Last Minute ChangesOn a recent four day hiking trip to North Carolina (TR) I allocated one day for Linville Gorge. My nephew Dave and I made the most of this lone day and it ended up being the highlight of the trip. Ironically, when I planned my original agenda Linville Gorge wasn’t even on the radar screen. When plans for heading to the Grayson Highlands didn’t pan out, I started thinking about another alternative, and due mostly to proximity Linville Gorge was the answer. And while the Black Crest Trail was my primary motivation for heading back to North Carolina for this particular trip, the more I researched the gorge the more excited I became. Not having been to Linville Gorge before I solicited help from SP and I received some great recommendations from BobSmith and e-doc, and between their help and quite a few hours researching the area on the web I finally decided on my route.
I wanted to spend an entire day in the gorge and I was interested in seeing both the east and west sides. The plan was to start on the west side and descend the Babel Tower trail, stopping to summit Babel Tower, then take the Linville Gorge Trail to Spence Ridge to get to the east side and summit Table Rock and then return via the same route. From a distance and elevation gain standpoint this route seemed more than reasonable enough to me as I estimated the distance at 10 miles and the elevation gain to be around 4,000 feet. My two bigger concerns were with route finding and the ruggedness of the trail. The trails in Linville Gorge have a reputation for being very difficult to follow as they are not very well maintained or marked. It is well documented that rescues are quite common in the gorge due to hikers getting lost. This made me apprehensive and I wondered frequently that if the trails are this difficult to follow then regardless of how few miles this route was, getting it finished in a single day could be a challenge if I had to spend my time route finding. The gorge trails also have a reputation for not being well groomed. Rocks, boulders, shrubbery and downed trees would be the trail terrain for the day. I saw this as slowing us down as well. I decided that all I could do was show up and give the gorge a try. I knew going in that the day could be challenging. Time would tell.
The day before our hike I picked up a copy of the Forest Service’s topo map for Linville Gorge. This is an excellent map and I highly recommend it for anyone planning on heading down into the gorge. It came in handy on several occasions over the course of our day. I had my Trails Illustrated map that included Linville Gorge, but the detail on this map was much better.
Babel Tower TrailI had read that the gorge can be quite busy so I was happy to see only two other cars at the trailhead on this Friday morning. As we headed down Babel Tower Trail I was surprised by how wide and well groomed the trail was. I started thinking that maybe the ruggedness of the trail was just a myth. It didn’t take long for the trail to narrow and the brush to become a nuisance. The nettles started scratching us and I feared a long day of some moderate bushwhacking. But fortunately this short stretch was the only problem we would have with brush all day. Trust me, there were plenty of downed trees to deal with, but at least we didn’t have to try and follow an overgrown trail. Actually, I would be pleasantly surprised with how easy it was to follow the trails all day long. There were a few times when we had to stop and determine the correct route, but the route finding was no where as difficult as I had feared.
Less than a mile down the trail the views started to open up. We had excellent views to the east side of the gorge and Hawksbill Mountain and Table Rock. The weather was great and the views were spectacular. Dave and I were getting very excited at this point, expecting a great day in Linville Gorge. We would not be disappointed.
Our first mission was to climb Babel Tower. We could see it in front of us when we reached the junction with the Linville Gorge Trail but at first we weren’t sure which way to head as there is no sign pointing the way and there are no cairns. We stopped, pulled out the map, got our bearings and we were on our way. Sort of! The only good info I had was from Bob Smith who told me to veer left for a Class 2 route to the summit. After a few dead ends we started some easy bushwhacking towards the left side that eventually took us to what became a somewhat obvious route. We came out on a rock outcropping and we could see the short ridge crest to the summit. Some easy bushwhacking to the ridge and that would be it. I told Dave to go ahead on his own so I could get some pictures of him as he crossed. I followed shortly after he reached the summit.
Just reaching Babel Tower would have made for a successful day. It was a fun climb and the 360 degree views from the summit were spectacular. The fact that we had the place all to ourselves made it that much better. Actually we hadn’t seen anyone else so far. I was so surprised, and grateful, for the solitude. We spent about 30 minutes on Babel Tower. We could have stayed longer but I knew we had a long day ahead of us yet. This was only confirmed by the awesome view of Table Rock that we had from the summit. Table Rock looked impressive from Babel Tower, but a long way away. It was a little intimidating realizing that we had such a long way to go if we were going to be successful reaching its summit. So we decided it was time to head down. I didn’t want to rush things, but I also knew we had to judicious with our time.
Linville Gorge TrailWe got back to the Linville Gorge Trail and descended pretty quickly to the river. In one spot the river was less than 50 feet below us and there was an obvious trail down. We stopped and took in the views of the cascades at river level. We also spotted a few potential swimming holes as we planned on stopping at one of these on our way out in the afternoon.
The Linville Gorge Trail would be the most difficult part of the day due to the ruggedness of the trail as well as all of the elevation gain and loss. Once we descended to the river the trail continually undulated all the way to Spence Ridge Trail. In any single section there was never more than 100 feet of gain or loss, usually it was much less. But the undulations were continuous for what I estimate is about two miles to the junction.
Table RockWhen we crossed the river at the bridge leading to Spence Ridge Trail we finally saw some other hikers, a group of four ladies backpacking. Dave and I both felt a tinge of disappointment. For the first four hours of the day it felt like we had the entire gorge to ourselves. We passed them on the ascent of Spence Ridge and we wouldn’t see anyone again until we were ready to descend from the summit of Table Rock. The solitude we felt for most of the day was a big surprise. I had expected a much busier Linville Gorge, but over the course of our 10 hour day we only saw six groups of hikers, less than 20 people as a whole, and nearly half of these people were at Table Rock, which I expected to be busy.
The trail changed abruptly when we crossed the river and headed up the east side of the gorge. The trail was wide and nicely groomed, and we no longer had to carefully step on or over rocks, boulders and trees. We made good time ascending.
Earlier in the day I had decided to reach Table Rock by taking the Little Table Rock Trail. This would allow us to do a mini loop, as we would descend Table Rock using the Spence Ridge Trail. Taking the Little Table Rock Trail would end up adding some difficulty to our day as this trail is the steepest, graded, maintained trail I have ever hiked. There are no switchbacks and there is approximately 1,000 feet of elevation gain on this 1.1 mile trail, and nearly all of the elevation gain occurs in the last half mile. There are no "steps” built into the trail to help make the climbing any easier.
If there is anything I regret about the day it is not going out to Little Table Rock. Near Little Table Rock there is a spur trail. Dave suggested taking the trail but at that moment I wasn’t interested, for a few reasons. One, I didn’t know if the trail went all the way to the summit so my initial reaction was, why bother, and two, I had just gotten my ass kicked hiking up the Little Table Rock Trail and I was tired. In hindsight I should have stopped and taken a short break to catch my breath and rest. I’m sure then I would have felt more like making the short jaunt.
We continued on and eventually found our way to the summit of Table Rock. There are no trail signs and as there are quite a few spur trails in the area getting to the summit proved a little more challenging than it should have. We passed the actual trail and ended up on a spur trail. This worked out for the better though as we stumbled onto a view of some spectacular cliffs. We did eventually make it to the summit and had the place all to ourselves for about 15 minutes. The views again were excellent although by now it was nearly 2 PM and low lying afternoon thunderheads were low in the sky. About the time we were ready to start our descent a group of four arrived. Overall, I was quite happy with the lack of crowds. I couldn’t complain compared to what I had expected.
Down and Up and OutShortly after we reached the Spence Ridge Trail it started raining and it was pouring hard enough that rain gear was a must. Fortunately it didn’t last more than 30 minutes and by the time we reached the river it was no longer necessary. As hot and humid as it was I was glad to ditch the rain gear.
When we started back up the Linville Gorge Trail I started to get tired. The hard effort of the day was finally catching up with me. Our total mileage and elevation gain for the day was not excessive but the route had proven strenuous. I had not reached exhaustion but my pace definitely slowed. When we reached the swimming hole we decided to pass on the swim and continue on. Four hours earlier, taking a swim in the Linville River sounded like fun, a great way to cool off and relax my tired feet after eight hours on the trail. But by now all I could think about was getting up and out. Yes, it had been a wonderful day in the gorge, but I was tired, it was getting late and I knew the sooner I got back to camp the sooner I could enjoy the 20 ounce steak and the several Sierra Nevada Glissades I had waiting for me back at camp.
The heat did take its toll on us over the course of the day which didn’t help my condition this late in the day. I don’t think we realized how much direct sun we were getting, particularly in the morning before we hit Spence Ridge. While there are plenty of trees and brush in the gorge, the canopy is not always real thick particularly on the west side, so more often than we realized the hot sun beat down on us and the 90F day was brutal at times and three quarts of water wasn’t quite enough. A full gallon would have been better.
The last few miles getting up and out were challenging and I was quite happy to make it back to the car. We weren’t dehydrated but we were plenty thirsty by the time we exited so at the trailhead we downed in order, plenty of Gatorade and then plenty of water, and then we stopped long enough to celebrate our spectacular day with an ice cold beer at the trailhead parking lot.
Over the next few hours we spent a lot of time debriefing the day as it had been so spectacular. Considering the incredible scenery, the good weather, the solitude and the challenge of the route our one day in Linville Gorge ended up being a sweet surprise. I’ll definitely be back!