Oct. 31, 2023

Iconic Locations: Dragon's Tooth

While no one has ever seen a dragon along the Appalachian Trail, hundreds of thousands of hikers have seen a dragon’s tooth. Viewed from a distance this geological formation looks like one very large, very snaggly fang sticking up out of Cove Mountain.

While no one has ever seen a dragon along the Appalachian Trail, hundreds of thousands of hikers have seen a dragon’s tooth. Viewed from a distance this geological formation looks like one very large, very snaggly fang sticking up out of Cove Mountain.


MILLS KELLY: Hello and welcome to The Green Tunnel, a podcast on the history of the Appalachian Trail. My name is Mills Kelly and I’m your host.

KELLY: Today we resume our exploration of iconic locations along the Appalachian Trail – places that hikers of all sorts love to visit for their scenic beauty, their quirkiness, or their historic significance. If you’re like me, when you tell non-hiking friends you’re going on a hike on the Appalachian Trail, you invariably get questions about dangerous critters – bears, snakes, ticks, wild boars, moose – you name it. I can’t count the number of times someone has asked me if there are mountain lions along the trail. But what about the really dangerous beasts? You know, things like dragons? No one ever asks me about them.

KELLY: Okay, so far no one has ever seen a dragon along the AT, or if they have, they didn’t live to tell anyone about it. But hundreds of thousands of hikers have seen a dragon’s tooth. Because there is a dragon’s tooth on the trail – a geological formation, that is. Dragon’s Tooth is, as you might imagine, tooth-like. Viewed from a distance it looks like one very large, very snaggly fang sticking up out of Cove Mountain. To learn more about Dragon’s Tooth, we turned to one of our regular guests on the show.

CHRISTOPULOS: that whole section, a lot of it is what's known as Silurian sandstone, which is about 400 million years old. But the tooth itself is made of some kind of crystal. I'm Diana Christopulos. I'm a volunteer with the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club and was president from 2016 to 2018. 

KELLY: The Tooth is a pillar of Tuscarora quartzite, a form of Silurian sandstone, peculiar to Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. Some of the best known examples of this kind of rock formation are Seneca Rocks and Dolly Sods in West Virginia, but neither of those are on the Appalachian Trail. In the four states where Tuscarora quartzite is common, hikers see a lot of it but nowhere is it more dramatic than Dragon’s Tooth. If you’re one of those hikers who wants to know more about the geology of the trail, be sure to check out Episode 1 of this season. Located on the Appalachian Trail just southwest of Roanoke, Virginia, Dragon’s Tooth is the southern anchor of a section of trail that hikers christened Virginia’s Triple Crown. McAfee Knob is 12 miles north of the tooth and another five miles north of the Knob hikers reach Tinker Cliffs, which also happens to be my favorite of the three jewels in the crown. 

CHRISTOPULOS: Dragon's tooth is southwest of the city of Roanoke. It's the southernmost piece. It's in the Jefferson National Forest. And it's something north of 700 miles from Springer Mountain. 

KELLY: Of the three stops on the Triple Crown, Dragon’s Tooth is the only one that is easily visible from other locations.

CHRISTOPULOS: you can see it on clear days, from not only from McAfee, but all the way from Tinker Cliffs, which is about 30 miles away to the north. It's incredible how far you can see it, you know, to be able to see it from Tinker Cliffs. And really, it's not hard to see on a good day. That's a long ways away. It's just it's a very prominent outcrop. 

KELLY: Dragon’s Tooth wasn’t always part of the AT. When the Appalachian Trail Conservancy decided to abandon 300 miles of the original trail south of Roanoke in 1952, the first really interesting stop on the new route they chose was the spectacular rock pinnacle. It was already a popular place for hikers to visit, so routing the new version of the trail from McAfee Knob to the tooth just made good sense. You’ve probably seen photographs of hikers sitting on the edge of McAfee Knob, some with their legs dangling over into space. Less common are photos of hikers standing on top of Dragon’s Tooth. But people do that and we have some historic photos of hikers up on the top of that pillar of quartzite in the show notes.

KELLY: Getting to Dragon’s Tooth is both easy and hard depending on which direction you approach it from. If you’re hiking north on the Appalachian Trail, the approach to the tooth is not that bad. From the Pickle Branch Shelter several miles to the south hikers climb the ridge until they reach a blue blazed side trail taking them to the tooth. If you are coming down the AT from the north, or if you’ve parked at the lot maintained by the U.S. Forest Service, the hike is a lot more difficult. A lot more. 

CHRISTOPULOS: it's if you're hiking southbound from the parking lot on the Dragon's Tooth trail, the last seven tenths of a mile, we think is the hardest seven tenths of a mile in Virginia. 

KELLY: There are plenty of difficult stretches of the AT in Virginia, but as Diana says, this one’s a doozy. The first mile and a half from the parking area isn’t bad at all. But then you get to a very steep climb, at which point things get challenging.

CHRISTOPULOS: So you've got iron rungs, and narrow ledges. And then when you get to the crest, you've got to go down about 100 yards from there. You get to kind of do a chimney thing to get up with your feet and your back. And then you can see way out into the next valley over and you can see McAfee Knob.

KELLY: If climbing up iron rungs with a full backpack on sounds difficult, it is. But the payoff is worth it.

CHRISTOPULOS: It's a pretty cool hike.

KELLY: Once you reach the top of Cove Mountain and the tooth itself, you’ll have a decision to make. Do I climb it? Or not. Just to be clear, I do not recommend climbing either the Tooth or hanging your legs over the edge of McAfee Knob. But if you do climb to the top of Dragon’s Tooth the views are amazing. Or some I’m told. Like McAfee Knob, Dragon’s Tooth is an incredibly popular place to hike. Diana says that the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club estimates that as many as 30,000 people hike to the Tooth each year. That’s significantly fewer than the 50,000 or so who hike to McAfee Knob, but it is still a lot of hikers. 

KELLY: Given how popular Dragon’s Tooth can be, especially in the fall, you might be tempted to make a detailed and careful plan for a hike there. Or, you could do what dragons do – just wing it. Sorry. 

KELLY: The Green Tunnel is a production of R2 Studios at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. Today’s episode was produced by me. Jeanette Patrick and Jim Ambuske are the executive producers. We want to offer a big thank you to Diana Christopulos for her insights into the history of Dragon's Tooth and Virginia’s Triple Crown. I think it’s fair to say that almost no one knows more about the Triple Crown stretch of the AT than Diana. Original music for The Green Tunnel is performed by Scott Miller of Swope, Virginia, and Andrew Small and Ashley Watkins of Floyd, Virginia. To help us keep making the world’s best podcast about the Appalachian Trail, please go to our website, R2Studios.org and click on the Support Us link. From there you can make a donation of any amount to help us keep doing this work. Thanks so much for listening and we’ll see you soon!

Diana Christopulos

Diana is the current archivist and former president of the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club. She is also currently a member of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s President Leadership Council. She hiked the entire Appalachian Trail from 1999-2008 as a section hiker and over the past few years has been very involved in environmental preservation work in the mountains traversed by the AT.