying to figure out how to climb up this. At 45, I am not the most flexible of human beings and I tried climbing up other ways, feeling like I needed to do the splits to get up one way. I then ducked under the small rock “pedal” Christine is pictured under below. Ducking under that, I was then able to stand up and using rock holds, pull myself up to the top. The views from the summit were phenomenal. I told Christine I could help her figure out how to navigate and I am proud of her for summoning the courage to do it. We took some pictures from the top and enjoyed the views for a few minutes before climbing down. We found it hard to believe we had this Virginia treasure all to ourselves. We climbed down and ate a snack at the area between the two teeth and enjoyed the views from a less precarious spot. Another couple arrived at the summit and we made our way back down to allow them the privacy we enjoyed.
As soon as we were descending down from the ridge at the AT junction, we came across a thru-hiking mother and daughter. They were incredibly cautious on the trail and after talking to them a bit, the mother told us about how she had fallen in Tennessee and this terrain was making her terrified. They had to take a few weeks off for her to recover. The mother had talked about quitting the trail, but they decided to press on. The mother developed the trailname of “Bad Ass” after her ability to keep fighting. After seeing Bad Ass’ apprehension and tears on the easier parts of the hike down from Dragons Tooth, we began to wonder how she would get through the next .7 miles. I turned around and did the only thing I could think of and offered to carry her pack down to the Lost Spectacles camp. I can understand this terrain would be scary with a lot of extra weight. She eventually agreed this was a good idea, so I hoisted on her backpack (probably about 35 pounds) and then wore my backpack on my chest, making it a little difficult to see over the top where my feet were at all times. I pressed on quickly while Christine stayed with them for a while on the trail. There were a few times I struggled as well with both packs on, but I was able to keep my feet under me and navigate through some of the tough sections. I arrived at the Lost Spectacles camping area at 3.3 miles and waited. Christine came down about 15 minutes later and it was probably another 15-20 minutes before Bad Ass and her daughter met up. They thanked me profusely, but I was just glad to help out. We all have to lift each other up when we have down times, so hopefully I was able to give them a bright spot in a tough day.
From the Lost Spectacles site, we continued along the Appalachian Trail heading north. This section started off steep as well and did have just a couple small scrambles around some more rocky sections. But there were several nice views along this section of the AT and I’m so glad we did this as a loop instead of an out-and-back hike. This section of the AT, walks along a ridge and descends slightly, but you will have several opportunities to take in more views. Eventually the trail descends into the woods. At around 4.3 miles, we arrived at a junction with the Boy Scout Trail. We took this yellow-blazed trail and found it very steep as you are basically going straight down without any switchbacks. The trail didn’t have anything overly scenic on it worth mentioning, but it provided a quick return to the Dragons Tooth trail at 4.7 miles. We took a right at the junction and were back at our car around 5 miles.
Once we got back to our car, we got on the interstate and headed north. We had heard about Three Li’l Pigs Barbecue in Daleville, VA as being a favorite spot for thru-hikers so we decided to check it out. The food there was magnificent and we saw a couple of thru-hikers there enjoying the big quantities of food. After stuffing my face, I was tempted into also ordering some banana pudding for dessert but I found a way to fit it all in. As we were leaving, we quickly saw some fast-moving thunderstorms moving in quickly. Near Three Li’l Pigs in the same shopping center we stopped in Outdoor Trails – an outdoor outfitter store. This shopping center had the bulk of what every thru-hiker would need for a zero day (a day where they would do zero miles). A barbecue spot, an outfitter, a grocery store, a coffee shop, and a hotel directly across the street. If you’re doing a section of the Appalachian Trail, Daleville would be a great place to stop and resupply.
We got stuck in terrible thunderstorms on our drive home. We were thankful that we did the hike earlier and weren’t stuck in the deluge. While some of the hiking was a bit frightening for Christine, we ultimately had a wonderful day on the hike! If you are comfortable with rock scrambles and open ledges and haven’t done this hike yet, put it on your must-do list and it may make your top 10 list for Virginia as well.
This section of Appalachian Trail has such varied terrain. Below: More views along the AT; The Boy Scout Trail; Three Li’l Pigs BBQ.
- Distance – 5 miles
Check out the stats from Map My Hike*
- Elevation Change – 1215 ft.
- Difficulty – 3.5. The rock scramble provides a bit of challenge on an otherwise solidly moderate hike.
- Trail Conditions – 2. The scramble is mostly sandstone, so it can be slick with grit/sand. It’s also very slippery when there’s been recent rain.
- Views – 5. There are viewpoints all along the hike and you can’t beat the view from the top of the tooth!
- Streams/Waterfalls – 1. There is a small stream that could be used as a water source near the trailhead.
- Wildlife – 1. The trail is heavily traveled and wildlife seems to steer mostly clear of the area.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. The trail signs are easy to follow and blazes are abundant.
- Solitude – 1. We hiked this early on an overcast weekday morning, so we enjoyed quite a bit of solitude. However, expect crowds and significant trail traffic at more popular times.
Special regulations for this area:
- Maximum group size, day hikes: 25
- Maximum group size, backpacking/camping: 10
- No alcohol
- Dogs must be kept on leash at all times
- No camping or campfires outside of seven designated areas (north of Va 624/Newport Rd, the only legal campsites are Johns Spring Shelter, Catawba Shelter and campsites, Pig Farm campsite, Campbell Shelter and Lambert’s Meadow Shelter and campsites)
- No camping or campfires on McAfee Knob or Tinker Cliffs
* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.
Directions to trailhead: GPS coordinates for the parking area are: 37°22’44.5″N 80°09’22.1″W. From I-81, take exit 141. Turn left onto VA-419 N. Follow for .4 mile. Turn right onto VA-311 N. Follow for 9.5 miles. The parking area will be on the left.