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Hike of the Week: Triple Crown Loop

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Welcome back to Paria's “Hike of the Week” series, where we highlight one of the best backpacking trips from North America. Looking at pictures and reading about a hike are inspiring, but nothing beats actually seeing it in person, which is what we hope this series motivates you to do!

This week's feature hike is the Triple Crown Loop in Virginia. 

Featured Photo: McAfee Knob (Photo by Frank Kehren)

Why This Hike?

Located in the picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia's Triple Crown Loop is the ultimate backpacking trip to experience three of the state's most iconic natural highlights: Dragon's Tooth, Tinker Cliffs, and the infamous McAfee Knob, one of the most scenic and photographed spots along the Appalachian Trail (AT).

  • Length: 35 miles
  • Time: 3 days, 2 nights
  • Difficulty rating: Strenuous
  • 7,000 feet of total elevation gain
  • Best time to go is May through September
  • Spring and summer wildflowers make the trail even more enjoyable
  • Located less than two hours away from popular Shenandoah National Park
  • This trail is full of unique rock formations, rock scrambling, and panoramic vistas. McAfee's Knob offers 270-degree views of the Catawba Valley, the rocky outcropping of Tinker Cliffs affords a similar vista, and Dragon's Tooth juts up 35 feet from the rocks surrounding it, creating an interesting effect.
  • Plenty of campsites already exist along the trail, so you can customize your trip as needed.

Before you pack your bags, keep the following in mind:

  • This route runs near the AT, overlapping some. There are bear boxes at the AT shelters for a reason. Utilize them if you stay near one or be sure to bring your own bear canister. 
  • Long ~10-mile stretch along the North Mountain Trail with no water sources. Be sure to filter plenty (away from cow pastures) beforehand!
  • According to AllTrails, “this route involves lots of climbing, rock scrambles, (and) blustery ridges”. 
  • No camping or campfires are allowed outside of designated areas along the AT section.

How Do I Get There?

Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport is the closest airfield to the McAffee Knob Trailhead, where you will be beginning and ending your trek. It is a short 16 minute, 12-mile drive. From ROA, use the right two lanes to take the VA-101 W/Hershberger Rd ramp to I-581. Use the right lane to merge onto I-581 N/US-220 N via the ramp to Lexington/Bristol/I-81/Blacksburg. Continue 2.5 miles. Use the left lane to take exit 1S to merge onto I-81 S toward Salem/Bristol. Take exit 141 for VA-419 toward VA-311 N/Salem/New Castle. Continue and follow the fork for a little over a half-mile. Turn right onto VA-311 N and continue another 5.6 miles. Parking for the trailhead will be on your left. 

Map

The following map outlines our recommended route. For more detailed mapping, including being able to print a copy for yourself, we recommend opening the map in CalTopo. 

  • Day 1 - McAfee Knob Trailhead to Lamberts Meadow Shelter (10 miles)
  • Day 2 - Lamberts Meadow to Boy Scout Trail Camp (16 miles)
  • Day 3 - Boy Scout Camp to McAfee Knob Trailhead (9 miles)

Trail Description

Starting from the McAfee Knob Trailhead, head east along the AT. You'll pass by several shelters as you climb steadily uphill towards the first “crown” of your journey. If you're able, start in the morning to allow yourself plenty of time to enjoy the view, a snack, or take pictures from the knob. You won't regret it. Make your way through a boulder maze as you head back down the trail, passing by another shelter shortly after. The trail will gradually descend and level out a bit as you turn north. You'll know you're getting close to Tinker Cliffs when you start heading uphill again. After you've gotten your fill of more breathtaking views of the North Mountain Range and Catawba Valley from this rocky ledge, continue north a short ways before reaching the intersection that leads down to the Lamberts Meadow Camping Area.

After backtracking to the main trail, head north once more, where you will be met by many switchbacks as you descend to Catawba Creek. You will cross several streams before reaching the beginning of the waterless North Mountain Trail on day 2. Be sure to utilize them! (The last one is about 4 miles in.) After passing over a couple of bridges and cow pastures (again, don't fill up on water near these), you'll re-enter the forest and make a steep ascent to the North Mountain Trail. Though perhaps not as scenic as the first day, you can still enjoy the relative quiet of this section of the trail compared to the popular AT section you hiked the day before. After the 10+mile ridge hike, you'll finally start descending toward the Dragon's Tooth Trailhead, finding the Boy Scout Camp area shortly after.

Start your last day off with a bang by visiting the last “crown”, Dragon's Tooth, less than 2 miles into the trail on your third day. Make sure you have some coffee that morning to stay alert as you tackle the steep rock scrambles leading up to the overlook. Once you've finished enjoying the view and neat geology of the area, head back down the trail, meeting up and taking the AT once more. You'll pass through even more cow pastures and streams before making one final strenuous push up Catawba Mountain. Follow the ridge about 3 more miles before once again reaching the McAfee Knob Trailhead.

What Will I Need?

Average highs for McAfee's Knob between May and September range between 69° and 80°F, lows between 46° and 58°. With the pleasant weather of this region, you can take whichever type of shelter you prefer the most, whether it's a traditional backpacking tent or a tarp and bivy. The latter may be an especially good, lighter weight option if you plan on staying at an AT shelter one night.

As far as your sleep system, a down quilt should suit you well. It's warm enough to keep you comfortable on chilly nights and gives you the option of sticking your feet out on warmer nights. (Is there anything more miserable than being hot when you're trying to sleep?) And of course, don't forget a high-quality sleeping pad as well!

The Thermodown 30 Backpacking Quilt is rated for 30 degrees, which makes it a great option for the overnight lows expected along the Triple Crown Loop.

There are some pretty steep ascents along this route, so some lightweight trekking poles may come in handy. Plus, you can use them with your tarp and bivy set-up.

A dependable water filter is a must for this trail, especially considering you won't find any water sources along the North Mountain Trail. If you don't like having to worry about conserving your water, you might consider taking a larger water bladder too.

For a comprehensive list of items to consider taking on your adventure, check out our Ultimate Backpacker's Packing List. Be sure to print out the free checklist to make your life easier!

Do I Need a Permit?

No permits are required.

Resources

Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club
Hiking Project-Virginia's Triple Crown Loop

Conclusion

If you have a long weekend, a trip to Virginia's Triple Crown Loop is the perfect way to spend it. Have you completed this trail or any others in the area? We'd love to hear about your experience in the comments below!

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