Linville Gorge Wilderness Area

Hiking in the NC Smokies

Ultimate Guide to Linville Gorge Wilderness Area

The Linville Gorge Wilderness Area, often called the “Grand Canyon of the East,” stands as one of the most rugged and wild gorges in the eastern United States. It’s an outdoor paradise perfect for hikers and backpackers seeking adventure and breathtaking scenery.

Historical Background

Before European settlers arrived, the Cherokee Indians called this stunning landscape “Eseeoh,” meaning a river of many cliffs. The gorge got its current name from explorer William Linville and his son, John, who met a tragic end in 1766 at the hands of the Cherokees.

Location and Management

Located roughly 60 miles northeast of Asheville, the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area is accessible via the Blue Ridge Parkway near milepost 314. This natural wonder is entirely within the Pisgah National Forest and is managed by the Grandfather Ranger District of the U.S. Forest Service. Covering nearly 12,000 acres, it ranks as the third-largest wilderness area in North Carolina.

Formal Protection

The formal protection of Linville Gorge began in 1952 when John D. Rockefeller funded the land purchase. When the Wilderness Act was signed into law in 1964, Linville Gorge was among the first areas designated as wilderness under the new National Wilderness Preservation System.

Terrain and Elevation

The gorge’s terrain is as dramatic as it gets, with elevations ranging from 1,300 feet at the Linville River to 4,120 feet atop Gingercake Mountain. Expect steep, rugged landscapes dotted with rock formations and blanketed by a dense mix of deciduous hardwoods, pines, and a variety of smaller trees and plants. The Linville River carves through the gorge for nearly 12 miles, dropping about 1,900 feet before it flows into the wide plains of the Catawba Valley.

Flora and Fauna

Linville Gorge is a botanical treasure trove with five species of rare plants, four types of rhododendrons, and pockets of old-growth forests that have never felt the axe. The diverse plant life includes hickory, oak, maple, locust, poplar, fir, Carolina hemlock, sand myrtle, red chokeberry, azalea, turkey beard, yellow root, silverbell, orchids, ninebark, and wild indigo. Animal enthusiasts will be delighted by sightings of bears, deer, foxes, raccoons, skunks, turkeys, grouse, vultures, owls, hawks, peregrine falcons, and trout. However, be cautious of the copperheads and timber rattlers that also call this area home.

Recreation Opportunities

Whether you’re into hiking, backpacking, mountain biking, or rock climbing, Linville Gorge has something for you. Camping is allowed, but you’ll need a permit from May 1st to October 31st. Hunting and fishing are also permitted with the appropriate licenses.

For those seeking spectacular views, don’t miss Linville Falls, where you can admire the waterfalls from multiple vantage points. Wiseman’s View, a rock outcropping near the center of the west rim, offers outstanding panoramic views. For an underground adventure, head to Linville Caverns, a privately owned cave accessible from U.S. Route 221.

Hiking in Linville Gorge Wilderness Area

With 39 miles of trails weaving through the gorge, hiking here is thrilling and challenging. Most trails start along the gravel forest service roads that traverse the east and west rims and lead down toward the river. The terrain is steep and strenuous, perfect for those seeking a serious workout. At the bottom of the gorge lies the longest trail in the wilderness area, the 11.5-mile Linville Gorge Trail, which runs along the west side of the river.

As this is a Federal Wilderness Area, trails are not well marked or maintained, making it crucial for hikers to carry a detailed trail map. Beginners and those without land navigation training should stick to the basic and shorter routes to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience.

Get ready to explore one of the wildest places in the East, where adventure awaits at every turn and nature’s beauty is fully displayed.

West Rim Trails

Seven trails originate from the Kistler Memorial Highway (NC 1238) on the west rim of Linville Gorge. They connect with the Linville Gorge Trail, which parallels the Linville River for roughly 11.5 miles.

Moving from north to south:

Linville Falls (2.8 miles)

Erwins View Trail: Enjoy three overlooks showcasing the gorge’s powerful waterfalls (1.8 miles RT).
Lower Falls Trail: Get up close to the Lower Falls and Linville River (1.0 mile RT).
Additional Trail: Leads you deeper into Linville Gorge (1.4 miles RT).

Pine Gap Trail (1 mile)

The easiest descent into the gorge intersects with the Linville Gorge Trail at the bottom.

Bynum Bluff Trail (1 mile)

Begins gently before a sharp, strenuous descent to the bottom.

Cabin Trail (0.75 miles)

A steep and challenging hike, dropping 1,000 feet in just three-quarters of a mile to connect with the Linville Gorge Trail.

Babel Tower Trail (1.3 miles)

Very strenuous but popular, perfect for entering and exiting the gorge.

Sandy Flats (1 mile)

Difficult and primitive, descends to the river. Note: The trail was largely wiped out by hurricanes and not planned for restoration.

Conley Cove Trail (1.35 miles)

Heavily used, it intersects with the scenic Rock Jock Trail.

Rock Jock Trail (2.8 miles)

Primitive and challenging, hugging the west rim for about a mile before ascending.
Pinch In Trail (1.5 miles)

Notoriously steep and rugged, descending over 2,000 feet in just over a mile.

East Rim Trails

Most trails on the east rim are accessed from Forest Road 210 off NC 181, south of Jonas Ridge, with some via Gingercake Acres Road (SR 1265) and Old Gingercake Road (SR 1264).

Moving from north to south:

Brushy Ridge (2 miles)

A strenuous hike starts on an old forest road with sharp descents that offer views of Hawksbill, Table Rock, and Babel Tower.

Jonas Ridge (2.4 miles)

Difficult and primitive, summiting Sitting Bear Mountain and heading towards Gingercake Mountain. Offers breathtaking views of Linville Gorge, Hawksbill Mountain, and Table Rock.

Lunch by Linville River at Devils Hole

Devils Hole Trail (1.5 miles)

Short climb before descending 1,160 feet through rhododendrons, hemlock, and oak, reaching the Linville River.

Spence Ridge Trail (1.75 miles)

Popular and easier route to the gorge bottom, with a bridge crossing the Linville River, connecting with the Linville Gorge Trail.

Little Table Rock Trail (1.1 miles)

Difficult and primitive, connecting the Spence Ridge Trail with Table Rock Trail.

Table Rock Summit Trail (1.2 miles)

Strenuous but popular, leading to the 3,930-foot summit of Table Rock, with panoramic views perfect for hawk migration viewing in September.

Chimbric Ridge Trail (1.3 miles)

Very difficult, descending roughly 1,500 feet from the Shortoff Mountain Trail.

Shortoff Mountain Trail (8 miles)

Popular and heavily used, it is part of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail and offers stunning views of the Appalachian Mountains, farmlands, and Lake James.

Other Trails

Linville Gorge Trail (11.5 miles)

The longest trail in the wilderness, following the Linville River through hardwood forests, cliffs, boulders, and cascades. A strenuous hike requiring permits for overnight stays between May 1st and October 31st.

Mountains-To-Sea Trail (11 miles from rim to rim)

The trail spans 1,150 miles across North Carolina and covers 27 miles in Linville Gorge, passing through the eastern and western rims and following the Shortoff Mountain Trail.

Mountain Biking

While mountain biking is not permitted within the Wilderness area, nearby rides include:

  • Wiseman’s View Ride (8.2 miles)
  • Table Rock Loop (26.2 miles)
  • Linville Gorge Loop (49.2 miles)

Explore these incredible trails and picturesque spots to fully experience the natural beauty and rugged charm of Linville Gorge Wilderness Area!

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