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Virginia Explorations: Sharp Top, Fallingwaters Creek, & the Dragon's Tooth 11/14/21

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  • Virginia Explorations: Sharp Top, Fallingwaters Creek, & the Dragon's Tooth 11/14/21

    I'm spending my winter working in Virginia, which means taking advantage of the opportunity to explore new areas. Below are some short writeups of a number of day hikes I undertook on my first day off after arriving in the state.

    My first destination for the day was Sharp Top Mountain, one of the three Peaks of Otter (along with Flat Top Mountain and Harkening Hill). Once thought to be among the highest peaks in Virginia (and perhaps even North America), the Peaks of Otter are some of the more prominent mountains of the Blue Ridge and they dominate the horizon from many vantage points of the Piedmont region of Virginia. Due to their prominence, they are perhaps some of Virginia's most readily identifiable peaks from a distance.

    During the summer season there is a shuttle bus that takes visitors most of the way to the summit in addition to the hiking trail, but as my visit occurred later in the season the shuttle bus was not running. The hike begins at a trailhead adjacent to the Peaks of Otter Campground, which itself is located across Abbott Lake from the Peaks of Otter Lodge, a rustic resort open in season for visitors looking for a less primitive experience.

    The trail itself was generally well built, with lots of improvements including sidehilling and staircases. Not far below the summit there were even some stretches where asphalt had been used to stabilize the tread... a significant departure from the natural state to be sure, but I'm sure given the high levels of use and impact this trail gets, the alternative is worse.

    Cool autumn temperatures also meant that there was a fair amount of ice in the form of frost heave and icicles alongside the trail in spots. For the most part, however, the trail itself was ice free and I had no difficulty with traction.

    Not far from the summit, a short side trail also provides access to a rocky outcrop known as Buzzard's Roost, which provides excellent views in its own right.

    The ascent was moderately physically demanding but not long, and just shy of an hour of steady hiking found me arriving at the summit of Sharp Top. There is a stone shelter atop the peak; naturally it clearly receives regular use as a trashcan by less-conscientious visitors to the peak.

    But the views from the summit were absolutely phenomenal and well worth the effort of the climb.

    The hike down went quickly and easily, and along the way I passed quite a few groups headed up. I can imagine that especially when the shuttle bus is running, the summit can get quite crowded at times. I was lucky with my late season (and early in the morning ascent) to have had the summit mostly to myself.

    My second destination for the day was Fallingwaters Creek, also in the Peaks of Otter. Here, a 1.3 mile loop trail provides access to a scenic section of the aptly-named Fallingwaters Creek, complete with many scenic cascades and waterfalls. There's two trailheads on the Blue Ridge Parkway that provide access to the loop- the Flat Top Mountain trailhead, and the Fallingwaters trailhead. I selected the latter as the start of my hike.

    Both trailheads are actually higher in elevation than the creek, so no matter where you start (or which direction you hike the loop), there is a necessary descent down to the creek itself. I chose to hike the loop clockwise, so I'd be climbing along the creek itself.

    The trail crosses the creek twice, and I first arrived at the downstream crossing. There was clearly once a footbridge here, as evidenced by the stone foundations, but it was long gone. The creek was easily rock hopped across during my visit, but I imagine that this can be a challenging crossing during high water.

    Again, Fallingwaters Creek is well-named. I was treated to numerous pleasant views of cascades and waterfalls as I climbed hiked upstream alongside the creek, even though the water was running a bit low during my visit. I imagine that after it rains, the stream becomes even more scenic.

    There is a bridge in place at the upstream crossing, so perhaps during periods of high water it is best to turn the hike into an out and back from the upper side of the loop.

    From the upper crossing, it was a gentle and easy climb back up to the Fallingwaters trailhead, and then from there more easy hiking back to the Flat Top trailhead. This would definitely be a good hike to bring young kids one (with some added care and attention near the ledges that form that cascades), and indeed, I encountered a number of families out hiking during my visit.

    Continued in next post…

  • #2
    Continued from above...

    My third and final destination for the day was the Dragon's Tooth. Along with McAfee Knob and Tinker Cliffs, the Dragon's Tooth is one of three destinations that form Virginia's "Triple Crown," three phenomenally scenic hiking destinations linked by an approximately 20 mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail.

    The Dragon's Tooth is also a very popular day hike, and when I arrived at the trailhead parking area mid-day, I was not surprised to find it nearly full of vehicles. Fortunately I was able to find a spot- a few earlier hikers were already departing and I showed up after the bulk of the daily rush.

    Unlike the Peaks of Otter area, which is managed by the National Park Service as part of that agency's Blue Ridge Parkway unit, the Dragon's Tooth falls squarely within the Thomas Jefferson National Forest and is managed by the US Forest Service. This means that primitive dispersed camping is generally permitted. Camping is prohibited at the Dragon's Tooth itself (due to the popularity of that destination), but portions of the rest of the hike are clearly popular with the camping crowd- no doubt including weekenders, section hikers, and AT thru-hikers alike.

    The first quarter mile or so of the Dragon's Tooth trail closely follows a small, unnamed stream, and I encountered quite a few well-established and clearly popular campsites along this stretch. I imagine many of these sites are used by those hiking the Triple Crown northbound who get late evening starts- given their proximity to the trailhead, they allow backpackers to show up late on a Friday evening and find easy camping not far from the trailhead. The sites ranged from so-so to fairly nice, and I can imagine that on busy weekends the late-latecomers can be left with subpar options.

    Just after crossing the small stream is a junction with the Boy Scout Trail. This trail provides alternate access to the Appalachian Trail and allows hikers the option for a loop approach to the Dragon's Tooth, at the expense of some added mileage and rugged terrain. The full hike via the loop is just shy of 6 miles.

    I chose to hike the loop clockwise, starting with the Boy Scout Trail. This trail facilitated a moderately intense climb up to the AT along the ridgeline above.

    The AT portion of the Dragon's Tooth hike is a moderately rocky and rugged stretch, much of it along the crest of a ridgeline. This provided some interesting hiking (with some mild ankle strain in a few spots along the way).

    One narrow gap along the ridge had a well-established but tiny campsite- with room for a single 1 or 2 person tent. It was also a dry site, without any water sources nearby.

    There were also a few spots along the ridgeline that facilitated some nice views. In one spot, I could see the two other Triple Crown destinations to the northeast- Tinker Cliffs and McAfee Knob.

    Another spot provided nice views towards Sandstone Ridge and Catawba Mountain to the southeast.

    And one particularly nice overlook had great views towards North Mountain to the north.

    Before long, I was arriving at Lost Spectacle Gap, where the other leg of the loop, the Dragon's Tooth Trail, joins the AT. From here, both approaches to the Dragon's Tooth coincide along the AT as it climbs up to the ridgeline of Cove Mountain.

    Lost Spectacle Gap is clearly an occasionally popular spot for camping, and there were several fire pits in the vicinity as well as plentiful well-established tenting space. As with the smaller site I'd encountered further back down the ridge, this was a dry campsite without any available water.

    Above Lost Spectacle Gap, the ruggedness of the AT got dialed up another notch or two from what I'd already encountered further down along the ridge. There were plenty of rock outcrops to scramble up and even a section or two of metal ladder rungs to make it easier to ascend/descend the rocky stretches.

    After the AT leveled off atop the ridgeline of Cove Mountain, it was a short hike via a side trail down to the Dragon's Tooth itself. The tooth itself is certainly a spectacle to behold- it's a Tuscarora quartzite spire that juts about 30 feet up and out of the crest of the ridgeline that forms Cove Mountain.

    With some care, it is possible to scramble up atop the tooth itself to take in more spectacular views.

    After zooming in on McAfee Knob to take a shot of that peak, I noticed that I could clearly see the Peaks of Otter beyond it in the distance- including Sharp Top Mountain, one of my earlier destinations from that same day.

    While the Boy Scout Trail and the portion of the AT below Lost Spectacle Gap had been relatively quiet, while climbing the final stretch of the AT up to the Dragon's Tooth itself I passed no shortage of hikers making their descent back down the trail, including quite a few large groups of college students. I was fortunate to arrive at the tooth itself during a lull in the traffic, but while starting down I passed quite a few decently large groups still continuing upwards.

    The Dragon's Tooth isn't exactly a super demanding hike through remote terrain that demands substantial skill and/or gear to safely undertake, but quite a few of the groups I passed were clearly nevertheless underprepared- the majority had not even a single backpack among them. Given the already lengthening shadows, I found myself wondering just how many of them would be forced to resort the walk of shame by using their cell phones for light during their respective descents.

    Upon arriving back at Lost Spectacle Gap, I decided to return via the other leg of the loop along the Dragon's Tooth Trail. In contrast with the Boy Scout Trail and especially the AT, this was an exceedingly gentle trail- well constructed with no shortage of sidehilling and even a few switchbacks down into the drainage that runs parallel to the ridge followed by the AT.

    It didn't take long to traverse the Dragon's Tooth Trail downhill, and before long was I back at the trailhead.


    While I'm generally adverse to the most popular and most traditionally crowded hikes I was glad to have visited these three destinations. And even despite that aversion I'd been bitten by the Triple Crown bug- once back in civilization that evening I was already examining the map and researching the Triple Crown Loop in detail (and would undertake that as a 3 day backpacking trip several weekends later- hopefully a trip report and photos to follow).


    • #3
      You're really living the life. I don't think I'd like it much there in the summer, but late fall looks great.

      Surprised at how similar the change in foliage is to western NY at that time of year. I would have thought things would be a bit later down there. Maybe I should be more alarmed at how late ours is.

      How cold does it get in those hills in winter?


      • #4
        I would guess that the Virginia mountains and the western NY great lake lowlands probably share similar timeframes for leaf season due to the differences in elevation. For reference: the Fallingwaters Creek hike was at elevations nearly 2,000 feet higher than Mt. Morris. The Dragon's Tooth is about 2,500 feet higher than Mt. Morris, while the summit of Sharp Top is about 3,000 feet higher.

        I wavered between bringing my 12 degree and 5 degree bags with me for the winter... in the end, I selected the 5 degree bag (plus a liner). I've been out on a few overnights and it's been chilly enough that I have been glad that I picked the 5 degree bag. I'm sure it will be overkill come March but you can always unzip and open a bag that's too warm.


        • #5
          I looked through your other pics and saw that Sharp Top was 3875. I honestly didn't think you were up that high at which point I went and looked at a map.

          I'm not intimately familiar with this area but I know of Snowshoe which doesn't look too far away, and I know they get snow, and enough winter to keep a ski resort open. But they are a bit more inland and consistently higher elevation. I'd assume it's a bit warmer on that "front range" having little in the way of blocking any air from the ocean.

          I also noticed quite a difference in the forest type from what I've seen in Snowshoe - they look to have a spruce, balsam, maple forests. Those pics of yours look like mostly white oak, hickory and red pine.


          • #6
            Flat Top Mountain, adjacent to Sharp Top, tops out at 4,004 feet- just barely high enough to qualify as a High Peak if it were in the ADKs.

            It's always interesting to be hiking at such high elevations at more southernly latitudes, while encountering ecosystems that we'd expect to see much lower in elevation in the ADKs. A number of years ago I undertook a backpacking trip to climb the tallest peak in North America east of the Mississippi: Mt. Mitchell in North Carolina, which tops out at 6,684 feet. Even that high up, the ecosystem at the summit was still only akin to what you'd expect to encounter around 3,000+ feet in the ADKs.

            It's also funny seeing signs reminding hikers to stay on the trail to help protect a "rare" and "threatened" ecosystem that we have a good supply of in the ADKs. I'm sure that hikers more experienced with alpine ecosystems elsewhere feel the same when visiting the above treeline portions of the ADK High Peaks. (That's not to say at all that these efforts are without merit in any of these instances, it just feels kind of funny when you're a visitor from an area that takes that particular ecosystem somewhat for granted.)


            • #7
              Yeah, as you know I'm pretty obsessed about those ecosystem changes, which all stem from my experience with the Adirondack dome in relation to the rest of western NY. Even at the high elevations down south of the Finger Lakes, we don't have the same ecosystems as the Adirondack foothills at similar elevations.

              I've never been to Snowshoe, but I've seen a number of TV events from there and always thought: it looks very much like the Adirondacks. But not so much the high elevation 4000'+ stunted spruce/balsam Adirondacks, but more like the foothills at 2000'.


              • #8
                See the Channels. Breaks Interstate Park is beautiful. Sand Cave in Cumberland Gap National Historic Park cannot be missed, a truly amazing place. And of course Grayson Highlands.