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Hiking Virgina’s Triple Crown with Scouts by Ken Holder

Dragons Tooth
Dragons Tooth

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!


  1. Why do Scouts have a bad reputation with long distance hikers?

  2. Iam also a scout leader who has hiked the long trail with scouts. I think the reason long distance bikers dislike scouts is because we tend to hike in groups -although we've never been more than 8 total. Long distance hikers tend not to carry tents and rely solely on shelters for evenings. If a group of scouts is in a shelter site (not even necessarily in the shelter itself) I've seen long distance hikers move onto the next shelter rather thn cohabit with a group of 14-17 years olds. My suggestion is the slack packers should learn and enjoy rather than judge the boys. Were all in it for the enjoyment after all

  3. I've had worse experiences with college freshmen orientation groups – they should just be banned from shelter areas.

  4. I would guess there are two reasons that long distance hikers have issues with scouts. First, troops with poor adult leadership can monopolize a shelter, making it unsuitable for anyone else to use during that time. Second, scouts intensity can overwhelm a long distance hiker. Eight or so young teenage boys are rambunctious and for someone who has spent weeks in the solitude and low-key lifestyle on the trail, I'm sure meeting a group of boys can be a jarring experience.

    On the other hand, scouts have done a lot for the AT. Quite a few bridges and many of the picnic tables at shelters were Eagle scout projects. Unlike the scouts themselves, they are understated with a simple plaque or engraving identifying the builders. We just need to keep educating scouts and leaders on trail etiquette and let them discover a love for the trail.

  5. Scout projects abound on the AT and I saw lot of them on my last section hike. I think what RevLee says is right, a group of kids, or any group for the matter, can overwhelm a hiker, particularly us solitary pilgrim types.

    From what I gather, these are quite a few long distances and thru-hikers who were (or are) boy scouts or eagle scouts. Maybe we're just hearing the criticism and not the solidarity, because those hikers are less vocal about it. Just suppos'in.

  6. When RevLee and I were on our "half-hike" last year we stopped at Wood's Hole Hostel and were sitting around the campfire. Of the 10 people there, 4 were Eagles, 2 were Dads of Eagles and Scout Leaders (Lee and I) and two others had spent years in scouting and said the program gave them their love of the outdoors. The other two had been Cub Scouts. That was a pretty powerful statement about the relationship of Scouting to the trail.

    We saw "the other side" when we stopped at Maupin Field Shelter a week or two later. We arrived after a 16 mile hike over Three Ridges from the Priest to find 20-25 scouts running around. Their leaders had taken over the shelter (but they said they "never let the scouts sleep in shelters") and their scouts were literally swarming the picnic table. We camped nearby because there wasn’t another reasonable option. The boys ran through the area playing until 11, only to be awoken by their leaders a little before 6 am screaming at them to “get up and get moving”. That is the kind of thing that I think gives us a bad name.

    When we hike with scouts we generally try to avoid shelter areas, but if we stay near one we try to camp far enough away to avoid bothering any LD hikers. We also try to educate the boys that LD hikers have a different "rhythm" and we need to be good neighbors. Introducing yourself, asking questions, and offering a little Trail Magic goes a long way as well.

  7. All the more reason to have hikers like you and RevLee as leaders, I think.

  8. Great discussion and some great insight for me as a Scout leader.

    This last weekend we were going to take a Scout group of 11 to the Smoky Mountains as a Philmont warm-up hike. Because of the limit of 8 for the group size and the fact we could not use tents on the section of the AT we opted to take them back to Red River Gorge. Our only option in the Smokies would be the shelter and we would have filled the place – not good for the thru hikers.

    I agree that a rambunctious group of scouts could ruin a camp site and everyone is right to say this goes back to leadership. I hope we instill in our Scouts the idea of respecting others solitude and privacy on the trail. I have to admit though as a Scout leader I would rather see a group of Scouts roll in to a camp site than a group of college kids. Yes the Scouts may be up earlier and moving out but the other group is bound to be loud and drunk and up half the night.

    We also follow the rule that we will leave a camp site cleaner than we find it and our Scouts have discovered that they are getting stronger with all the push-ups they do when the miss items on the ground that the leaders find. Based on some of the camp sites at Red River we passed through this weekend that were full of beer cans and liquor bottles – I wish more followed this practice.

    Again it is nice to hear some of the non-scouting perspectives out there so that I can learn and improve ourselves to be better neighbors. The reality is that we are creating the next generation of backpackers that have a respect for nature and an enjoyment of the outdoors but we also want them to respect others right to the same thing.

  9. Good advice here for scout leaders, solitary hikers and freshman orientations! Learn & follow those leave no trace principles- especially the others we all encounter along the trail.


    Respect other visitors and protect the quality of their experience.

    Be courteous. Yield to other users on the trail.

    Step to the downhill side of the trail when encountering pack stock.

    Take breaks and camp away from trails and other visitors.

    Let nature's sounds prevail. Avoid loud voices and noises.

  10. This is a phenomenal hike. One of the best in Virginia, I think.

    To add to the discussion about scout troops–I have had more than one experience in the Mid-Atlantic where our small group of friends was planning to camp somewhere and then we run into LARGE groups of boy scouts, like 20+ people and dozens of tents monopolizing entire areas. That’s always kind of a bummer, though I realize it probably isn’t as feasible nor inclusive to hike with smaller scout troops or to spread out more.

  11. BSA national policy for the Appalachian Trail shelters: Scouts may not stay in shelters; only adults may stay in shelters.

    This is grounded in BSA Youth Protection policy: If a late-arriving thru-hiker crashes in the shelter at 11PM at night, which happens, then all Scouts in that shelter must immediately evacuate the shelter (youth and adults may not share shelters). Since Scouts are unlikely to immediately evacuate at such a late hour, they are not be permitted to sleep in the shelter in the first place.

    A positive side effect of this BSA policy is the implicit adherence by the Scouts to LNT #7 — Be considerate to other visitors (by not crowding the shelter).

  12. Hey there!

    Enjoyed reading about your hike. My wife and I and a couple friends are planning do to this hike with our dog in early September this year. I was wondering if you could let us know about how the water sources were along the hike? I’ve heard that one of the days has no or almost no water sources along it and requires packing all of your water. Is that true? Also was wondering if you think the hike would be good for an athletic and capable dog, but one who hasn’t backpacked like this before.



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