Best Hiking in Virginia: Tinker Cliffs
The Hike: Tinker Cliffs
While Tinker Cliffs is not as notable as big Brother McAfee and Dragons tooth, it represents the end of the Triple Crown Hiking section of the Appalachian Trail, has views to rival both, and allows the hiker to get a little more lost without the crowds on any given day. Its’ views are still stunning, its’ difficulty is challenging to say the least, and depending on the time of day that you start, and the day of the week, it’s not entirely impossible to have this trail all to yourself for the day, or at least the appearance of it.
The rail head for Tinker Cliffs starts just off of Route 779 (Catawba Road) in Catawba Virginia. It’s easily reachable from the Interstate 81, and represents a trail that should not be missed in the area. Thanks to a local concrete company, the Andy Layne trail gives access to this Jewel year round as they have graciously allowed the trail to connect from the parking lot to the Appalachian trail just under three miles away. Some caution should be used in the area, as it is private property.
Perhaps the most interesting portion of this hike is the ascent. Beginning by taking the hiker gradually down to an open field, and then to an old rickety bridge, it gives the feeling of building in to something that many of the other nearby trails lack in this area. It offers an appreciative view of the surrounding mountains and the local streams that will be with you for much of the hike to the top.
The elevation gain for Tinker Cliffs is not particularly bad. It starts with the normal long, and consistent switch backs that are familiar to those in this area. At just over 1.3 miles the Andy Layne trail will pass by a small gate and take a turn to the right onto an old fire road. It is here that things get a little cruel for the next half a mile. With no switch backs, steep sections and the feeling of a roller coaster ride, this section will make the hiker appreciate leveling off at the Appalachian Trail at the top. It’s a grueling 900ft climb in just under a half mile, and can take well over 45 minutes to get through. Caution should be taken on this section as well, as the steepness of the grade can present a problem with those with bad knees, ankles or during a solid rain. The ground is not particularly stable under foot on the return trip. While trekking poles are certainly not required for this hike, they do come in handy on the return trip of Andy Layne Trail.
Following the nightmarish elevation on the fire road, you be welcomed by Scorched Earth Gap and a right hand turn onto the Appalachian Trail. From here it’s a short and winding trek to the Tinker Cliffs. Once here, you will be welcomed to some of the prettiest views off of the Appalachian Trail in Virginia. The cliffs wind around to give you a total picture of the Catawba Valley and Fincastle to the North. It is simply a stunning place with plenty of room to take in a lunch or enjoy some time in solitude. And, with plenty of room at the top, and a far lower hiker count than many trails in the surrounding area, you should get to enjoy your summit in relative peace on any given day.
The return trip from Tinker Cliffs is a straight return from where you came. If you’re looking to extend your hike, you can continue south on the Appalachian trail for another 5 miles and make McAfee’s Knob to either overnight at the nearby campsites, or turn your day into a nearly 18 mile out and back.
Difficulty: Tinker cliffs contains many normal switch backs on the Andy Layne trail; however, almost 1000 feet of elevation gain on the Fire Road portion of the trail represents and extremely strenuous climb up to Scorched Earth Gap where the trail will level off. While the overall elevation gain is not the same as local sister hikes, McAfee’s Knob and Dragons tooth, it does represent a far more strenuous trek. Hiking poles are not required, but you may find them helpful when dealing with this portion of the hike. A lack of fresh water sources along the way also means the need for supplemental hydration, particularly during this portion of the hike. Many will find this to be the most strenuous hike in the area and along the Appalachian Trail throughout the Roanoke Valley.
Directions: The parking area for Tinker Cliffs and the Andy Lane Trail head is easy to find from Rt. 311 in Catawba. From interstate 81 take exit 141 to Rt 311, staying on 311 for 8 miles and taking a right on to 779 In Catawba for another 8 miles. The trail head will be on the left.
Alternatively, you can take the Exit for Route 220 North from Interstate 81, and in 2 miles take a left on to Rout 779, for 8.4 miles, and turn left into the parking lot for the trail head.
Other Hikes in the Area: McAfee’s Knob and Dragon Tooth