Saturday, March 30, 2013

Dragons Tooth - The Fang of the AT

I may have walked along the dragon's back a few weeks ago, but more recently +Leanne and I climbed up to its tooth, or perhaps more accurately, its fang. This impressive little spire of upright sandstone atop Cove Mountain (actually a fin, not a spire - more on that later) is one of the so-called “Triple Crown” along this section of the Virginia Appalachian Trail. The other two are nearby McAfee Knob and Tinker Cliffs, and all three are spectacular destinations.

Cove Mountain summit and Dragons Tooth from Point 2363
The Dragons Tooth is probably the funnest and most challenging hike of the three, even though by our route it is the shortest. It ain’t Linville Gorge or Old Rag, but the 2 ½ miles to the top have some of the steepest, most scrambly terrain still traversed by the Virginia portion of the famous Georgia to Maine trail. That last sentence is a bit of a sore spot with me, because as time goes by, the Appalachian Trail gets rerouted. Sometimes this is for the better, as it has gotten the trail off of roads and into more scenic and less developed areas. But at other times, it seems the goal is to make the trail as easy as possible, and eliminate every steep bit possible, even if it means bypassing significant summits and worthwhile viewpoints. I’ve had a couple of rants about that in the past and may write a post about it here sometime. But for the time being, I think this section of the A.T. is relatively secure. At least I’m not aware of any intentions to tame it. Hopefully there never are.

This translates to "Fun Ahead!"
 Even without a view or a summit, a steep scramble is always fun and entertaining, and worth doing for its own sake. But here, on the climb up to the top of Cove Mountain, you are treated to all three. Nothing scary or difficult, at least not to most people - but hands may be needed for balance here and there, or to help get up a spot or two with a big step or a little exposure.

We started at the big parking lot for the Dragons Tooth trail on Route 311, rather than where the A.T. actually starts up the mountain on Route 624. There were already a lot of people here, but nothing like there would be later. On the way back down, we were rarely out of sight of at least one more group of people, and even had to wait our turn at a couple more restricted spots. The scene at the trailhead was then reminiscent of a popular Adirondack or White Mountains trailhead. The parking lot was full and there were cars parked up and down the shoulder of the road for a respectable distance. However, we didn’t see many people at first. Most who start here seem to go up the Dragons Tooth Trail, but we took the Scout Trail to the A.T. Not too far beyond this junction, the trail gains the crest of a ridge that leads to Lost Spectacles Gap. But before following it, we first made a short off-trail excursion to nearby Point 2363.

Perhaps my favorite part of this hike.
 This little unnamed, unranked summit has a rocky top with great views, and no people even though the trail comes within 250 yards. Indeed, even though I had seen it from higher above on the mountain every time I’d hiked to the Tooth, I had never been to this little crag until two years ago, when Leanne and I made the small extra effort to do so. As bushwhacks go, it’s pretty easy, with only a few briers, and a couple of easy scrambles between the trail and the top. There’s actually even a bit of a faint path part of the way. The views from the top are pretty much 360°, and surprisingly good for being only a few hundred feet above the valley floor, looking down the length of Catawba Valley and up to the Dragons Tooth atop Cove Mountain.

Back on the trail, it quickly gets more interesting as the trail steepens and moves onto a narrow rocky spine known as Rawies Rest. There are a couple of spots where a handhold is needed, at least for balance, and there are more views - though none as wide as from Point 2363. After crossing another minor summit, the trail drops off about 100 feet to Lost Spectacles Gap and the junction with the Dragons Tooth Trail’s upper end. This was one of the first really nice days of Spring, and here is where we joined the steady progression of people headed up to the same place. The trail stays mellow just a bit longer and passes the spot where the trail once headed straight up a spur ridge to the top of the mountain. I followed this route a couple years ago, and while I enjoyed its steepness, I must admit that its lack of views and scrambling makes this one of those cases where the new trail is vastly superior.

Typical terrain on the upper part of the trail.
 Beyond here the trail just gets better and better, steepening up and spending more and more time on rock. One of the neatest spots is a nearly vertical section of narrow, stair-stepping ledges that gains about 20 feet and offers a great view from the top. This is possibly my favorite part of the hike - it’s just exposed enough to feel a little risky, but is fun and easy. There are a few more steep sections and even a couple iron rungs placed in the rock to make it easier - though they aren’t really necessary. The trail eventually passes beneath the east side of the outcrop that forms Dragons Tooth, climbs a little more, and the fun ends, well almost. Just ahead, it tops out on the summit of 3,050’ Cove Mountain, where there is a great view east, even in spite of a little warm weather haze.

But the highlight of the hike, and its namesake, is a short distance down a sidetrail off the summit and the AT. Here, right on the very crest of the ridgeline, are a series of Silurian sandstone fins standing tilted upright at a nearly vertical orientation. They are at most ten feet thick near their tops, and the tallest of them - perhaps 50 feet high on the side you first see - is the Dragons Tooth. It drops off even more to the steep slopes below the east side, and at first it appears that the only way to get to the top is by rock climbing. It is somewhat of an illusion though, because the fin slopes down to the south. By walking around the right side, there is an easy way up to a notch in the fin and a crevice that leads back toward the top. You can either go under a chockstone wedged in this slot, then up, or stem up just before it. There is ample room and “safe” seating just above the chockstone for a great lunch and rest spot, and to take in the great 270° view that includes McAfee Knob and Tinker Cliffs - the other two-thirds of the Triple Crown. The Peaks of Otter are also visible 30 miles away and just to the right of McAfee Knob. Getting to the very top of the tooth is a different  matter. It’s only another 30’ or so away, but it gets intimidating quickly. The crest of the fin slopes upward somewhat steeply and narrows down to 4’ wide or less, and it overhangs on the west side. Few people have enough nerve to walk right up to the top. I usually sit about halfway up, and scoot the rest of the way while keeping secure handholds. I don’t go to the very top every time, and I’ve only been brave enough, (or stupid enough) to stand upright on the top once or twice and can’t say I recommend it to anyone - unless they are letting me take their picture, of course. You can probably only stand on the sharp end of a tooth so many times before it bites you. Not feeling overly brave (or stupid), I didn’t stand up today. Actually, I didn’t even go the the very tiptop, opting instead to stand and sit for a while on a narrow ledge on the east face. But there was another guy who climbed up after I had departed, who stood on top as nonchalantly as if he were standing on the ground. It made a great photo op and nobody got bit.

Another upright fin adjacent to Dragons Tooth.
The view of Catawba Valley with Tinker Cliffs (center) and McAfee Knob (right) above it.

Below Dragons Tooth, on the AT.
More fun trail.
Yes, this is the trail, my favorite part.

To view a larger map click here.

Hike Stats: 5.3 mile lollipop loop, 1,675' cumulative elevation gain

Pictures from this hike 

Pictures from other hikes to Dragons Tooth
April 2012
February 2011
May 2010
November 2009
April 2009
November 2008
November 2007
July 2007

gpx files and maps
Hiking Upward page 
USFS page for Dragons Tooth Trail
USFS page for Boy Scout Trail

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Dragons Tooth trailhead coordinates:


Google map for trailhead

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