Virginia's Triple Crown Loop

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Jefferson National Forest

Virginia's Triple Crown Loop is a 56.5 kilometer moderately trafficked loop trail located near Salem, Virginia that features beautiful wild flowers and is rated as difficult. The trail offers a number of activity options and is best used from May until September. Dogs are also able to use this trail but must be kept on leash.

Distance: 56.5 km Elevation Gain: 2,399 m Route Type: Loop

dogs on leash

backpacking

camping

hiking

rock climbing

running

forest

views

wild flowers

wildlife

blowdown

rocky

scramble

The Virginia Triple Crown is comprised of what many consider to be the state’s three best hiking destinations: McAfee Knob, Tinker Cliffs and Dragon’s Tooth. All are conveniently located within a few miles of each other just outside of Roanoke.  McAfee Knob affords a 270-degree view of the Catawba Valley far below and has been called the most photographed spot along the Appalachian Trail. Just a few miles north on the AT is Tinker Cliffs, another prominent outcropping of rock offering a view of the same valley and distant mountain ranges.  A few miles southwest just inside the boundaries of Jefferson National Forest resides Dragon’s Tooth, a unique geologic feature consisting of spires projecting up to 35 feet from the surrounding rock. Any of these is a worthy destination for a challenging day hike. You might be able to hit 2 of 3 on an extended day hike, but taking in all three requires an overnight stay.  The more common routes are either shuttle hikes or require lots of backtracking.  This is a 3-day, 35-mile loop that circumnavigates the entire valley, hits all three viewpoints, and minimizes backtracking.  In this route, you’ll hike the AT for several miles, camp at an AT shelter, cross the valley, return on the western side of the valley via the North Mountain ridge, cross the valley again, and rejoin the AT to return to your car at the Catawba Mountain parking area on Route 311.  As designed, this 35-mile loop is broken roughly into thirds.  There are several parking areas, shelters and backcountry camping spots along the way, so you could divvy it up differently to suit your needs.  WARNING: This trek is not recommended for beginners.  This route involves lots of climbing, rock scrambles, blustery ridges and a whole day without water sources (you’ll have to carry lots of water up North Mountain for Day 2).  NOTE: Please leave no trace and be mindful of trash. This trail sees a large number of traffic and has been having problems with rising trash, illegal camping and misuse of the area. The Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club maintains this section of trail and volunteers regularly pack out trash and maintain campsites to keep it beautiful. Park rules and regulations are enforced: 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 7 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

hiking
bugs
1 month ago

This is a great trail! I think I hit the jackpot for the time of year as well. I hiked this at the end of March. The valley was green and beautiful, but the mountains did not have leaves yet which meant I could see everything. Since the majority of this trail hugs the ridge line, I had the most amazing views! The only thing that I would strongly recommend is bring some bug spray for those little black flies & mosquitos. Every time I would stop to catch my breath or take in the scenery, those little f’ers would catch up with. Also, like everyone else mentioned, there’s no water for most of the north mountain. There’s a nice stream that comes down off the mountain after you start making your ascent. After that, you won’t find water until you head back down towards the parking lot near the trail for dragons tooth. Good luck!

hiking
muddy
rocky
scramble
2 months ago

Did this in March and wouldn’t necessarily recommend it during this time. My boyfriend and I came down from Buffalo on a Saturday and started hiking at 3, counter clockwise. -started at Dragons Tooth and camped at the first site after it. -Sunday got to Macafee Knob and saw literally nothing at all due to rain and fog. Camped at Campbell shelter. There is water here. -Monday hiked to Tinker Cliffs and up into Catawba Trail, after Andy Lane Trail. Tuesday- hiked the remaining 13.5 miles along North Mt Trail. This is all ridge running and no water. Overall, this is a very challenging and ridge heavy trial. We had rain and fog 90% of the time and really didn’t get any great views. However the trail itself is well maintained and clearly marked. Do it in peak season though.

hiking
2 months ago

To preface we are two females in our 20s in about average shape. This is our third backpacking trip. Day 1: started from McAfee knob parking lot at 10am and got to Lambert’s shelter camp around 5pm with plenty of breaks and time to enjoy the views. It was an easy start to the knob and when we got there enjoyed the views while eating lunch. You can look across and see virtually the whole loop across from you including tinker cliffs and north mountain trail. After it was a relatively mild trail with the hardest part being walking 1.3 miles up to tinker cliffs. The views were fantastic and we enjoyed a catnap on the rock. We then went down some switchbacks into scorched earth gap and then took a right to Lambert’s. The camp had about 6 groups and a river to fill up water. Day 2: Hell. From Lambert’s we had about .5miles to Andy layne trail which had a very steep descent for a couple miles. There are a few places to fill up water once down the mountain. We passed through a pasture and unfortunately saw no cows. Then got to Andy layne trailhead where we crossed the street and started up switchbacks to Catawba valley trail to north mountain trail. The stream at the beginning of Catawba valley trail is the last place to get water before going up. We tried to have a positive attitude about the trail once at the top, but the rocky terrain made walking much more difficult and uncomfortable. We don’t know why more people don’t mention the poor footing. We recommended boots with better ankle support. You will be going up and down the trail for 9.2 miles according to the signage along the way. The downhill consists of many switchbacks and very rocky. We crossed the street to dragon’s tooth parking lot and set up at Boy Scout camp. Our Fitbit said we walked about 19 miles this day from 9am to 6:30pm which took longer than expected. The last 6 miles of the day were very strenuous for us and even though we are bffs we did not speak to each other. Day 3: Since it poured all night we decided to change our original plan of going to dragon’s tooth bc of wet rock scrambling and leave it for the very end with no packs. We left camp at 7:30am and walked up to Boy Scout trail then to AT which made a pleasant morning. We crossed a stream and then went into a pasture where we finally walked along cows. There was then another stream and we began our uphill ascent from a valley into Catawba mountain. We rode the ridge of the mountain for about 3 miles and were bamboozled a few times thinking we were continuing downhill only to go back uphill. Finally descended after seeing a sign for AT or Catawba, where we continued down the AT to the parking lot at 11:30! We couldn’t believe we made it. We also couldn’t believe we had the willpower to then drive back to dragon tooth parking lot and climb up to the top without our packs to complete the triple in triple crown. We took the Boy Scout trail on the way back because that is what was originally planned, but it was terrible bc many more rocks. We are writing this review on the way home and at the two stops we have made it was has been a struggle to walk a few feet. Just wanted to include a review from two girls who enjoy challenging ourselves while seeing some incredible sights. Although definitely a challenge the loop it was very rewarding and we still enjoy backpacking.

backpacking
2 months ago

A tough trail but some beautiful views. The AT portions especially were quite rocky, especially near Dragons Tooth. Dragons Tooth is probably the best vista but the toughest climb. If it works w your schedule is recommend camping up at the top, so you can see sunset and sunrise without attempting the scrambles in the dark. Also, FYI, North Mountain has about 18 dispersed camping spots, including several by the south side near Dragons Tooth.

hiking
2 months ago

Loved this loop! I did the loop in two days but had planned on three. I started at the Andy Layne parking lot on a Wednesday evening and hiked 2 miles up to North Mountain where I camped for the night. The next morning I broke camp around 9 and hiked to Dragons Tooth. I arrived around 2 pm and had planned to camp there but it was so early and I was solo backpacking so I decided to continue the 8 miles to John’s Spring shelter. The following morning I hiked McAfee Knob, Tinker Cliffs, and returned to my truck at the Andy Layne parking lot around 2 pm. It was a fantastic hike! A bit chilly in February but less populated. I saw 3 people in 34 miles. If you’re looking for solitude try this hike in the winter. It can definitely be spread out over 3-4 days.

6 months ago

Wow! I did this loop last weekend with my 15 year old son, a friend and his 15 year old son. It's beautiful, but it's no joke! it's a long 3-days of hiking given the mileage and elevation change, but it is well worth the effort. However, we started at the Andy Layne Trail Head and did North Mountain for day 1, and were very glad we did. While North Mountain is a good hike in normal instances, especially with the leaves down, which gives view essentially the whole way, it's definitely the least interesting leg of the hike IMHO. Insights that might be helpful for hikers in the near future. As mentioned numerous times by others, there's no water for the 12 miles of North Mountain for all intents and purposes. We brought about 3.5 liters of water each, we probably went through less than 2 due to cool temperatures. When you arrive at the Dragon's Tooth parking lot, there's a large stream so water is plentiful there. Day 2 we hiked from Dragon's tooth to the John Springs Shelter about 2.5 miles before McAfee. Although there were blue blazes for water, we found none. There was ample water at the Catawba Shelter another mile closer to McAfee, however. McAfee is amazing! Allow able time to really enjoy it. We started hiking from John Springs and got to Tinker Cliffs a little after noon on day 3. We probably spent about 30-40 minutes at McAfee, not enough but we were running short on time. Tinker was a really good view too and especially fun to do at the end of the hike because from it you can see the whole valley you just hiked around. From Tinker back down to Andy Layne Trail Head, it's a relatively easy 3.9 miles. If/when I do it again, I will definitely do this same route. Also, I think it's probably much more picturesque with the leaves down in the fall it before they come in the spring. If you're considering doing it, you'll be glad you did when it's done, but you'll get a seriously good work out in the meantime. Doing in 4 days would have helped a lot and made feel less rushed given the short days. It's definitely not for the faint of heart. Good luck!

hiking
6 months ago

great adventure for a long weekend! we did it in 3 days, but I would say do it in 4 if trying to do it late fall like we did. The shorts days meant we hiked a lot after sunset. overall, I'm so happy we made it and would highly recommend. great views all around!

hiking
6 months ago

Had an great experience hiking this trail. Each of the “Crowns” offered stunning views. Hiked it with some friends first weekend of October last year. Arrived at the trailhead the first night and camped in the AT shelter near McAfee Knob. Set up camp on the opposite ridge the second night. Definitely recommend stashing your backpack when you hike Dragon’s Teeth.

backpacking
6 months ago

A friend and I did this early in the week before Halloween. The rocky terrain and shortened hours of daylight kept out miles we could push daily down. One of my favorite parts besides the obvious views was the surprise overlook for the reservoir about halfway between McAfee & Tinker’s. Great place to take a break!

hiking
rocky
6 months ago

Completed the triple crown this last weekend and it was stunning! A real butt-kicker to be sure! This is a challenging loop but you are rewarded a spectacular views. I caught a spectacular sunrise and sunset every day on the trail. You’ll want to have a solid plan before attempting this. There are no legal campsites between miles ~11 to 25. It had just rained so water sources were all good but I’ve heard they can dry up. You cross multiple parking lots which could offer great opportunities to stash some water. Some sections of the trail can be pretty rocky. The trail to dragons tooth has some serious scrambling. It’s an out/back section so I highly recommend stashing your pack rather than attempting it with a huge backpack. All in all, if you are considering this loop...do it! The fall colors were absolutely unreal so I highly recommend this time of year.

hiking
7 months ago

Coop and I did the triple crown loop again this weekend. We started by setting up the tent and leaving our packs at the Boy Scout campground at Dragons Tooth at 6:30 am and then drove to the Andy Layne trail head to start at North Mountain. This meant I only had to carry a sling pack with 3 liters of always across north mountain, which was a HUGE difference from last year when I carried the whole pack across on our 2nd day. We didn’t see anyone else in north mountain, and made it back to the campsite by 1:30, then headed up Dragon’s Tooth. There was plenary of water at the Boy Scout campground. Day 2 we headed out to Mcafee Knob, and spent the night at Campbell shelter. Water was trickling Saturday, and luckily we spent the night in the shelter, because it absolutely poured that night! The next morning water was pouring out of the hose, and we stocked up and headed to Tinker Cliffs. Due to the rain, we didn’t pass anyone until we reached the top of the cliffs. The trail is in great shape, and with all the rain, the water sources seem to be back!

hiking
7 months ago

Just finished the loop this weekend. I cheated a little and stashed water at the top of Turkey Trail where it intersects with North Mountain trail before we began the loop. It was an extra 3 miles of hiking but worth it. We got a late start Friday so we camped just past pig farm campsite on night one. Wow was it crowded, easily 30+ people up there. Friday night with beautiful weather on a holiday weekend brought people out in droves. Water was just barely flowing at the water source here but it was enough. Day two we hiked up to Tinker Cliffs and then down to the valley via the Andy Lane Trail. The hike up to North Mountain via the Catawba Valley trail wasn’t easy but was much better considering we didn’t have to haul a bunch of water. Prior to the climb we filled up at Catawba Creek. Fill up here at your own risk, it is surrounded by cow pasture. After the climb we stopped at the turkey trail intersection, grabbed the stashed water and continued past the Grouse Trail intersection where we set up camp. It was a windy and chilly night but enjoyable. I’ve read a lot about bear activity on North Mountain. We didn’t have any encounters but did have something large come through camp at about 2am. Never did see what it was. Day three we headed to Dragons Tooth for a quick summit and then back along the AT and to the car. We logged a total of 40 miles all things considered. This loop is challenging but no one part is too extreme - it is a long loop though and will wear on you slowly, would not recommend for beginners or anyone below average shape. I recorded our trip and posted a video of it here: https://youtu.be/7hv5uENgNZ0 Hopefully the video helps give you a sense of what the loop is like. If I do this loop again I will do it on weekdays or in the off-season to avoid the crowds. Other than that no complaints!

hiking
7 months ago

I completed the loop on the weekend of Oct 12-14. I started hiking from Andy Layne trailhead at around noon on Saturday and was done by noon on Monday. The mileage split is as follows: Day 1: Andy Layne trailhead to Boy Scout camp (dragon’s tooth trail): 12 miles Day 2: Boy Scout camp to Campbell shelter/camp: 15 miles (includes dragon’s tooth and Mcafee knob) Day 3: Campbell shelter to Andy Layne trailhead: 8 miles Water is very scarce on the trail. No water on the north mountain trail. I found other water sources as follows: 1. Near Boy Scout camp (a trickle of a stream) 2. Intersection of AT and highway 624 (there is also a hostel 0.3 miles on the road) 3. Intersection of AT and highway 785 (just before and after the fields) 4. Intersection of Andy Layne and Catawba road where there were several cows bathing in the stream. Please make sure your water filter is working. Mine got clogged and had to boil the water before I could drink it. The trail is very manageable. I saw several deer and a black bear. I planned in a way to avoid the Saturday crowd at McAfee knob and the crowding of the campsites around it and it worked very well. I didn’t meet a single person on the North Mountain Trail.

backpacking
rocky
7 months ago

hiking
8 months ago

This hike was amazing. My friend and I tagged a little extra on to make it about 37 miles did the hike in 1 day over 16 hours and we were completely exhausted at the end. Started at 0508 and completed the hike at 2128. The elevation changes are what really take a toll the distance isn't bad but the rolling hills take a toll.

hiking
8 months ago

I would rate this as moderate plus. The trail is very well defined and there are some sweet campsites. There is very little water so if you take your dog bare that in mind. Spectacular almost 360 view from the top.

backpacking
8 months ago

This train is a B***h but extremely rewarding

I completed this loop in one day, starting at the McAfee Knob parking lot at 5:30am and heading south on the AT, eventually returning around 6:30pm. The loop was an absolute blast, though I spent less than ten minutes at each summit. I would not recommend any casual hiker attempt the loop in one day for the sake of spending more time enjoying the views, and for the prevention of injury. I also ran out of water on North Mountain from mile 17 to 21, but found a small stream on the descent. Drove from PA specifically for the great challenge this poses for fast-packing and mountain running, and will be returning to do the loop in reverse. *update: three days later and I’m still nursing an ankle injury from this bad boy

hiking
private property
rocky
scramble
9 months ago

hiking
9 months ago

I have hiked McAfee, Tinker Cliffs, and Dragon's Tooth may times, but never on the same trip. This loop can be started from many places, but I chose to start from the McAfee Knob parking lot. From the parking lot I began going south on the A.T. towards Dragon's Tooth. It is approximately 8.2 miles to the summit of Dragon's tooth and you stay on the A.T. the entire way. This section of the hike is one of my favorites because you get a little bit of hiking time in an open field. I timed it perfectly so that I was able to see the sunrise coming over the mountains in this field without anything obstructing my vision. A bear did run across my path on this trail but it scurried away very quickly. After summiting Dragon's tooth, I took the Dragon's Tooth Trail back down the mountain towards the parking lot. You have to walk through the parking lot, cross the Catawba Valley Road, and walk North for a few hundred yards (take a right). You will see a sign for the North Mountain Trail on the opposite side of the road. As others have mentioned, North Mountain has no water so make sure that you are fully stocked. The sign on the trail says that this trail is 13.2 miles. You begin by climbing the mountain and then the rest is ridge running until the end where you descend. I believe that this section would be much better during the fall or winter because the views would be excellent. There are very few views but occasionally you get a glimpse of the beautiful mountains on both sides. There are many good campsites on this mountain if you decide to stay the night. When the trail comes to an end you take a right (east?) on the Catawba Valley trail. I believe it was towards the end of this trail where you will find a life-saving stream. After over 14 miles without water this is simply an oasis. I refilled my water here and even washed my legs and arms because though North Mountain has no water, it has tons of poison ivy and many areas where the trail is barely maintained. Pants probably would have been a good choice for this section. As you enter the Catawba Valley Trail, you begin to descend North Mountain. There are a lot of switchbacks and eventually you cross a road and find yourself at the Abbey Lane Trailhead. As you enter the Abbey Lane Trail, you begin to ascend Tinker Mountain which is 3.5 miles away. The cliffs are amazing and are a good place to catch your breath after the long and tedious trek over North Mountain. Before you reach the cliffs, Abbey Lane Trail ends and you pick up the A.T. south again. From here you are approximately 6 miles from McAfee Knob. There are several shelters close to the knob that would make excellent places to camp. They are open, they have fire pits, privy's, water, and shelters. Once past the last shelter you are now actively ascending McAfee. If possible, try to either get to McAfee at sunrise or sunset. I got there around sunset and it was amazing. From this point the parking lot is 3.9 miles. Though I completed this in one day, I would not recommend it. It took me about 17.5 hours to complete with a few short stops at each summit. If you wish to spend time at each then 2 to 3 days is best. If you have never been then you should spend some extra time because the views are spectacular. All in all, a great way to spend a couple of days.

hiking
10 months ago

We started 1:00pm from Andy Layne parking lot Thursday 1:00pm. We did North Mountain first. Arrived at Dragon’s tooth parking lot at 7:30pm. Set up camp on Boy Scout trail along the creek. Hiked Dragon’s tooth Friday morning leaving our packs at our campsite. After Dragon’s tooth, picked up our backpacks and headed towards McAfee Knob. Arrived at Catawba campsites at 6:30pm and were too exhausted to push on to McAfee that evening. Saturday morning hiked to McAfee Knob and went on to Tinker Cliffs. The views from the lookouts are all they are advertised to be. Just beautiful! The hike down Andy Layne to the car seemed like it took forever. We made it to the car at 4:30pm Saturday afternoon. Very challenging and hard hike for us. Awesome views from the lookouts!

backpacking
rocky
10 months ago

Went with a group of 4 on a thursday night through sunday morning adventure. We started thursday night, at Dragon's tooth parking lot trailhead. We headed up the trail about .3 miles and cowboy camped with our hammocks. We woke up early and headed up to the top of dragon's tooth. When we first got up there, it was really cloudy, and couldn't see much. But it only took a half an hour for the clouds to clear and to see some breathtaking views of the valley and the mountains. We headed back north to get on the AT towards McAfee's knob. It was a pretty decent hike to Catawba shelter, which is 1.7m south of McAfee's. We passed several water sources on the way there, so we didn't have to fill up all the way. John Springs shelter did not have any water, but Catawba shelter had plenty. We woke up the next day at 3:30am and headed up to see the sunrise at McAfee's knob. It was definitely the coolest thing i've ever seen in my life. We got up there when it was pitch black and you could almost grab the stars out of the sky, then the sun started rising and it was incredible to say the very least. We stayed till about 7:30 and headed north to the next shelter, which had water and allowed us to stock up. From there we headed north towards tinker cliffs. This was probably the most difficult part of the loop. Very steep uphill, be prepared and bring a lot of water. Once we got the top of Tinker Cliffs, we had to take a quick nap. Then we got up and at em torwards north mountain trail. We were nervous about water, because there wasn't a whole lot of information on it, but there were two giant streams right by andy lane parking lot which allowed us to fill up completely before we started our trek on north mountain, where there is no water whatsoever. We crossed the street and headed up to north mountain trail. There was actually a little creek at the bottom of the mountain when you first get into the woods, but that was the only water we saw for 10 miles. We hiked up to the first campsite at north mountain and set up shop. It had been a really long day. Woke up the next morning and headed out to get back to the parking lot. The last 10 miles wasn't very difficult, pretty much ridge walking the entire time with some inclines and declines. The last mile of the north mountain though was a very steep decent and was challenging. Overall, this was one of the best experiences i've ever had. Super challenging, but well worth it and the views are incredible. I would highly recommend, but come prepared to stock up on water!!

hiking
muddy
10 months ago

Did this over three days. It was a very hard hike. Weather is a factor, it rained late afternoon two days slowing down progress, setting up camp to get out of rain. I went backwards from the catawaba 311 parking lot the dragon tooth way. First evening I saw a huge black bear. Came out of my tent and there it was 25 feet away, it ran away very fast. Overall it was challenging and fun! Be prepared to work and plan your water smart

hiking
over grown
rocky
washed out
10 months ago

I started this trip thinking is would be a breeze and didn’t expect to have to much of a challenge. I was wrong! It’s fun but be ready by packing light, prepare for weather, and steep elevation. Tons of fun!!!

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