This in depth guide to Virginia’s Dragon’s Tooth hike, written by a local, includes everything you need to know to tackle one of the area’s most iconic (and most fun) trails.
The hike to Dragon’s Tooth leads you along a rugged and adventurous trail up Cove Mountain to a massive rock formation. This hike is often overshadowed by it’s famous neighbor, McAfee Knob, but Dragon’s Tooth shouldn’t be overlooked.
It has it’s own amazing overlooks and, for those willing to climb a little, a beautiful nest to gaze out over the rolling Blue Ridge Mountains.
Hikers or trail runners up for the challenge will be met with a steady ascending trail amongst towering trees on the lower section and a fun rock scramble towards the top.
For me, this is my happy place. I’ve hiked to Dragon’s Tooth at least 50 times, maybe even closer to 70. (I stopped counting years ago.)I always enjoy the challenge of the rocky section and the freeing feeling of running down as fast as possible.
As you will find with much of the Blue Ridge, there’s some magic out here and I hope you get to feel a bit of it on your hike.
Dragon’s Tooth Hike
Length: 4.8 miles round trip Difficulty: Strenuous Elevation Gain: 1230ft over 2.4 miles
Great for: day hiking, trail runners, rock scrambling, photos of the mountains
May be difficult for: young children, pets, people with limited mobility
Best time to visit: All seasons when dry. Avoid during rain or after periods of very heavy rain. Don’t attempt if ice may be present.
General Location: Northern Roanoke County near McAfee’s Knob.
What to bring: Backpack, first aid kit, 1-2 liters of water per person, camera.
How we rate it: 4/5, Dragon’s Tooth has everything except a waterfall.
The trail head is easy to find with Google maps. The gravel parking area is marked by a small brown sign on your left across from a large green highway sign.
During the week parking in the parking lot should not be an issue but on the weekend the parking fills up quickly. There is space for pulling off and parking along Rt 311 near the trail head.
You probably will not have cell coverage once you get close to the parking area.
You do not need 4-wheel drive or a high clearance vehicle to access the parking area.
Hitting the Trail
Once you’ve parked the trail head is easy to spot next to the bulletin board that shows the relevant trails in the area. Be sure to read any postings and use the restroom facility before heading up.
The trail is easy to navigate and you will be following blue blazes until you intersect with the Appalachian Trail (AT). The AT uses white blazes, but don’t worry, there are plenty of signs showing you where to go.
The trail begins by leading you back into the forest away from the road and soon you cross the stream twice on small wooden bridges.
You join up with the Boy Scout Trail and if you want, you can take that trail up instead, but it will put you further away on the AT. I prefer to stick to the main trail.
Should you take the Boy Scout Trail?
There are two ways to reach Dragon’s Tooth. When you park you’ll be on a blue blaze trail that is relatively flat until you reach the Boy Scout Trail intersection.
While the blue blaze trail is steep at times, overall it isn’t a difficult section of hiking. The Boy Scout Trail is a bit of a different story. First, you’ll follow yellow blazes until you reach the Appalachian Trail.
Second, the Boy Scout Trail is much more similar to the rugged trail at the upper section of Dragon’s Tooth. You’ll find jagged rocky obstacles to scale and a few short but very intense climbs. But, if you take the Boy Scout Trail you’ll reach the ridgeline much sooner.
There are views along the way on either side of the trail which makes for a more scenic, if difficult, hike. It’s ultimately up to you and if you prefer an easier, less beautiful section or a harder but prettier hike.
I will say, though, that going up the Boy Scout Trail is easier than coming down it, especially after coming down the upper section of Dragon’s Tooth.
Dragon’s Tooth from the Blue Blaze Trail
There were five stream crossings on my last visit, but depending on how wet or dry it has been in the previous week that number can go up or down. Once after a week of especially heavy rain, I had to wade through knee-deep water, but that is unusual.
Watch your footing, the first half hour of the hike is peppered with rocks and roots. Eventually the rocky path transitions into a softer leaf covered trail.
You’ll be ascending steadily until you reach the AT intersection. There is a camping area, known as Lost Spectacles Gap, that makes for a nice respite before the real climb. Anyone wishing to use the Boy Scout Trail back will find signs showing how to access it here as well.
The second section of the hike is shorter measuring just 0.7 miles, but most of your time will likely be spent here.
Read More – The 15 Best Hikes Near Roanoke, VA
Dragon’s Tooth Upper Section
There are multiple sets of stairs carved out of the surrounding rock. Most are relatively wide but a few are more narrow and you may need to use a hand for balance.
There are a few large rocks on the trail that are easy rock scrambles and one wall that has to be climbed up.
Remember that any obstacle encountered going up will have to be navigated on the way back down.
Most people will not have much of an issue with anything on the trail except for the wall. It does not require any special techniques or equipment, but you will have to use your hands for balance and possibly to pull yourself up depending on how long your legs are.
Below is a picture of one of my friends on our recent trip to Dragon’s Tooth. As long as you lean toward the rock and step on the natural ledges, it isn’t too difficult.
This is where most people stop if they aren’t going any further, especially those with dogs.
The trail continues skirting around the mountain and you can see the neighboring ridgeline through a thin tree line. There are two spots that serve as perfect overlooks where the view is unobstructed and are great for taking photos.
Just before the trail intersects with a spur trail leading to the actual Dragon’s Tooth rock formation, there is a long steep climb along makeshift stone stairs.
At the top there is a sign that directs you to either Dragon’s Tooth or Pickle Branch Shelter. The rest of the trail is on blue blazes again and easy to follow.
You’ll see the massive rock formation as you descend along the trail and this marks the end of the hike.
There is plenty of room here for taking photos and relaxing for awhile. Those more adventurous can climb up to the top of the tallest “tooth” by walking around to the back side of the formation.
I don’t recommend doing this unless you are somewhat competent at climbing and weather conditions are dry. If you do decide to climb to the top, the impressive view opens up and its a great spot to stop for awhile and just be.
On the trek back down, you’ll need to be careful on the upper section, but after that it’s great for trail running. The steady slope you climbed is now a steady slope downward.
It’s also a great time to snap any photos you missed on the way up.
In general, I’ve found the trip down takes a bit less than half the time it takes to reach the top.
Camping at Dragon’s Tooth
Because Dragon’s Tooth is one of the destinations for Virginia’s Triple Crown it has become a popular spot to camp. The primary location is Lost Spectacles Gap, however, some people choose to camp at the small camping area at the intersection with the Boy Scout Trail.
Currently that camping area is blocked off while the Forest Service tries to preserve one of the local rare species. If you are planning a camping it’s worth checking the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club site for updates. You’ll find the most up to date information there.
After Your Hike
If you are like me, you will be hungry afterwards and luckily the City of Salem is close by.
Catawba Grocery is a good place to get a quick snack near the parking area.
If you have a little more time, Mac and Bob’s restaurant in downtown Salem is our favorite local spot to eat and its a short five minute drive from the interstate.
For those of you more in need of an adult beverage, Parkway Brewing is a great place to spend a few hours with friends and its only minutes from the interstate.