The Trail Runner Way
This is the first option we're posting that will literally take you all the way from Dragon's Tooth Parking Lot to the Andy Layne Trail Parking Lot. This includes the entire section of Appalachian Trail that connects Dragon's Tooth to McAfee Knob to Tinker Cliffs.
As a trail runner, the intent is to do the entire length of trail in one day. At the end of the day you will have clocked, at a minimum, an impressive 22.24 miles including 5,850 feet of elevation gain and 6,140 of elevation loss.
If you haven't done this sort of thing, this trail isn't the time to start. You should only attempt this option if you have experience as a trail runner, clearly understand your hydration and caloric needs, and can adequately address potential injuries in a remote location. Additionally, I strongly recommend bringing a water filter to resupply at key points I'll highlight.
Having said that, let's begin!
Dragon's Tooth Parking Lot to VA-624
Start at Dragon's Tooth Parking Lot (map below). Where are you leaving your car?
- Park your car at Andy Layne Trail Parking Lot and hire a shuttle driver to bring you to Dragon's Tooth Parking Lot. Your car will be waiting for you when you finish your run.
- If you're running with a partner, park one car at Andy Layne Trail Parking Lot and drive together in another car to Dragon's Tooth Parking Lot.
- Make arrangements with a friend or family member to drop you off and pick you up.
Begin your run from the parking lot on Dragon's Tooth Trail. Stick to this trail for the next 1.41 miles until it joins the Appalachian Trail at Lost Spectacles Gap. At the junction with the AT continue southbound toward Dragon's Tooth for 0.7 miles. This section has some rock scrambling where you may need to use your hands for short portions. After a steep ascent, reach another trail junction with a 0.1 mile spur trail that will take you to Dragon's Tooth.
Descend your way back to Lost Spectacles Gap. Instead of taking Dragon's Tooth Trail back to the parking lot, continue on the Appalachian Trail northbound. On your way down to VA-624, pass the Boy Scout Connector Trail. This is a secondary option that will you take you back to Dragon's Tooth Parking Lot in case something happened on the trail and you need to opt out. If you're in good shape, run past this trail junction and continue northbound on the AT.
VA-624 to McAfee Knob Parking Lot
There is a sign for the 4 Pines Hostel when you reach VA-624. This is a popular overnight destination for thru-hikers. The run so far will be around 4.28 miles to get to this point. Continue across VA-624 on the AT northbound. A series of switchbacks await you as you make a moderate climb in elevation followed by a small decline that eventually crosses a stream via a pedestrian bridge. This might be a good time to top off your water and refuel.
As a backpacker, I really enjoyed this next stretch of trail as it meandered alongside the stream, then through a golden field. When you reach the fence line, walk through the gates that sit on each side of VA-785.
After you cross another field you walk over another pedestrian bridge and another stream. It's been 5.95 miles to this point. Check your water as the next source after this point is just shy of 5 miles away.
This next stretch will have you ascend 600 feet in elevation over just 3/4 of a mile! Can you feel the burn?!? This will be followed by 3 miles of running along the ridge line with a few switchbacks thrown in for good measure. I went in the spring and this section of trail had a ton of leaves which made for tricky footing. Be careful. Finish off this section by descending to the McAfee Knob Parking Lot. Your tun total will be around 9.75 miles.
McAfee Knob Parking Lot to Tinker Cliffs
Cross the road near the trail kiosk at the end of the parking lot. Continue running on the Appalachian Trail northbound. About a half mile into this section you reach a fire road with a nearby trail kiosk. Don't stay on the fire road. Instead, look down to your right of the kiosk and you should see the Appalachian Trail continue through the woods. Do a water check when you reach John's Spring Shelter (picture to the right). If there isn't any there you can check again at Catawba Shelter in about a mile. Each has a spring nearby. Be aware that the springs can run dry if it hasn't rained in awhile.
The Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club will periodically post a water source report on their Facebook page. You can also message them through Facebook to see if they have an update.
Shortly after Catawba shelter you once again reach a fire road. This time continue uphill by crossing the fire road on to the trail directly across. You're still on the Appalachian Trail northbound. Follow this next section all the way to McAfee Knob. When the elevation begins to level out keep an eye out on your left for a large open area of ground level rock. Look for a sign on one of the trees stating "Overlook". Walk just through the woods to the left side of the trail to reach McAfee Knob. Total distance to this point will be around 13.55 miles.
Looking out from McAfee Knob find the ridge-line off to your lower right (you can view it in the picture to the left). Follow the length of that ridge-line as it curves to the left on its way up to a higher peak off to the northeast. That higher peak at the end of the ridge-line is Tinker Cliffs (also in the picture above toward the upper left). Yep, you are running all the way there by the end of the day.
After you've enjoy a snack and have your picture taken on McAfee Knob, continue your run on the Appalachian Trail northbound. Shortly down the trail, pass through some very large rock groupings then begin a reasonably steep descent toward your last water stop for awhile, the Campbell Shelter area. There is a short walk to a water source but it can be unreliable in drier weather. Fill up your water bottles as there is no reliable water source until you're almost back to the Andy Layne Trail Parking Lot. That's over 7 miles away!
Follow the AT along the ridge-line mentioned above all the way to Tinker Cliffs. The trail becomes strenuous as you near the cliffs. After you work your way to the top, stop for a snack and enjoy the view of the valley to your southeast. This is arguably the best view of the hike! Total run distance to this part will be around 18.58 miles.
When you decide to continue your run, be careful as sections of the trail near here are directly next to the cliff edge. After you pass the cliffs, begin a half mile descent toward a trail junction with the Andy Layne Trail. The Andy Layne Trail will feel like a continuous, unrelenting descent at times. Be careful and take your time. Most of this trail passes through private property so please be responsible to ensure future access for other outdoor enthusiasts. Toward the end of the run, cross a couple of foot bridges and pass through a cattle pasture. Finish up your trip at the Andy Layne Trail Parking Lot.
Total Mileage: 22.24 miles one way
Total Elevation Gain: +5,850 feet
Total Elevation Loss: -6,140 feet
Key Mileage Points
0.00 - Dragon's Tooth Parking Lot
1.41 - Lost Spectacle Gap/AT Junction
2.16 - Dragon's Tooth
4.28 - VA-624
5.06 - Water Source (stream)
5.95 - Water Source (stream)
6.75 - Catawba Mountain Peak
9.75 - McAfee Knob Parking Lot
10.73 - Water Source (John's Spring Shelter)
11.89 - Water Source (Catawba Shelter)
12.25 - Cross over fire road
13.55 - McAfee Knob
14.32 - Water Source (Campbell Shelter)
18.58 - Tinker Cliffs
19.51 - Trail Junction with Andy Layne Trail
21.54 - Water Source (stream)
22.24 - Andy Layne Trail Parking Lot