Welcome to 18 square miles of the most rugged area east of the Rockies
I have fallen in love with hiking in many places. The strangest was a gas station in North Carolina. It was the end of a long day of hiking and fishing in the Linville Gorge—my first real outdoor adventure—and I was sticking my hand into a refrigerator to grab a Coke when it occurred to me that I had not thought about work all day.
I was a hiking newbie and had been transfixed by my surroundings. I looked over at my friend, Ryan, who was paying for his snack. He is the outdoorsiest guy I know, a wilderness mentor to me, and at the time we were both writers at Sporting News. The fact that I didn’t talk with him about work, or even think about it in the previous 12 hours, spoke to how much the Gorge absorbed my attention.
Coke in hand, I walked to the counter, bummed that in addition to returning to the real world physically, I was headed there mentally, too. This was during a dark period in journalism, in which many of my friends lost their jobs. I was worried about losing mine. (And a few years later, I did.) Stress crept over me almost like a physical sensation. “This is the first time I’ve thought about work since this morning,” I said to Ryan.
And he said something I’ll never forget: “Now do you understand why I do this so much?”
Since then, Ryan and I have introduced several of our friends to the Gorge’s beauty and ruggedness. The Linville Falls, with three falls totaling 150 feet, are the main attraction from a touristy point of view, especially considering the access to them from the Blue Ridge Parkway is easy. But as beautiful as the falls are, the short hike to them does not capture the essence of the Gorge any more than the Statue of Liberty captures New York City.
I thought I had been to the Gorge a good bit after four visits. I thought Ryan was obsessive because his trips numbered in the dozens. As it turns out, both of us are Linville slackers.
“It’s a very magical, spiritual place, especially when you’re in there alone.”
Longtime visitor Chris Blake, 67, couldn’t count his hikes in the Linville Gorge. “Thousands,” is his best guess. He first visited in 1967 when he won a scholarship for an Outward Bound excursion there. (He says he has been an REI co-op member since then, too.) He joined the Army after graduating from high school and, a few years later, he returned to the Linville Gorge as part of his training to become a Green Beret. After he left the Army, he became a college professor and lived in New York City, Charleston and Atlanta. All that time, the Linville Gorge remained a refuge for him.
In the 1990s, he bought a cabin within walking distance of the Gorge and, eventually, he moved there. “It struck me as the one place I’d most like to live,” he says.
In 2000, as he was studying for a Ph.D. in library sciences, he was assigned to compile a bibliography on a favorite topic. He chose the Gorge, and he turned his research into a book, River of Cliffs, which was released in 2005 and revised and re-released this summer. River of Cliffs is the translation of Eeseoh, a Native American description of the river. He also published a book of photographs called Linville Gorge Wilderness Area.
Blake runs Friends of the Linville Gorge (FLOG), a group so informal that he says everyone on earth is a member. FOLG has a contract with the U.S. Forestry Service to maintain trails in the Gorge as volunteers, so Blake is there on an almost daily basis. “It’s a very magical, spiritual place, especially when you’re in there alone,” Blake says. “You really get the sense that it’s the land that time forgot. Eons and eons have worn that riverbed down and tumbled the giant house-sized rocks off the side of the cliff. It makes you feel very small to be in there.”
When my wife and I decided last year that we would move our family from North Carolina to St. Louis, I had no doubt where my last Carolina hiking trip would be. Ryan, another friend named Andy and I put our boots on the trail one crisp spring morning with plans to spend three days hiking and fishing and two nights being lulled to sleep by the Linville River.
“Every year, people get hurt or killed in there."
There is no easing into a hike at the Linville Gorge. Pinch-In Trail is like a roller coaster only with no slow climb up the first big hill, just a plunge down 2,000 feet in a mile and a half. I could see the river, mountains, cliffs and forests all at once, except for when I hiked. Then I could only see my feet, because the trail is steep and loose and I knew that if I took my eyes off of it, my butt, if not my blood, would soon be on it.
“Every year, people get hurt or killed in there. We say it’s the unforgiving carelessness,” Blake says. “They jump out in flip-flops with a lap dog and head down those trails. It’s just a ticket for disaster.” The trail often crosses slick creeks, and there are many places where three points of contact (two feet and a hand) are required.
Those who love Linville often describe it as the most rugged area east of the Rockies. It was designated as a wilderness area by Congress in 1964, the first on the East Coast. “It’s real,” Blake says. “If you get yourself in trouble, it’s you who’s going to get yourself out or not. Even in the 21st century, there’s still a primitive adventure.”
I’ve never seen more than a couple people there at a time, which I find surprising, considering it is rich in beauty and history—and even has a bit of pop culture love. Linville is named after William Linville, an uncle of Daniel Boone who was killed in a Shawnee attack in 1766. Jules Verne set one of his last novels, called Master of the World, in a fictionalized version of Table Rock Mountain, one of the iconic peaks in this wilderness area. And three scenes from Last of the Mohicans, the 1992 movie starring Daniel Day-Lewis, were filmed in Linville.
I hiked there three times before I screwed up the courage to carry my gear into and out of the Gorge. One of the most notorious treks? Cabin Trail. Though short, it climbs roughly 1,000 feet in three-quarters of a mile with a 32 percent average grade. Blake describes the ascent out of Cabin Trail as like walking up a pyramid. Pinch-In isn’t exactly a paved greenway, either, with an average grade of 28 percent. But at least it has switchbacks.
Ryan, Andy and I arrived at the river. The Gorge has the incredible ability to make me to want to stay and go on in equal measure. I wanted to stand on shore and do nothing but pull fish out of the river and put them back in right after that before hiking along the river to find a new fishing spot.
And so it went, all afternoon. Fish, follow the river. Fish, follow the river. We encountered only one other hiker.
Often when I hike, thoughts about the person who cut the trail occupy my mind as the miles tick away. Who spray painted that blaze, I wonder, or decided to put this turn here? Those thoughts are almost always rooted in gratitude. Not on this day. I was mad at whoever cut this sufferfest of a trail.
By the map, it looks like the Linville Gorge Trail runs parallel to the river, which would make you think it's flat. It’s not. The Linville Gorge Loop climbs 5,262 feet and descends 5,264 feet over the course of its 22.3 miles.
Linville isn’t a place for a first-time hiker.
I like difficult hikes, but I want that difficulty to have payoff. I want to lose my breath and crush my legs and destroy my back and in doing so, climb high and be rewarded by the views that await me there. The Linville Gorge Trail seems to be hard just for the sake of being hard. The trail goes up and down and up and down, over and over again—the topographical equivalent of an EKG readout.
All of which to say: Linville isn’t a place for a first-time hiker. Even the flat sections—which are few and hard to get to—are strewn with ankle-busting rocks and fallen trees.
I wouldn’t be writing this if the difficulty in the Linville Gorge didn’t come with its rewards, even if they aren’t of the “we saw 27 states from one peak” variety. Everything seemed brighter, fresher, funnier when we got done the first day. Even my temper went to 11. I tried to dry my socks, and instead, I accidentally burnt them. They were the most expensive socks I’ve ever owned, I wore them once and ruined them. I stomped around the site and growled out loud all the verboten words I had murmured to myself on the trail all day. Andy said he’d never seen me so mad. Which made all three of us laugh until our stomachs hurt.
There is a legend about the Linville Gorge Trail that Blake likes to tell. It involves a mountain man named Franklin. Franklin made a bet that he could traverse the Gorge in a day. He tied his pants to his boots, stuffed leaves down his drawers, drank a pint of white lightning and took off from Lake James headed toward the falls.
As Blake wrote in River of Cliffs: “A companion who followed him said that before he got two miles up the Gorge, he had three copperheads and one rattlesnake stuck to his britches like barbed wire around a fence post. But he won his bet.”
That tale led to the creation of the Franklin Challenge, a now-defunct race from Lake James to the falls, roughly 16.5 miles. The fastest time on record belongs to Brad Sanzenbacker, who completed the journey in 5 hours and 22 minutes.
I tried to decide if that was the worst or best hike I had ever taken. By the time we were 10 minutes down the road, I wanted to turn around and go back.
I have no clue how he did that. It’s one thing to hike or run fast. It’s another thing to do that on a steep, rocky, tree-crossed, root-covered trail. It would take me two days to hike that distance in the gorge, and even then I’d be gassed. On one trip, I found a man’s wedding band near the river. When I got home, I posted about it on a Linville message board. Someone who had lost his ring called me, but we quickly determined the one I had found was not his. He told me he had sweated off 10 pounds, and his ring slipped off of his finger without him knowing it.
I thought he was exaggerating. By halfway through our third day, I knew he wasn’t. We slogged through a downpour before we finally got to the car. I was cold and soaked and cranky and exhausted. At least I still had my wedding ring. I tried to decide if that was the worst or best hike I had ever taken. By the time we were 10 minutes down the road, I wanted to turn around and go back.
Camping in Linville is free, but you need a permit on weekends and holidays May through October. For more information contact the Grandfather Ranger District, 828-652-2144.