Epic Trails, Excellent Beer: How to Hike the Triple Crown in Virginia (and Where to Drink Afterward)

Enjoy the McAfee Knob, a giant, rock-slab outcropping that sticks out like a diving board over the forest.
Enjoy the McAfee Knob, a giant, rock-slab outcropping that sticks out like a diving board over the forest. ksteryous
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Did you know that three of the most famed peaks along the 2,100+ mile Appalachian Trail sit within just a 10-mile radius of one another? Neither did I. Or, that you can hike them in one, swift trek? I also never knew that one day, I’d be drinking beer with an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker named Zippy, at the closest brewery to the famed long-distance trail, while cheersing my completion of these three trails known as Virginia’s “Triple Crown.” But, hey, you can too.

Within 30 minutes of Roanoke, you can befriend thru-hikers, knock out 4,300+ feet of combined elevation, and toast to such adventures—all in one weekend.

The Triple Crown, which includes McAfee, the most photographed outcropping along the AT, Tinker Cliffs, a 180-degree view of the Blue Ridge Mountains’ Roanoke Valley, and Dragon’s Tooth, a rock-scrambling uphill to a jagged peak, is an unforgettable challenge.

Some go-getters choose to complete the 32-mile loop connecting all three peaks in just one day. But I’d argue the best way to explore each is with a multi-day adventure. Even better: Work in a trip to a nearby brewery—they’re as much a part of the landscape in these parts as the summits—for a celebratory pint at the bottom. Here’s how to take on the Triple Crown in three days, what to expect along the way, and a local brewery to complement each climb.

Day One: McAfee Knob

Trailhead: McAfee Knob Parking Lot off Route 311 (one mile east of the town of Catawba)

Distance: 7.7 miles (loop)

Elevation gain: ~1,500 feet

Best for: Overnight campers

This trail’s challenging features yet not-too-challenging distance, authentic Appalachian Trail feel, and stunning summit view make it an iconic trek for everyone from solo hikers to active families to groups of friends. In spring and summer, white and light-pink Mountain-Laurel trees light up the forest, while giant rock gardens hide boreal gems like private campsites and quiet bouldering spots. It’s also a main route along the AT for thru-hikers, so you’ll likely run into some campers setting up at one of this trail section’s backcountry huts.

At the summit, hikers are greeted with the crown jewel of the Blue Ridge Mountains: the McAfee Knob, a giant, rock-slab outcropping that sticks out like a diving board over the forest. Brave hikers carefully take a seat on the edge to soak up the view of Catawba Valley and pose for a photo. You can’t go wrong with the dramatic backdrop of rolling blue hills and a sea of green more than a thousand feet below.

Brew at the Bottom: Parkway Brewing Company

Parkway Brewing Company and its Get Bent IPA are local favorites in Roanoke. Comfy couches, garage doors, and a small stage for local musicians create the vibe of hanging out in a buddy’s living room, while food trucks, which park out front most nights, span a surprising mix of cuisines you wouldn’t quite expect in the Blue Ridge Mountains: Korean BBQ, Cajun, and Salvadoran among them. Cold brews, good food, chill tunes: It’s a winning formula after a long day’s hike.

Day Two: Tinker Cliffs

Trailhead: Andy Layne Trail off Catawba Road

Distance: 7.5 miles (out-and-back)

Elevation gain: ~2,000 feet

Best for: Hiking with dogs

When you’re weary of fighting the crowds for the perfect photo op at McAfee, head to Tinker Cliffs for a lesser-trafficked hike. Following the Andy Layne Trail over rivers, through green pastures, and between forest valleys, this hike offers all the desirables without the crowds. Wide trails, a steady incline, and a flat, open peak make this the perfect trail for trail pups. That said, keep an eye out for the “Death Stairs” about half-way through the hike—a 100-plus-step staircase—is the trail’s biggest challenge. You and your canine companion will need a water break at the top.

Once you summit, you’ll realize the climb was worth it. Tinker Cliff hikers reap the benefits of a private view of the Roanoke Valley, and even better, their choice of a picturesque picnic spot on the limestone cliffs that span the ridgeline. Keep in mind that part of this hike crosses private property, so be sure to respect all signage and practice “Leave No Trace” hiking etiquette.

Brew at the Bottom: Olde Salem Brewing Co.

Once an old office building, this modern brewery in the heart of downtown Salem is a great after-hike spot. Brick walls, high ceilings, and stainless steel finishes are an upgrade from the backcountry of the AT. The beer selection is equally impressive: hearty IPAs, fruity Berliner Weisse, and light Kölsch, just to name a few. Olde Salem specializes in fruit-inspired, barrel-aged sours—perfect for cooling off from a day-hike at Tinker Cliffs in the summer heat. Go for a flight to sample all the goodies on offer from the list.

Day Three: Dragon’s Tooth

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Trailhead: Dragon’s Tooth parking lot off Route 311 (on your left just past Catawba Grocery)

Distance: 4.6 miles (out-and-back)

Elevation gain: ~800 feet

Best for: Rock scramble lovers

Wide and even paths, a gradual incline, and trailside creeks with perfectly-placed stepping stones are a surprising welcome for a trail with such a fierce name. But don’t let the start of this hike fool you: The climb to Dragon’s Tooth is rugged, yet rewarding.

The first 1.4 miles offer an almost leisurely stroll, but at mile 0.7, the dragon starts to come to life with tire-sized chunks of rock, steep drop-offs, and inclines that push some hikers to their limits. You’ll hop and zigzag around boulders for a near-mile through rock fields and across jagged spars in the rock just wide enough for heel-to-toe maneuvers. It’s hard for some day hikers to believe AT-ers tackle through this section with a 40-pound pack (until you have to shimmy around one along the way).

When you reach mile 2.1, it’s an easy 0.3 miles to trail’s namesake: “Dragon’s Tooth”: a quartzite spire jutting 35 feet above top of Cove Mountain mountain. For the full summit experience, climb through a porthole-sized opening (just big enough for one hiker to squeeze through at a time) on the west side of the rock face. Sitting up at the perch, breathe deep and settle your nerves while taking in the 360-degree view of the Blue Ridge Mountains surrounding you. This trail’s worth the scramble.

Brew at the Bottom: Flying Mouse Brewery

Secluded in a mountain hollow in Botetourt County is Flying Mouse Brewery. This pole-barn meets steampunk brew pub is the closest brewery to the AT in Virginia—only a 15 minute walk from the trail off of Valley Road (799) on Precast Way. Pull up a seat next to thru-hikers who often stop by for a midday pint and hear stories about their travels. You also won’t have to worry about wading through a complicated list after a long day on the trail: Flying Mouse uses a unique number system guide for their beers—Flying Mouse 1, 3, 4, 5, and 8—that ranges from light to dark.

Written by Erica Zazo for RootsRated.

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