More than one way to skin a dragon
Kevin Myatt | The Roanoke Times
The Pickle Branch Shelter is the only one along the nearly 7-mile section of the AT between Virginia 620 and 624.
- Location: Virginia Rt. 620 (Trout Creek) to Virginia Rt. 624
- Trailheads: Parking is available on Va. 620. Roadside parking is more limited on 624. An alternate and more used trailhead that offers access to the middle portion of this route is the Dragon's Tooth trailhead on Va. 311 between Catawba and New Castle.
- Distance: 6.8 miles.
- Shelters: The Pickle Branch Shelter, 1 mile continuing north from 620, is on a spur trail about one-quarter mile from the AT.
- Water: Trout Creek at the beginning and Pickle Branch at the shelter are dependable sources of water. Cove Creek, located on the Dragon's Tooth Spur below the AT at Lost Spectacles Gap, is intermittent.
- Elevation difference: From 1,500 feet at Trout Creek to about 3,050 feet near Dragon's Tooth, then back down to 1,800 feet at Va. 624.
- Highlights: Dragon's Tooth, one of 2 heavily visited and often photographed sites along the AT in the Catawba area. (McAfee Knob farther north on the AT is the other.)
Lots of people get to Dragon's Tooth from the trailhead on Virginia 311. Not many, save Appalachian Trail through-hikers, know what a lovely hike it is coming the other way
To scale Cove Mountain from Virginia 620 at Trout Creek, curve around its rocky crest and finally ascend to the tooth is a longer haul -- about 4-1/2 miles one way. But going this way to the Tooth is rewarded with numerous rocky ridgeline views over the Craig Creek and Catawba valleys; lush, almost jungle-like forests; and a series of fern-, moss- and lichen-blessed rock gardens as the AT stairsteps toward the Tooth.
You will also run into fewer fellow hikers and enjoy more solitude, if that's what you're after. A pretty weekend can turn the more familiar path to Dragon's Tooth into a freeway, but only a few AT through- or section-hikers and maybe a hardy dayhiker or two will be all you'll meet up with following the AT northward. With a round-trip hike of 9 miles, it's a longer but achievable dayhike for people of average fitness and ability.
Past Dragon's Tooth, for those who want to continue north one-way, the trail descends down a treacherous slope of rocky ledges, across Lost Spectacles Gap where the popular Dragon's Tooth Spur trail from the parking lot on 311 intersects, then over a ridgeline of repeated rocky outcrops with views that extend scores of miles on very clear days. The AT finally descends through pines to Virginia 624, where there is little roadside parking available, for a total hike on this section of nearly 7 miles. (For additional description of the AT between Dragon's Tooth and Virginia 624, see related article on Dragon's Tooth)
Trout Creek is a tumbling brook that roughly parallels Virginia 620 for a few miles. There is parking available along the road across from the creek, but please note the No Trespassing signs and private residences nearby. The AT descends from Brush Mountain (home of the Audie Murphy Memorial), crosses the road and then a wooden footbridge over Trout Creek, then turns sharply left and uphill.
Even though 620 has numerous homes alongside it, this initial climb out of the Trout Creek hollow quickly restores the wild feel to the hike. Trout Creek becomes a smaller and smaller trickle below before the trail hooks right and out of sight of the stream. Up through an open forest of pines, burned in spots, views of mulitple wooded hillsides and ridges appear. You'll go under one power line as the trail steadily climbs and eventually levels off in a brushy mixed forest.
There has been a significant and recent reroute of the trail about a half-mile either side of the Pickle Branch Shelter spur trail. The new route takes the "low road" before switchbacking up the mountain, unlike the old route, which assaulted the summit. The net result is that the Pickle Branch Shelter is now only one-third of a mile off the main trail, as opposed a half-mile before the reroute. Judging by the journal in the shelter, not many AT hikers had been enamored with stretching their 2,000-mile trek by a mile just to get to and from this shelter.
When the AT comes out to an old roadbed, there is a complicated intersection. The spur to the shelter descends right into an open meadow area. The AT continues straight down the old road bed; just follow the fresh white blazes (as of April 2002).
Even if you're not planning to stay at the shelter, the hike down to it is interesting, and not as out of the way as it once was. Just past the meadow, there are several sinkholes near the trail. A little beyond that is the shelter, perched on a hillside that slopes steeply toward Pickle Branch, a pleasant little stream meandering among high banks and huge trees. It's a good place to stop and soak in the beauty.
Back up at the trail intersection, the AT continues along the wide road bed until it gets to a clearing. The roadbed goes right there, but the trail veers left -- look for white blazes, not red ones -- into an open forest of young trees. Not far after that, the trail curves sharply to the left for the first of several switchbacks to the top of Cove Mountain. Right at the turn, look down to the right to see a nicely constructed rock fence, a relic of the area's pioneer past. As the trail bends hard back, you can look down to the left through the trees and see the clearing we were in earlier. The trail eventually bends up again through an old fence line, near a deer stand, by a large pile of stones and into a pine forest, before making a couple more switchbacks to achieve the craggy summit.
On the map, the AT makes a big sweeping semi-parabola here as it bends back toward the Tooth. One reason it is routed this way is to stay atop the ridgeline of Cove Mountain, appropriately a C-shaped feature. The middle part of the "C" is a forest full of lush greenery. A few views, including one spectacular one toward New Castle, pop out amid this jungle, and at one point you will hear the highway traffic of 311 below you as the trail makes a close pass atop this ridge. But it then curves back away from the highway and begins a gradual ascent of the part of Cove Mountain that tilts upward to Dragon's Tooth.
It looks like the old dragon might have got kicked in the teeth, with tooth fragments scattered along this climb. His teeth are getting a little green, too, with moss, ferns, lichen and other plants creating neat little rock gardens. The boulders seem to get bigger and bigger the higher one walks, and once views over the Catawba Creek Valley begin appearing to the left, you'll know you're getting close to the top. Finally, at the summit, the rocks are house-sized, and the famed jagged tooth juts skyward.
From here it's a steep rocky descent to Lost Spectacles Gap, where the Dragon's Tooth Spur intersects, and beyond that a run along the ridgetop gradually descending to Virginia 624. Vistas that exceed 30 miles on a clear day will leave you speechless.
Your stomach will probably be growling by the time you finish this section. Food, water and even soft beds are available in the Catawba area along the next section of the AT that I will review in September.