Section Hiking the AT with Boy Scouts
After completing a three-month section hike on the AT last Spring, my hiking partner RevLee and I decided to take some of the older scouts in our troop on a multi-day hike on Spring Break this year to restart a “tradition” we had begun several years ago.
Planning a hike with Scouts 14-17 years old can be challenging as their average pace is dramatically different, and you almost always have to deal with one or two that struggle at points. Over time, we have discovered that 8-10 miles is a practical limit per day with an overall pace that is about half of our own. In addition, we are both passionate about not adding to Scouting’s bad reputation with thru-hikers, so we have to account for camping space for a group of ten, without sleeping in shelters.
After reviewing schedules and looking at available options, we decided to return to one of our favorite sections of the AT near Roanoke, VA, known as the “Virginia Triple Crown” hike. With some practical limitations around shuttling cars, etc. we determined a 30 mile hike which would include visits to Tinker Cliffs, McAfee Knob and Dragon’s Tooth was our best bet:
Day to Day Mileage:
- Day 1: Daleville to Lambert’s Meadow campsite (9.4 miles)
- Day 2: Lambert’s Meadow to Johns Spring Shelter (9.4 miles)
- Day 3: Johns Spring Shelter to Dragon’s Tooth peak, and Exit Trail (11.4 miles)
Day 1: Daleville to Lambert’s Meadow campsite (9.4 miles)
We arrived at Daleville VA on late Wednesday morning and shuttled cars to our end point. Daleville is the area where the AT crosses under I-81 and there is large park-and-ride lot at the trail head, an easy entry with a trail connector to the AT out of the back of the lot.
The climb out of Daleville is fairly gentle, and allowed our guys to get used to their packs and make necessary adjustments. The reality of scouting is that most of the boys have gear that is heavier than ours, and it probably hasn’t been adjusted since they grew 3 inches in the last two weeks; all that was worked out in the beginning miles. We also dealt with a scout who was feeling under the weather, which further slowed our progress. It was still great to be out: the views on this section of the trail are incredible, with an almost constant view on one side of the Carvins Cove Reservoir, and the Daleville valley on the other.
We slowly made our way to our initial campsite, just over 9 miles in. There are a few camping spots that would allow a dry “stealth” camp, but the prepared site at Lambert’s Meadow is incredible with an almost garden-like layout, complete with a bubbling creek and picnic table. Normally we follow rules about not camping close to a water source, but in this case the area is a thin slice of flat land cleared near the stream designed to allow you to do just that. We were careful to let the scouts know which LNT rules we were breaking. Evening entertainment was watching them hang bear bags with varied success. After that, we settled in for the night to the music of the creek.
Day 2: Lambert’s Meadow to Johns Spring Shelter (9.4 miles):
We awoke Thursday to a beautiful day, and once the slowpokes got breakfast made, eaten and gear packed, we took off to see two of the three Triple Crown sites, Tinker Cliffs and McAfee Knob. The hike up to the Cliffs from the Meadow campsite is almost 1000 vertical feet in a mile, but with fresh legs we were there in no time, admiring the incredible views. The hike between the Cliffs and McAfee Knob walks along a crescent-shaped ridge-line with the some of it literally 2 feet from the edge of the cliffs. Nice views, but I was glad when the trail moved away from the edge with scouts with us! RevLee and I both consider this section one of the prettiest views in Virginia. One aspect we really like is being able to see the ridgeline path all the way from Tinker Cliffs to McAfee Knob.
After 5 miles, we reached McAfee Knob in warm sun and enjoyed some time at the top. We took the required picture but didn’t want to shock any Moms by letting the scouts hang over the edge. McAfee Knob is generally considered “the most photographed place on the AT” and has somewhat of a tourist trail from the Knob to the road crossing at Rt. 311.
With the warm weather, there were several day hikers of all shapes and sizes out (even joggers)- a strange phenomena when you are used to the solitude of the AT in all but a few spots. Our sick scout had recovered overnight allowing us to make fairly good time and we arrived at Johns Springs Shelter early, giving the Scouts some relaxation and recovery time.
Our memory of this area had faded a bit and the camping near the shelter was challenging (i.e. rocky and sloped), but we still reserved the shelter for any long-distance hikers that might make a late arrival. Several thru-hikers passed and one stopped in to greet the boys, but decided to push on to the next shelter which strangely is only a mile further North on the trail. We ended up camping next to the empty shelter, but at least didn’t damage the reputation of scouting with a couple of thru-hikers (Trail Magic in the form of Snickers doesn’t hurt either).
Day 3: Johns Spring Shelter to Dragon’s Tooth peak, and Exit Trail (11.4 miles):
It rained overnight and we woke in the morning to cool, misty conditions. We set off for Dragon’s Tooth in a fairly stiff, cool breeze, but the rain that had been forecast stayed as more of a drizzle. After running ridgelines, the scouts got to experience pasture-walking and climbing numerous stiles as the trail passes through two valleys. One of the stiles even crossed over an electric fence, which increased the boys’ excitement (even if it was obviously disconnected). During our lunch stop the rain picked up, but as we reached our planned destination at the campsite below Dragon’s Tooth, the weather seemed to clear.
Since more rain was forecast for overnight and Saturday, we made a quick decision to climb Dragon’s Tooth immediately while there was a weather window. RevLee and I climbed down this section last year with full packs, and I remember it as pretty “challenging” even in dry conditions. Since we were returning to the site, we suggested the scouts leave their packs to make maneuvering over the rocks easier (we kept ours because of the emergency gear). The section from the campsite to the Tooth has a lot of hand-over-hand climbing, but we made it to the peak without too much difficulty. (Note: my camera started acting up so the next two pictures are from our section hike last year).
Not long after we arrived at the Tooth, the rain and wind picked up again, so we limited the time on top and started back down. Down (the normal NOBO route) is much harder than up, and with the slick conditions we had to take our time to avoid sliding off the rock faces. Arriving back at the campsite at Lost Spectacles Gap, we discovered that the saddle we were in was a natural wind tunnel, and we were in for a cold, wet night with temps in the high 30’s. Plus, it was a dry campsite with the nearest water about a mile downhill.
Although it was late in the day, we decided the practical solution was to hike the 2 miles out to the cars on the “tourist trail” and head home. It made for a long day for the scouts and a late night arrival home, but was a wise decision with the weather deteriorating. Fast food for dinner is also a strong motivator for scouts, and they made amazing time on the last leg of the trip to the cars.
All-in-all, we did 30+ miles in 2 ½ days through an incredible section of the AT in Virginia- not bad!