EDITOR’S NOTE: Third in a series of articles on the trails of northwestern North Carolina.
The deepest and among the most rugged gorges east of the Mississippi River, with nearly 40 miles of trails, is less than a two-hour drive west of the Wilkesboros.
The Linville Gorge, with the Linville River at its center, is protected as a nearly 12,000-acre “wilderness area” of the Pisgah National Forest in Burke and McDowell counties.
The Linville River drops about 90 feet into the head of the gorge at Linville Falls, a series of cascades near the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The river drops nearly 2,000 feet in the 12-mile-long gorge, with elevations ranging from 1,300 feet at the river to 4,120 feet atop Gingercake Mountain on the eastern rim.
Trails weave around rock formations and cliffs on either side of the gorge.
The river exits the southern end of the gorge near Shortoff Mountain at a point about five miles north of Lake James.
Table Rock and Hawksbill mountains are other landmark peaks on the eastern rim, visible from as far away as the Brushy Mountains in southern Wilkes County on clear days.
Most of the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area’s numerous steep trails start either at Kistler Memorial Highway (N.C. 1238) on the gorge’s west rim, or Gingercake Road (Forest Service Road 210), which runs roughly parallel to much of the east rim. Both are gravel roads.
Most of these trails intersect with the 11.5- mile Linville Gorge Trail. It passes through hardwood forests, cliffs, boulders and cascades on the west side.
On west side
Trails on the west side of the gorge, from north to south, are:
• Linville Falls Trail (2.8 miles), offering multiple views of the waterfall in two sections;
• Pine Gap Trail (one mile), probably the easiest route into the gorge due to its relatively gradual grade;
• Bynum Bluff Trail (one mile), which starts out gradually before plummeting down a sharp ridge to the river;
• Cabin Trail (0.75 miles), which drops about 1,000 feet in three-quarters of a mile to the river;
• Babel Tower Trail (1.3 miles), among the most popular trails;
• Sandy Flats (one mile), reportedly a difficult trail due to storm damage;
• Conley Cove Trail (1.35 miles), a popular trail that intersects with Rock Jock Trail;
• Rock Jock Trail (2.8 miles), which runs along the west rim for about a mile before cresting at the top of the gorge;
• Pinch-In Trail (1.5 miles), which descends nearly 2,000 feet to the river.
The northern end of Kistler Memorial Highway can be reached by taking N.C. 183 south from the community of Linville Falls for about a mile until it intersects with Kistler Memorial.
To reach the southern end of Kistler Memorial, go west on U.S. 70 from Morganton to N.C. 126 in Nebo. Take N.C. 126 across Lake James and continue eight miles before turning left on Kistler Memorial Highway.
On east side
Trails on the east side of the gorge, from north to south, are:
• Brushy Ridge (two miles), with the first half using an old roadbed before it makes a sharp descent into the gorge. The second half provides spectacular views of Hawksbill and Table Rock mountains and Babel Tower;
• Jonas Ridge (2.4 miles), which goes across the summit of Sitting Bear Mountain and toward Gingercake Mountain, with views into the gorge and of Hawksbill and Table Rock mountains;
• Devils Hole Trail (1.5 miles), which starts with a short climb and then drops 1,160 feet while passing through a hemlock and oak forest with rhododendron understory. It then crosses a small stream, makes a short climb to a cliff top and descends to the river;
• Spence Ridge Trail (1.75 miles), which makes a relatively mild descent to a bridge across the river to the Linville Gorge Trail;
• Little Table Rock Trail (1.1 miles), which connects the Spence Ridge Trail with the Table Rock Trail;
• Table Rock Summit Trail (1.2 miles), which leads to the 3,930-foot summit of Table Rock Mountain. From the summit, there are 360-degree views that include the gorge;
• Chimbric Ridge Trail (1.3 miles), which descends roughly 1,500 feet to the river from the Shortoff Mountain Trail, just past Chimney Gap;
• Shortoff Mountain Trail (eight miles), a popular ridge line trail with long range views of the mountains to the west, the Piedmont to the east and Lake James to the south. It encompasses part of the Mountains to the Sea Trail.
To reach Gingercake Road from Morganton, go north on U.S. 181 for about 23 miles before turning left onto Gingercake Road. At the first fork, turn left and continue on Gingercake Road through Gingercake Acres subdivision.
A free permit is required for camping on Friday and Saturday nights and holidays from May 1 through Oct. 31. Day use permits are not required. Permitted users are limited to 50 per night. The district office can permit 35 users per night by reservation. No permit is needed for weekday camping.
For more information, call the Pisgah National Forest’s Grandfather Ranger District office at 828-652-2144 (or 2144). Maps are available by calling that same number.
There are trail signs at trailheads, but trails don’t have signs or blazes once inside the wilderness. Hikers are advised to have and know how to read topographical maps and use a compass.
About the Linville Gorge
• The Linville Gorge was named for hunters William Linville and his son, John, killed by Indians in the lower end of the gorge in 1766. This Linville family lived on land that now is part of Tanglewoood Park in Forsyth County. William Linville was Daniel Boone’s brother-in-law. The Cherokee Indian name for the Linville Gorge was “Eseeoh,” meaning a river of many cliffs.”
• Phil Phelan wrote, “The Ultimate Hiker’s Guide to the Linville Gorge Hiking Circuit: The Toughest Hiking Circuit East of the Rocky Mountains.” This book describes a continuous 33.06-mile route all the way around the gorge, broken into sections and starting and ending at Pine Gap.
• several scenes for the movie, “Last of the Mohicans,” were filmed in the gorge.
• Wiseman’s View on the west rim is a popular place to look for the Brown Mountain Lights at night, are a phenomenon that have been explained as the phosphorescent glow of certain plant species, reflections of urban lights below and even paranormal causes.
• In 1964, the gorge became one of the first formally designated wilderness areas under the new National Wilderness Preservation System. The land was purchased with funds donated by John D. Rockefeller in 1952, on the condition that it remain in its natural state.
• The area around Linville Falls is one of the few places in the mountains where the Rosebay, Catawba and Carolina rhododendron grow side by side.
• Parts of the gorge escaped clearcutting in the early 1900s, so it features some of the best remnant stands of old growth forest in the southern Appalachians.
• Table Rock Base Camp of the N.C. Outward Bound School has been near the eastern rim of them gorge for over 50 years.