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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Linville Gorge: North Carolina's Deepest Secret

"So you've been here before?" I'm asked as we travel down I-40 towards Morganton, NC. "Lots," I reply, considering the significance of my response. You see, I'm the type of backpacker who likes to plan a trip that thoroughly samples what an area has to offer and then I'm done with it - been there, done that. Not so with the 12,002 acre Linville Gorge Wilderness Area. Despite countless day hikes, dozens of overnights and a good measure of multi-day treks, I know with a profound certainty that it will be quite some time before I'm finished with “The Gorge.”

Often referred to as the "Grand Canyon of the East," Linville Gorge offers some of the most rugged and wild terrain in existence in the eastern U.S. It is increasingly rare to find opportunities for true solitude so close to civilization, but with easy access as close as 17 miles from I-40, the Gorge somehow offers its visitors insulation from crowds, city lights, and traffic sounds.

As we leave the trailhead at Wolf Pit Road in the Southeastern corner of the wilderness the initial climb immediately reveals one of the Gorge's constant dynamic processes: fire and regrowth. Lush vegetation and wildflowers flourish in the rich soil left behind by the charred trees from several recent fires. A mile later though, we merge onto the North Carolina Mountains to Sea Trail (MST), and leave the fire-scarred slopes of Shortoff Mountain in exchange for the sweeping vistas along the cliffs of its summit.

Elevations in the gorge range from 1300’ to 4040’ and the walls are often steep, providing dramatic scenery, rock-climbing opportunities, and ideal nesting sites for the area’s Peregrine Falcons.

Linville Gorge was one of the first formally designated National Wilderness Areas upon passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964. Prior to that, the Gorge’s steep walls had been highly effective in protecting the resident wildlife, old-growth forest, and Cherokee people for whom the Gorge and several of its prominent features were held as sacred. Few explorers of European descent ventured into the Gorge at all until the recent past, due in part to the experience of the Gorge’s namesakes John and William Linville who were scalped by the Cherokee residents of the Gorge in 1766. Today the Cherokee are gone, but the old-growth forest of oak, maple, hickory, locust, poplar, fir and Carolina hemlock remain as well as ample fauna including black bear, deer, squirrel, raccoon, grouse, turkey, vultures, herons, owls, osprey, hawks, woodpeckers, salamanders, lizards, copperheads and timber rattlers, trout and small-mouth bass.

Continuing north along the Eastern Rim of the Gorge on the MST we are guided by three of the most prominent – and popular – features of the area: The Chimneys, Table Rock and Hawksbill. Several trailheads are found at the base of these three iconic summits which draw a steady flow of day-hikers. Like many of them we cannot resist the craggy playground of The Chimneys and after exploring its pillars, crags and caves, we decide to stay and enjoy the jaw-dropping 360 degree vistas. We’re well rewarded for our site-finding prowess by both sunset and sunrise with uninterrupted views of the Gorge, Lake James to the South, Mt. Mitchell (Highest peak east of the Mississippi at 6684’) to the west, Grandfather Mountain (elevation 5946’) to the North and seemingly endless misty ridges to the East. In the morning we’re tempted to summit Table Rock via the one-mile spur trail, but skip it in exchange for better chances at solitude along the primitive Little Table Rock Trail and beyond. After listeningg the muffled roar of the river for the past 10 miles, we decide it is time to get a close-up.

The Linville River snakes approximately 13 miles through the gorge, descending from the dramatic triple drop of Linville Falls 1200’ to the Gorge’s southern terminus near Lake James. Shadowing the river nearly the entire length is the Linville Gorge Trail (LGT). The LGT can be accessed from the east via the Spence Ridge Trail and from the West Rim via a handful of steep, but popular trails. While some trails in Linville Gorge are tamer than others this is a true wilderness; signage is scarce and trails are rarely maintained. Excellent fitness and backcountry skills are a must – with route-finding paramount. These truths were illustrated in living color when we met a local backcountry SAR team on the MST en route to a hiker in distress. The victim, described as a female physician in her mid-thirties, had been hiking with her husband when they found themselves at the bottom of the dead-ended Cambric Branch Trail. Facing extremely steep terrain, slow going and stifling humidity ushered in by a tropical weather front she had begun to experience heart palpitations and was fading in and out of consciousness. Later reports revealed the source of the problem: extreme dehydration.

Crossing the river at the only bridge in the gorge at the Spence Ridge Trail we turn left onto the LGT and immediately set our sights on finding a primo swimming hole; Cathedral Falls. Ducking under the archway formed by two dump-truck sized boulders we stagger spellbound into what, in any other location, would be the most popular swimming hole in the state. Today, at the bottom of this dramatic cut in the earth, it’s all ours. Our little oasis has 5’, 10’ and 15’ rock jumps into seemingly bottomless pools, a polished river-rock beach, several bouldering routes, and a cave/falls combo that boggles the senses. After lunching, basking, swimming, scrambling, and diving we reluctantly pack up to move on. There is clear evidence of the abundant trout population just below the surface, but the sun is too high for the fish to be interested in eating, so I keep my fly rod holstered for now.

Heading south on the LGT we crane our necks to see the cliffs above where we had spent the day prior. The navigability of the trail along the river varies considerably. Some stretches feature difficult-to-travel trail strewn with blow-downs. Other sections are wide and clear with occasional high-impact areas located at the base of each of the Western Rim descents from Kistler Memorial Highway. Unfortunately, some of these sites see more than their fair share of trash as weekend-warriors descend steep trails from the rim laden with heavy amenities and are unwilling to pack the load out on the uphill return. Still, on this peak season weekend in the heart of the gorge, we see more wildlife than humanity which is just fine with us.

The northern section of the Gorge – explored in depth on multiple previous expeditions - is defined by the tight and serpentine canyon-like walls and impressive cascades resulting from the river’s navigation thereof. In addition to the powerful Linville Falls at the northern terminus of the Gorge, a major highlight in this section is Babel Tower – a prominent pinnacle of rock rising from the center of the Gorge, wrapped in 300 degrees by the winding river. It was from a ledge on this tower that I enjoyed panoramic views of the Leonid Meteor Shower in 2001. Below the tower is a locally-renowned swimming hole with a corkscrew waterslide and 10’, 15’, and 40’ cliff jumps.

Passing the southernmost of the Rim to River trails, Pinch-In, I employ some of my prior scouting and suggest we seek out a tried and true campsite on an island in the river. Crossing the tree that served as our bridge, we settle into the important business of fishing, swimming, pitching camp and cooking. With three of the river’s natives caught and released, a swim under my belt, and a full belly it was time to retire.

Showers during the night bring a quick three foot rise to the river’s level at our island. Safely out of reach of the murky rapids we pack for the final day in the Gorge. The southern end of the LGT is actually a dead end; private property at the mouth of the gorge has prevented the Forest Service from establishing an outlet to the trail. To exit the gorge on the southern end requires traversing out of the bottom of the gorge on the west side and intersecting with the MST. A newly blazed, but heretofore unsanctioned trail achieves this traverse in a mile – simply follow the LGT until you meet blue-circle blazes which ascend to the Southwest. Seeking to kill some extra time and tempt fate, our party opts instead for a cross country traverse across the steep slopes below The Pinnacle. We’re at once rewarded by views the cliffs below Shortoff and an intimate perspective on the deep forest of the southern gorge and punished by the rugged terrain and numerous obstacles. All present and intact we arrive at the MST and turn East to complete our loop. Only two details stand in our way: a ford of the swollen Linville River and an 1800’ climb up Shortoff Mountain.

Having watced the river swallow the beach where we’d pumped our water the night before, we are concerned about the ford ahead. It doesn’t help when a northbound backpacker points to his navel saying, “It was up to here on me, but I was lucky – I crossed yesterday.” Arriving at the ford our fears are reinforced as the river appears the color of chocolate milk with no indication of the slightest riffle at the prescribed crossing point.

After thorough scouting though, we find a promising route linking a rocky island and a prominent riffle to cross. Although the current is powerful we are able to cross without incident, mostly at knee level with a waist deep dunk at the far bank.

The final climb brings satisfying closure as we return to the fire-scarred yet resilient slopes of Shortoff Mountain – the prominent Southwestern punctuation of Linville Gorge. The new growth is studded with vibrant wildflowers, offerring a sharp contrast to the charred remnants of trees which reflect the late afternoon sun. Descending the final leg of the trail back to the Wolf Pit parking area our aching bodies and high spirits remind us of the punishing beauty of the trails of Linville Gorge.

The Hike: Linville Gorge Loop – 22 Miles Click Here for Interactive map and GPS Downloads
Starting at Wolf Pit Road parking area ascend the Wolf Pit Trail turning right onto the NC Mountains to Sea Trail (white circle blazed). Continue North on the MST along the Gorge’s East Rim along Shortoff Mountain, up and over the craggy formations and sweeping views (and stellar camping) of the Chimneys and to the base of Table Rock (a 1 mile spur trail leads to the summit). Next bear left onto the Little Table Rock Trail followed by another Left at its junction with the Spence Ridge Trail which drops to, and crosses, the Linville River. Once on the West Side of the River turn left onto the Linville Gorge Trail (LGT) and parallel the river headed south between the plunging walls of the Gorge. After5.5 miles on the LGT, you’ll pass the remains of an old homestead and crossing a tributary the trail beings to climb. Turn left onto the Blue-Blazed, 1 mile connector and follow the traverse to reconnect with the Mountains to Sea Trail. A left onto the MST will bring you down to the River for a 60 yard-wide ford followed by a 1800’ climb back to the shoulder of Shortoff Mountain and the Wolf Pit Trail. A right here will return you to the parking area following a one mile descent.
From Interstate 40 in North Carolina Take exit 105 for NC-18 toward Morganton/Shelby. Continue on NC18/Green St./NC181 for 6.5 Miles and turn left onto Frank Whisnant Rd/NC-1250. Follow Frank Whisnant Rd/NC-1250 for 2.5 miles and turn right onto NC 126/Yellow Mountain Rd for 6 miles. Turn right onto Wolf Pit Road and follow to parking area at its end.
Red Tape:
A permit is required to camp overnight on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and holidays between May 1st and October 31st. No more than 10 people per group. Maximum length of stay is 3 days and 2 nights. Call the Grandfather District Ranger at 828-652-4841 or 2144 to secure a permit.
More information and data on Linville Gorge and its trails can be found at:


  1. Very nice loop there Peter!


  2. Great hike. Noticed you used the mastermap from There's a wealth of information that's been compiled by a lot of dedicated Gorge Rats on that site. Contributions to the sites are always welcome from people who hike and love the gorge. Hope to see you there sometime.


  3. Hey, thanks for the great description!! I am interested in that area and the route that you took. Do you think it is reasonable to do in 2 days of hiking? So like 10-12 miles each day... or is that too ambitious? I am an experienced backpacker but I've never been to the linville gorge area. please email me at pebakke@ gmail . com. thank you!!!


  4. "Excellent fitness and backcountry skills are a must"

    If only you'd told me that beforehand...

    Someday I'll get back in shape and follow you around in the woods again :)

  5. Is there a shortened version of this loop? Anything we could do over 2 days and 1 night? Around 14 miles total?

  6. To Anonymous:
    No. A shotened version of this loop could easily be made by hiking from the Chimney Gap Saddle camp down to the Linville River via Chimney Branch. No such trail has been established.

  7. This Loop goes by the name ITAYG. (Is That AllYa Got?). The name is intended to be sporty and sarcastic...yeah, dont be fooled. ITAYG will whip all but the toughedt Ass.!

    Most hikers are not yet aware that there is a mirror loop that circles thebnorthrn half of the Gorge. This north half does not have a name and it is tricky to follow since it is a network of about 15 smaller trail segments strung together. The ITYAG (southern loop) and the Northern Loop can be merged together creating one huge 39 mile hike entirely within the Wilderness...and it does not follow a road. This monstrous network is called the Grand Loop.
    Few have done it.

  8. There is no bridge at Spence Ridge.

  9. Doing this trail next month! Thanks for the tips!!!


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