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Hiking The Appalachian Trail’s Triple Crown

Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains are home to the Appalachian Trail’s three crown jewels: McAfee Knob, Tinker Cliffs and Dragon’s Tooth.

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The Appalachian Trail’s Triple Crown

There are several spots along the Appalachian Trail that are considered must-visit destinations by hiking experts and all others who embrace opportunities to actively immerse themselves in the great outdoors. Summit views earned by trekking to the top of Clingmans Dome, the trail’s highest peak that’s located in the Smoky Mountains, or the rocky Pinnacle Summit in Pennsylvania are just two on a stacked list that promise breathtaking scenery and strenuous climbs. The “Triple Crown” represents another bucket-list challenge that invites adventurers to navigate directly into the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains along the southern segment of the Appalachian Trail—and serves as a valuable cross-training opportunity for those interested in supplementing their running with hiking.

The bird’s-eye view glimpsed while descending over Virginia’s Roanoke Valley by plane makes it immediately clear where the Blue Ridge Mountains get their name. A watercolor of blues smudges the valley’s edges, the strongest hues appearing in the mountains nearby before fading into the distance. The dense greenery surrounding the mountaintops hides the sprawling trails from above, in addition to the thousands of hikers who make their way through the area each year.

“The A.T.,” as it’s called in North American hiking communities, is a 2,190-mile trail that stretches from the Chattahoochee National Forest’s Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine, crossing 14 states and beckoning explorers thrilled by the mere act of setting foot on the trail and the thru-hikers daring enough to attempt completing it in one fell swoop. The three peaks that constitute its Triple Crown—McAfee Knob, Tinker Cliffs and Dragon’s Tooth—represent small segments of the A.T. but are among its most visited. (The A.T.’s most photographed location, McAfee Knob, is a ledge that peeks out from the cliffs, providing 270-degree panoramic views of the Catawba Valley that sprawls some 3,000 feet below.) Ranging in distance from 4.6 to nearly 9 miles round-trip and in difficulty from moderate to challenging, each hike serves as a valuable cross-training supplement for runners and a unique opportunity to explore the outdoors with friends, family and fellow travelers.

McAfee Knob

Distance round-trip: 8.8 miles

Elevation gain: 1,700 feet

The longest of the three Triple Crown trails is also perhaps the easiest—and certainly the most family-friendly. Featuring a wide dirt trail that can accommodate two or more abreast in most sections, the trickiest variable to navigate on the hike up is the humidity, which spikes in the summer months. Since McAfee is the A.T.’s most popular spot for photography, the trail is often busy (especially on weekends), so travelers should plan ahead if they want to take advantage of the photo op. The ridge at the top is wide enough to mill around and settle in for a lunch break, so be sure to brownbag a meal to refuel before the trek back down the mountain. Local lunch spots like WildFlour Restaurant & Bakery are hospitable toward to-go requests and offer build-your-own sandwich options for those with dietary preferences.

Tinker Cliffs

Photo of Tinker Cliffs, one of three destinations that makes up the Appalachian Trail’s “Triple Crown.” Photo by Joseph Mesite.

Distance round-trip: 7.7 miles

Elevation gain: 2,000 feet

The hike to Tinker Cliffs may be the Triple Crown’s least glitzy, as it lacks the attraction of a photography
hotspot or mythical creature comparison, but its relative seclusion makes it perhaps the most rewarding. Hikers travel across two rickety bridges, through thick forested areas and along narrow switchbacks to reach the top of the Andy Layne Trail and views of the Catawba Valley below, all while a soundtrack of chirping birds and buzzing insects plays indefinitely. The forest’s pressing humidity will test anyone, so pack plenty of water and stop by a local joint for breakfast (like Angelle’s Diner for a hearty meal or The Roanoker for one of the roughly 1,500 buttery biscuits it makes daily) before you attempt to reach the 250 million-year-old limestone cliffs at the top.

Dragon’s Tooth

Photo of the “tooth,” one of three destinations that makes up the Appalachian Trail’s “Triple Crown.”

Distance round-trip: 4.6 miles

Elevation gain: 1,505 feet

Stretches that require rock scrambling and the unique toothlike formation at the peak of Dragon’s Tooth make this trail a boon for experienced hikers. The first 1.5 miles are easygoing, with occasional roots jutting out of the ground and a creek tittering quietly nearby. It’s the final leg that makes this hike technically difficult, with narrow footholds and sheer cliff faces standing between hikers and the 35-foot-tall quartzite tooth. Tackle the trail cautiously if you bring kids along, and don’t feel defeated if you need to call it quits before reaching the top—although shimmying through the opening at the top of the Tooth reveals an incredible view made all the more gratifying by the nerve required to get there.

While You’re There

With the exception of thru-hikers, everyone needs to step off the trails some time. When you do, here are some spots in and around Roanoke, Va., worth checking out.

Roanoke Star

Built in 1949, the Roanoke Star is 88.5 feet tall and can be seen from 60 miles away on a clear day. Views from the base attract tourists, marriage proposals and the Anthem Star 10K, which takes runners up and down the mountain on which the star sits every April.

Brewery Bonanza

Roanoke and nearby Salem have become a hotbed for breweries in recent years. Lagers, IPAs, stouts, sours and more can be found at breweries like Parkway Brewing Company, Olde Salem Brewing Co. and Flying Mouse Brewery, the last of which frequently attracts thru-hikers due to its close proximity to the A.T.

On Land And Water

Recreational activities abound at Smith Mountain Lake, a popular reservoir that features roughly 500 miles of shoreline and water calm enough to host wakeboarding, fishing, stand-up paddle boarding, swimming and several other water sports. The area’s plentiful bike paths also recently gained Roanoke a silver-level ride center designation from the International Mountain Biking Association, so you know the trails are legit.