Everything you’ve heard about Linville Gorge is almost true. It’s a rough place, full of snags and blowdowns. The trails aren’t blazed, though there are a few signposts. But it’s a lot less crowded than you’ve been led to believe, and there aren’t many people actually hiking in the gorge itself.
Some call Linville Gorge the “Grand Canyon of the East.” Like the Grand Canyon, it was hot last summer when my husband, Lenny, and I hiked the more than 2,000-foot elevation drop to the Linville Gorge Trail.
From the rim of the gorge, there’s only one way to go: down. We took the Babel Tower Trail, one of several that lead down to the Linville River like fingers. By the time we reached the rocky columns of Babel Tower, I was hot, sweaty and had already drunk much of my water. The map showed the trail paralleling the Linville River, but for most of the way, water was a long way down. The rocky trail hugged the side of the gorge as we bobbed up and down among boulders, under rock ledges and over blowdowns.
When a tree falls down in the gorge, it stays down. From several points on the trail we could see both Hawksbill and Table Rock mountains, the gorge’s signature stone monoliths. The low river level revealed sculpted limestone creations poking up. Above the water’s rush, we heard the pileated woodpecker’s jungle-evoking call.
The trail reached the river at Spence Ridge Bridge, designed as two individual bridges separated by a large, flat boulder. Decorative stone columns hold up a split-log bridge with a handrail—an impressive piece of construction. The bridge leads to the Spence Ridge Trail on the east side of the gorge. We dipped our feet in the river and didn’t want to think about how slowly we were going. The trail climbed back up and through an open cave created by a horizontal slab of rock that had fallen against two vertical stone “columns.”
From its origins at Grandfather Mountain, the Linville River flows through high valleys before reaching Linville Gorge. For 12 miles, it snakes and slashes through the canyon before ending at Lake James in the Piedmont. The gorge is so steep and inaccessible that its trees have never been logged. Linville Gorge became one of three wilderness areas in the East created by an act of Congress in 1964; the other two are Shining Rock in the Pisgah District and Great Gulf in New Hampshire. Encompassing more than 11,000 acres of protected land, the Linville Gorge Wilderness is a solitary world filled with the river’s roar. And because it’s farther from population centers, it’s not as well maintained as Shining Rock.
The trail meets the river again at the Conley Cove Trail, which we were taking back up to the road. The Conley family, which owned a large plantation nearby, built a small log house for hunting parties in the gorge; its stone steps are still in place. I cooled off, refilled my water bottle and popped in an iodine tablet. After swallowing my last bit of chocolate, which by now was more like syrup, it was time to start the hot climb out of the gorge. From the trail, we could see Table Rock sitting square-on and flat, like its namesake piece of furniture.
We reached Kistler Memorial Highway in midafternoon, still miles from our car. Despite its formal name, it’s a winding dirt road with little traffic. Lenny was still way behind me taking another break on a rock, so I started walking the hot and dusty road, like a fugitive from a country-music song. In less than a mile, a Prince Charming in a pickup truck came from the other direction, made a U-turn and drove me back to our car.
From the top
The Cherokee dubbed the waterway “Eeseeoh,” meaning “river of many cliffs”—an apt description of the terrain. The current name honors William Linville, who, along with his son, was killed by Indians while hunting in the area in 1766. The first published account of the incident appeared in The Pennsylvania Gazette and may have been written by Benjamin Franklin.
Table Rock and Hawksbill, which can be seen for miles around, have excited explorers for more than two centuries, including André Michaux from France and Arnold Guyot from Switzerland. Jules Verne, who never set foot in North Carolina, wrote about the area in an adventure story, Master of the World, published in 1904. Once a sacred Cherokee ceremonial site, Table Rock is now a popular climbing destination. And seen from the right angle, the peak of Hawksbill resembles the bill of a great bird of prey.
Ascending Hawksbill (about 1.5 miles round trip) has to be one of the best values for your walking buck. Hawks and vultures circle on thermal currents up above. Rocks jut out at varied angles, sheltering little pools of water. Sand myrtle, a low-lying shrub with small, light-pink flowers, and turkey beard, with its grasslike leaves and white flower stalk, recall vegetation much farther north. Hawksbill offers outstanding views of Table Rock, Shortoff Mountain, Lake James and, on clear days, Mount Mitchell. Far below, the Linville River winds between the canyon walls.
The easy way to see into Linville Gorge without any climbing is to stop at Wiseman’s View on the Kistler Highway. It was LaFayette “Uncle Fete” Wiseman’s favorite campsite when taking out salt licks for the cattle that grazed the mountain in summer. Safely encircled by a stone wall, you get one of the best panoramas in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
A couple of years ago, I led a group of hikers from New Zealand through the Linville Falls Recreation Area. It was the end of their vacation, and they had yet to see a snake (an animal not found in the New Zealand bush).
We explored five different spectacular perspectives of the waterfalls, including Linville Falls, which drops 90 feet before beginning the journey through the gorge. From three overlooks, we witnessed the power of the falling water that carved the gorge. Across from Plunge Basin Overlook, the lower falls plummets into a huge pool surrounded by rocks that looks like a lake on an Italian estate.
Finally, while crossing a bridge just minutes from our cars, one Kiwi shrieked, “That’s a snake!” A large black snake was sunning itself on a nearby ledge. Some hikers pulled out their cameras; others moved away quickly, and a few just stared. They all voted Linville Falls the highlight of their vacation.
[Hike leader and outdoor writers Danny Bernstein is the author of Hiking the Carolina Mountains. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.]