Linville Gorge Wilderness
4 days/3 nights/25 miles
Linville Gorge Wilderness is an unwelcoming place. It is anchored by Linville Falls at the north end, which is a part of the Blue Ridge Parkway. But The Gorge is not the falls. It is not a park. It isn't friendly. The Gorge is wild, untamed, rugged, and at times dangerous. So, it only made sense that as someone who seeks adventure that I should visit this place.
The Gorge consists of a number of official trails, but in order to create better backpacking options and loops, a group of locals who have dubbed themselves "Gorge Rats" have, over time, helped to create and map a network of unofficial trails. The quality of these trails varies greatly and as someone from out of town it was difficult to gauge the quality of the trails I chose for our loop. A "master map" is kept by them on the forums at linvillegorge.net. I ended up using the Avenza PDF map that is available on lgmaps.org to navigate our route. Using my smartphone in airplane mode was energy-efficient and it was accurate to within 10 feet, even when sitting in a cave. I do not recommend backpacking The Gorge without some form of GPS. There are many, many unmarked trails and it is easy to get turned around.
Sarah and I arrived at the Linville Falls Trailhead on a Monday morning and headed out on the Plunge Basin Trail. This was a well used trail with a stop at a viewing area at the falls. After a brief stop to check them out we headed down to the Linville River. There is no trail by the river, even on the "master map", but in order to cut out the northeast quadrant of The Gorge a walk down the river to connect to Red North Trail is required. It was a nice start to a difficult hike.
Red North Trail shoots straight up into the bush away from the river. The bottom of this trail was the least used section we encountered. I am hesitant to call it a trail. It is essentially a bush wack straight up hill. The first 1000 feet you hike on it is difficult and annoying at times. Don't let "1000 feet" fool you. It sounds short, but it doesn't feel short. Sarah wasn't not able to hide her displeasure with this trail very well.
After enduring the bottom of Red North we were happy to get onto Brushy Ridge trail. This was an official trail that we planned to take to Red South, but we decided to take a detour to check out a spot called Reference Rock. We stopped here for a short bite to eat and to enjoy our first views of the trip.
From there we hopped onto Red South, which was a much nicer trail. It was still challenging in that a lot of the trail was a thick layer of duff on a bit of a slope. Any hiker will tell you that walking along a side slope gets old really fast. It wears on your knees and your feet very quickly.
Along Red South we watered up at Henson Creek because we knew we'd be camping on a ridge that night and wouldn't have access to a water source.
Thankfully at the southern end of Red South we came to Devil's Cliff, which provided insane vistas.
The Devil's Cliff trail brings you slightly up hill along a ridge to Jonas Ridge. An official trail that is very well used and maintained. Walking on it felt like a total dream. Flat, clear, wide. Much needed relief after day 1.
We made camp on Jonas Ridge just north of Sitting Bear Rock. The site was tucked into the woods and about 25 feet from an overlook that gave us great views of the Blue Ridge Mountains on the outside of Linville Gorge.
In the morning I woke up just before sunrise. One of the highlights of this trip was watching the sun come up over the Blue Ridge Mountains.
After a bit of lollygagging we packed up and headed back onto Jonas Ridge. Our first stop was Sitting Bear Rock. A massive rock just sitting there in the woods. An impressive sight.
Along Jonas Ridge we were able to stop for some more great views of The Gorge. One of the greatest things about this area is the ample opportunities to be amazed by how large it is. When hiking here you have to build time into your trip to stop and look.
Jonas Ridge brought us to Hawksbill Mountain. One of the major features of the Linville Gorge. We spent a good hour up there with the place to ourselves. It was absolutely stunning.
After enjoying the relative ease of Jonas Ridge we received a reminder of how rugged Linville is when we started onto an unofficial trail called "Ledge." Ledge allows hikers to circumvent a road walk by taking you down and around the front of Hawksbill Mountain.
This trail is what I'd call "picky." You're always picking your way around some obstacle. Rocks, boulders, roots, trees, rhododendron, laurel. It isn't a long bit of trail, but because of how picky it is it takes a couple hours to get through.
From Ledge you get onto a bit of nice trail called Ledge-Spence Connector, which connects Ledge to the Spence Ridge Trail. Duh. Check out this awesome stone couch we found!
Spence Ridge was another official and well-maintained trail. We could even walk 2 abreast for a lot of it. This brought us to the river where we'd cross.
Unfortunately after our river crossing the weather made a turn for the worse and we found ourselves socked in under a rock overhang at an area called Cathedral Falls.
After the rain let up we hiked south and decided to make camp near the river at the bottom of a trail called Conley Cove. It was nice having easy access to a water source and someone even left a clothesline up for us to dry our stuff out!
In the morning we had a choice to make: head back north toward Linville Falls or get some more great views by hiking up Conley Cove to Rock Jock trail. We decided to do the latter! Views always win.
After a 45 minute break taking in the views at Fern Point on Rock Jock we headed back down toward the river and headed north. The section of the Linville Gorge Trail between Conley Cove and Babel Tower was, for me, the epitome of a rugged trail. Overgrown with rhododendron in many places and littered with blow downs, roots, rocks, scrambles, and creek crossings.
This was a difficult section of trail for me both physically and mentally. The plan was to camp somewhere near Babel Tower, but when we arrived we noticed a homeless person had made a permanent looking camp near by. Very sketchy! So, we hiked on to Bynum Bluff. The trail between Babel Tower and Bynum Bluff was also a very rugged hike and having to do it later in the evening was not fun. We made camp at 8:30pm and after a quick dinner tucked into bed for some much needed rest.
From Bynum Bluff we hiked onto Pine Gap Trail, which was an official trail, but still offered some challenges. We were close to the end of our hike at this point. Following Pine Gap we hopped onto the Marion Wright Trail which is probably the most well maintained trail I've ever seen. Bravo to whoever looks after it.
From there it is an easy gravel path back to the Linville Falls Visitor Center. I think the day hikers could smell the funk coming off of us.
I had no idea how rugged a place Linville Gorge was. Even watching videos and reading trip reports didn't prepare me for the reality. Thankfully we were well prepared and had a good time. I am looking forward to visiting this place again some day with a better understanding of what it takes to plan a successful trip!