AT: VA-311 to Craig Creek Road (VA-621)

Day One: VA-311 to Camp on Sawtooth Ridge

VA-311 to Pickle Branch Shelter is a strenuous 12.5 miles, particularly since it involves climbing Cove Mountain and Dragon’s Tooth. Maple and I decided to make the stretch a little easier by dividing it into two days, starting our hike on the same day that we drove out to our destination. When we arrived at the parking lot on Craig Creek Road after 2 p.m., our shuttle driver, “Roub”—whose acquaintance we had made at Bryant Ridge Shelter—and his wife “Mama Roub,” were already there, waiting for us. They had very graciously offered to shuttle us, and they were wonderful company. On our way to our starting point on VA-311, they pointed out a popular dining spot among AT hikers, the Homeplace Restaurant, on Catawba Valley Dr. We hoped to go there after our hike—but, alas, it does not open until later in the afternoon. We’ll have to try again.

We knew that it was going to rain, but Maple and I had hoped to make it four miles before camping. That didn’t happen. After two miles, it began to sprinkle, and we found a great tent spot on the ridge. As it turned out, the rain did not begin in earnest for another hour, but by that time we had had coffee, had eaten our dinner, and were comfortable inside our tent.

Day Two: Sawtooth Ridge to Pickle Branch Shelter

In the morning, we awoke to find ourselves above the clouds. The sky had cleared, and it was promising to be a beautiful, though hot, day. We postponed breakfast and got back on the trail by 7:30. Once we got off the ridge, in Catawba Valley, we found the trail muddy and slippery. At one point, a gathering of steers approached us and threatened to block our path. When we arrived at Catawba Creek, we found that the recent rains had made it deep. As there was no bridge, Maple and I had to remove our boots and roll up our pants before crossing. Once across, we rested at a tent spot and had our breakfast.

After crossing Route 624, Maple and I began our ascent up Cove Mountain. Half way up, the trail became quite rocky and began to demand a bit of scrambling. We were told, especially by those going down, that the scrambling would become increasingly difficult and dangerous, that our backpacks would make balancing precarious, and that I might have to use a rope to assist Maple on her ascent. Well, in truth, the scrambling did become more difficult, and Maple and I were both exhausted when we arrived at the top of Dragon’s Tooth, but the ascent was not half so difficult and dangerous as we had been led to believe. We actually made it more treacherous than it had to be, as we made the mistake of getting sidetracked by a false trail that led us up and over several rocks before disappearing

View from Dragon’s Tooth

The combination of heat and physical exertion left us exhausted, and though we stopped for lunch shortly after leaving Dragon’s Tooth, Maple and I still found ourselves plodding along for the last 4.2 miles of our day’s journey. We stopped, probably, every twenty minutes, but eventually found ourselves going downhill toward the shelter. And, once at the shelter, a short but steep descent brought us to the plentiful and cold water of Pickles Branch. There we refilled and cooled off before setting up our tent.

Sharing the shelter with us was a small and pleasantly sociable group of students from Spring Arbor University, in Michigan, led by their teacher, the university’s Library Director, Robbie Bolton. They were enjoying the end-of-semester culmination of a one-credit course called Backpacking and Wilderness Experience. Like us, they were southbound, but there was a second group from SAU that was northbound and that we would cross paths with on the next day.

Day Three: Pickle Branch Shelter to VA-621

Our third day out promised to be another hot one, in the upper 80s. Having had to ration our water the day before, I decided to carry about 1.5 liters extra. We had a four-mile uphill stretch to get to the top of Brush Mountain, where there is a monument to WWII hero Audie Murphie. Surprisingly, there are also two park benches, probably built by the Roanoke ATC.

After three miles downhill, we finally crossed the swift and deep currents of Craig Creek and made it back to our car. What a rewarding adventure!

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