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Backpacking Linville Gorge

Updated: Nov 24, 2020

Two friends and I spent a warm fall weekend backpacking Linville Gorge. I’d only been to the gorge twice before, and this trip offered a much more intimate experience with what is now my favorite mountain location in the state.

Flexibility was the name of the game; the trip was full of audibles, all of which turned out for the best. The most consistent audible involved our overall plan of attack, which we systematically pared down from an ambitious 30-mile trek into and around the gorge (with two river crossings) to a modest, but still rewarding, 8.5-mile semi-loop into and out of the west side of the gorge.

Day 1: Descent into the Gorge

Day 1 began with a midday rendezvous in Winston, followed by a short trip to the northwestern part of the gorge, just south of the heavily-trafficked Linville Falls (which we never even saw). Given our relatively late start, we had about 3 hours of daylight to complete our first leg of the journey. So, we decided to scale back our initial goal to hike 10-15 miles to a campsite. Part of this involved choosing an alternative start location, farther into our supposed “loop.” We picked the Babel Tower trailhead, about a mile or two south of our intended start, cutting off 2-4 miles from our round trip. That was Audible #1.

The hike down into the gorge was gorgeous but slow, given our heavy packs and the rocky and leaf-covered trail. The highlight was a narrow ledge along a smooth, moist, massive rock face, much of which was covered with the lushest carpet of moss I’ve ever seen. Greens, reds, and everything in between, and 4” thick. Very cool!

After 3.5 miles, we found the river crossing that we had planned to use on Day 3. The bridge was gone, the water relatively deep and fast, and the rocks too far apart to jump with a pack (and we didn’t realize there was a pulley system). So, we decided that we wouldn’t do a full loop with two river crossings. That was Audible #2.

Continuing down the west side of the gorge, we made pretty slow time, and as the sun receded from view, we had to hunt for campsites earlier than expected. We passed over a couple of sites before finding one nestled inside a set of rock overhangs that formed a cave about 20 feet high and 20 feet deep. Turns out, this was literally a bat cave. As cool as it was, my friend found better offerings about a half mile down the trail, so we turned on our headlamps and made one final push before settling down for the night. We made it about 4.5 miles on this first leg.

Day 2: Gorge Hiking & Herping for ‘Manders

With our dreams of a 30-mile loop a distant memory, we had to figure out an alternate plan that would take us back to our car. We decided to hike farther south along the western shore of the river, set up camp, then cross the river without our packs and do a day hike up the eastern side of the gorge. Well, after arriving at one potential crossing, we ran into some guys that relayed their experience coming from the opposite direction: the river crossing was waist-high, and the trail up the gorge was real steep. So, Audible #3, we ditched the day hike idea and decided to just hang out near our riverside campsite. After all, we were there for a good time, not to prove anything. We clocked in at just under 3 miles for the day.

The afternoon and evening were low-key. My friends didn’t have any luck with the trout, and there weren’t too many birds to watch, but the evening wildlife made up for it. After dinner, we spent an hour or two herping at a muddy seep, and then a rocky creek, both near our campsite. (Herping = looking for amphibians and reptiles—in this case, salamanders.) The ‘manders were out of control! I’ll admit to being a poor naturalist, never before having ventured out to hunt these mostly-nocturnal critters. This sparked a whole new interest for me (and some field guide purchases when I got home). All told, we saw at least 6 different species of salamanders. Literally all of the species were lifers for me (well, one was a new subspecies, not a new species, but I’ll still count it). They included: Black-bellied Salamander (I think), Dusky Salamander (either Northern Dusky or Carolina Mountain Dusky; I’m still not sure), Red Salamander (nymph), Seal Salamander, Blue Ridge Two-lined Salamander, and Blue Ridge Spring Salamander (nymph). Some—like the brightly-colored juvenile Duskies—were extremely abundant, numbering in the dozens.

Day 3: Ascent out of the Gorge

Having made it a whopping 7.5 miles from the northwestern rim of the gorge to our second campsite at the bottom of the gorge farther south, we now had to return to our car. A trail near our campsite—the Pinch-In Trail—provided a steep ascent to the western ridge. From there, we’d only have a ­­5.5-mile hike north along the ridge before reaching our car. So, after a leisurely morning, we headed off for what would be our most challenging day of hiking yet.

Did I say challenging? I meant to say the most intense hike I have ever done in my life. No kidding. It was only 1.1 miles long, but it was essentially straight up, with a 1660-foot elevation gain. No switchbacks. Hauling our not-so-ultralight packs bursting with gear provided my first real workout since recovering from COVID a few weeks prior. This ascent (in addition to some steep descents earlier in the trip) made me glad I bought and brought some trekking poles for the trip. We took lots of breaks, with an equal number of breathtaking views of the gorge; this hike undoubtedly provided the best scenery of the trip. Our iPhone photos don’t do it justice! The rugged, high-relief, dry terrain seemed like we were out West. Many trees were past their prime, but some (like the maples) still had enough fall color to transform the landscape into a striking mix of blue sky, gray rock, evergreens, and red-gold leaves. And although this was by no means a birding trip, I had a real treat when a small flock of Red Crossbills flew overhead—only the second time I’ve seen them in North Carolina!

Near the top of the ascent, we ran into some guys whose truck was parked at the top of the trailhead. I asked if they’d be willing to haul us back to our car, and, voila, Audible #4—we shaved the last 5.5 miles off of our trip. Honestly, I’m not sure if we would have made it back to our car without this windfall.

Overall, it was a fantastic trip. Although we didn’t cover a lot of distance, we had a great time and learned enough about the gorge to better plan our next adventure. And this sparked a newfound nature passion (in me, at least): ‘manders. Because we all know I need another hobby.

Please note: some of the photos in this post were taken by my friends, who hold copyrights.


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