Dragon's Tooth: a challenging day hike

Dragon's Tooth is a lofty Appalachian Trail perch reached after scrambling over boulders.

Dragon's Tooth is a lofty Appalachian Trail perch reached after scrambling over boulders.

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  • Location: The hike can start at either the roadside AT trailhead on Route 624 less than a half-mile south of Catawba or the Dragon's Tooth trailhead directly off Virginia 311 west of Catawba.
  • Length: 2.3 miles (4.6-mile round trip) from the Dragon's Tooth trailhead or 2.1 miles (4.2-mile round trip) form the AT trailhead.
  • Elevation: Climbs from 1,750 feet at the Dragon's Tooth trailhead or ,1500 at the AT trailhead to slightly over 3,000 feet at the "Tooth."
  • Gottasee factor (scenery, scale 0 to 4): 3.5.
  • Gottabreathe factor (difficulty, scale 0 to 4): 3.5: Dragon's Tooth, a 1,500-1,700 foot climb in little more than 2 miles, gets a little added difficulty rating because of the iron-bar-aided semi-rock climbing a hiker must do in a steep mile of hiking/rock scrambling. There's already a pretty good climb before this challenging section begins. Probably not the place to go for novice hikers on their first trip, and definitely not a good place to go under the influence alcohol (though judging by beer cans sometimes found along the way, this advice often goes unheeded).
  • Beware: Wet and especially icy conditions can make the climb almost impossible over the rock faces.
  • Of interest: Originally known as Buzzard Rock, it was given a more fitting name by Tom Campbell, an early member of the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club.
  • Description: It climbs to reach the Tooth, then drops back on its return to the trailhead. It's almost that simple. From the Dragon's Tooth trailhead, it climbs through a nice creek valley, eventually leaving to angle up a ridgeline and join the AT. Turning right along the AT from there, the trail becomes more rockyand steep, clinging to the mountainside in many places, and requiring the use of metal steps that have been shoved into the rock. The views are spectacular even before reaching the destination. Finally up on top of Cove Mountain, a left leads to the Tooth.

I had been to Dragon's Tooth before, hiking from the parking lot on Virginia 311 up the spur trail to the Appalachian Trail. This time, I thought I would be different and hike up on the AT from Route 624. It's .2 miles shorter, I thought, and half of it would be a new route I hadn't taken before.

But there was one problem: I parked on the wrong road. Mindlessly, I parked alongside Route 785 (the first left turn past Catawba) and hiked the AT just in from 311. I realized this mistake only after I had passed through the cow pasture (drawing stares from some bemused bovines), followed a creek and crested the first hill. A mile into the hike, I found myself looking down toward Route 624. I would have to descend down a series of switchbacks all the way to the road before reaching the point I should have started from. With time limited on an afternoon before a night of work, I briefly considered retracing my steps going back to the car and driving to one of the 2 closer trailheads.

Naaah, I decided. Damn the trailheads. Full speed ahead.

So, after four consecutive days of uphill leg-buckling, I had turned the Dragon's Tooth hike into a grueling grand finale. I had nearly doubled the length of an already physically demanding hike, and I would be subduing a 1,500-foot climb at double pace. Not to mention that my water rations were planned for a 4-mile hike, not one of 7 miles, including enough for my dog Cindy to get a tongue full when there wasn't a creek nearby.

Using the AT route, the hike up to Dragon's Tooth involves a steep switchbacking hill climb, followed by a steadier rise to the narrow, rocky ridgeline, then the usual cliff scrambling to the Tooth.

The hogback ridge just over a mile before reaching the Tooth was the highlight of this hike. The ridge drops off steeply on both sides from this rocky spine upon which the AT rides. A lush valley in autumn glory opens on one side, and a thickly forested creek valley in front of another ridge (Cove Mountain) on the other. I wish I had had more time to absorb it. But instead, I plugged on with tightening calves and torrents of sweat on this warmish but cloudy day. At least I got to enjoy this ridge twice -- coming and going. Some people do anything to avoid backtracking, but I enjoy it. There's always something I want to see again, and the trail looks different as seen from another direction.

I didn't spend much time at the Tooth. I didn't climb up on it as I had before, but I watched three other hikers do so. I felt a cool breeze and noted that the views were, for the fifth day of five, limited by haze and fog. I won't get into all the meteorological details, but a big high pressure system has been stuck over us for a few weeks now, and the air is getting stagnant. We need some cold fronts to push this muck out of here. I ate a bite, got some water, offered the same to Cindy, ever the trouper on these adventures, then after only 10 minutes, turned around and began the long walk down.

Most of the excitement occurred on the way back. I met two through-hikers, walking from Maine to Georgia. The second was carrying a tuba in his backpack. Cindy and I also walked right over a baby snake that struck at me four or five times as I uncovered it from the leaves to take a look.

Having started just before noon, we arrived back at the car at 3:40. Half an hour later, we were home, just in time for me to jump in the shower, jump out, and get to work. Cindy curled up in the corner, headed for the Land of Nod.

I understand how these five areas became so popular. All are outstanding natural features with an air of lore and mystique about them. Although I prefer seeking out more out-of-the-way places and little-known wonders, I'm sure I'll come back to each of them again.

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