Tuscarora quartzite spires jutting out of the mountain top, a trail of rocky cliffs overlooking Catawba valley, snakes, poison ivy, and lots and lots of uphill hiking. Welcome to Virginia's Triple Crown: a 38 mile backpacking loop west of Roanoke.
When you live near sea level it can be challenging to train to climb a 13,000' tall mountain. So I've sought out hikes with lots of uphill climbing. The Triple Crown delivered just that.
It started with a climb from the valley floor up North Mountain. Online trip reports from other hikers warned us there'd be no water sources on the ridge where we planned to camp the first night, so we carried all we'd need until we reached water on the second day. Water weighs 8lbs per gallon, so the weight adds up quickly when you need to carry a lot of it. Soon after stepping into the woods we came across a trail sign that proclaimed the trail to be "Most Difficult". "It's good training!" I happily chanted as I trudged up the hillside. We made camp before dark, going through the usual routine: drop the packs with a sigh of relief, take off boots and happily put on camp shoes, walk around looking for a flat spot to set up the tent, blow up air mattresses, hunt for a good tree to hang a food bag in, boil some water and make dinner, eat, eat some more, clean up, then crash.
Day 2 dawned clear and warm. We knew this would be a big day, so we packed up quickly while snacking on some protein bars and heaved our packs on our backs. The first few moments putting the pack on always feels uncomfortable to me. I fidget with straps, shrug my shoulders into position, wiggle my hips to adjust the hip belt, and hope for the best. After a few miles the pack settles into place and I don't notice it as much, except for when I stop to bend over and pick up some other careless hiker's trash (see my previous blog post). We hiked down off North Mountain to meet up with the approach trail to Dragon's Tooth. We stopped to fill up our water at a stream and up, up, up we went to meet the Appalachian Trail.
In order to reach Dragon's Tooth we had to travel south on the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) for almost 2 miles. Then we'd have to turn around to continue our loop heading north. We decided to carry our backpacks anyways (some folks will stash their bags in the woods to retrieve them on the way back). Once again a trail signed warned us "Caution. The next mile is rocky and steep"."It's good training!" I said again as we trucked up the rocky scramble of a trail. In some spots you had to put both hands on the rock to pull yourself up. There were even 2 spots where steel rungs had been bolted into the rock to help hikers ascend the trail. "It's good training!" I joked again as my legs started to burn and my pack tried to pull me backwards off the rocks.
Dragons' Tooth is a remarkable rock outcropping jutting out of the top of mountain. We reached the base of the rocks, dropped our packs (such relief!), had lunch, and then scrambled up the rocks to get an incredible view of Catawba Valley far below. Rewards like that view always make me quickly forget how hard the effort was to get there..... until I start hiking back down. Sometimes hiking down is harder than hiking up, especially on steep terrain. By the time we met back up with the trail that brought us to the A.T. my knees were tired and wobbly and I was actually eager for a little more uphill. So onward we went towards McAfee Knob, up and down, up and down, again and again until my "It's good training!' mantra started to lose some of it's charm. Side note: Daniel is the most amazing hiking partner in situations like this. While my legs and lungs are burning he's just up ahead chanting "We love hills! Hills are the MOST FUN!" in the most delightful and endearing way. Eventually, finally, we stopped for the night below the summit for McAfee Knob. That climb could wait until the next day.
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And so we started the last day the way we started the first day - walking uphill. We had decided to wait until we reached the cliffs of McAfee Knob to make breakfast, and what a delightful idea that turned out to be. We got to enjoy our coffee and eggs (you can find freeze-dried eggs at REI) while looking towards Tinker Cliffs, our next destination. We even had the luck to finish a pair of cinnamon rolls another couple of hikers had made that morning and couldn't finish. But soon it was time to hike on. We traveled the ridgeline between the two peaks, me muttering "it's good training, damnit" under my breath while Daniel continued to chant "we love hills" up ahead.
We arrived at Tinker Cliffs and dropped our packs (which really is a wonderful feeling) to enjoy a quick lunch. We'd heard from hikers going the opposite way that they'd spotted a rattlesnake on the cliffs. This had the opposite effect on my that you might think - I went looking for the snake. I find snakes fascinating and beautiful, and would prefer to see it before it sees me. We did come across it as we continued our hike along the cliffs. It was resting peacefully under a small plant a safe distance off the hiking path. Soon we were headed down into the valley off the ridge and it was time to depart from the Appalachian Trail. As we continued down the mountain side we were acutely aware that we had entered a virtual forest of poison ivy. It was everywhere - growing so close to the trail it seemed near impossible to avoid. In some places the plants grew to waist height. It was oppressive. I still wonder how many of the dayhikers we encountered that day discovered their legs covered in an itchy rash later. Thankfully Daniel and I emerged in the parking lot hot, sweaty, happy, and unscathed.
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All told we climbed almost 10,000' in 3 days. After all, it was good training!