Linville Gorge, 24-27 June 2014
(from a trip report I did for linvillegorge.net–good folks there, great info!)
Just before 9 AM, my friend Chris and I arrived at the Wolf Pit parking to start our little trek. Chris was a Gorge newbie; I was returning to Shortoff after an absence of 20 years. We followed the trail to Shortoff (well marked) up the mountain, pausing at the first MST intersection to make sure we didn’t miss the Olson Trail turnoff. This cliffside ramble is not for the faint of heart, but it is extraordinary if you don’t mind heights, 200 foot drop-offs, and if you enjoy breathtaking views.
We didn’t get lost, and soon we were giddy with our first looks into the gorge from above on Olson.
Olson was marked, sort of, but when in doubt we just stuck to the edge and found our way.
We had lunch at an idyllic little spot where a bird befriended us. He was fearless, fluttering about my leg a foot from me, perching on branches in front of me, and chirping sweetly. He didn’t seem to be interested in our food, curiously enough–perhaps he wondered why humans would be skirting a cliff edge!
We were lolly gagging in a serious way, no thought of mileage at all, and having a blast! The views from Olson are constant and spectacular, and I felt Chris’ excitement every step of the way.
Chris found plenty of rock to try, too. He paused in awe at one overlook and said, “This is several lifetimes worth of rock climbs.”
Eventually Olson came to a scrambling point, interesting with our packs since we had to ascend a five-foot ledge with nothing but air at our backs, but we lost track of the trail after surmounting this when we heard running water. We knew we were near a water source known as the Gully Pipe so bushwhacked a bit, discovering only bear poop before getting back onto the MST (Mountains-to-Sea Trail, which takes a nice rambling course through parts of the gorge). The gully pipe, if that was what we found, appeared to be a gully leaf at present–some enterprising soul had replaced the missing PVC with a curled rhododenron leaf, much prettier really!–but, as the sky was darkening, we pressed on. Our evening goal was Saddle Camp, a spot between Table Rock and Shortoff Mountain on the eastern rim of the gorge. En route we stopped off at the Water Tree, a faithful spring I drank from twenty years ago in an area that actually looked a little bit like I remembered it in contrast to near-by burned out areas–this part of the gorge has suffered from forest fires in the past decade.
We rehydrated ourselves, loading our water bottles beofre moving on. At a Shortoff overlook, we encountered a pair of young hikers who were doing a loop hike known as “Is That All You Got?” They were caught up in the same first-time wonder Chris was experiencing at see the gorge for the first time.
Their target was a camp at the bottom of Little Table Rock trail, quite a few miles distant. We lolly gaggers had targeted that for night two! The day turned from sunny to partly rainy, with sprinkles here and there and a brooding sky to the west. We were gradually climbing elevation on the MST, moving through areas that had been burned by forest fires and patches that had been miraculously preserved from the flames. Curiously, we seemed to be always moving through areas where it had just rained. We kept bumping into the other hiking pair the rest of the day, seeing them a final time just after we had taken off our packs at Saddle Camp. We were thrilled to call it a day, eager to relax around a fire, but within 15 minutes a sprinkle began, deepening into steady rain as we set up our shelters. I was very glad to have my hammock set-up here.
Then all hell broke loose for an hour or so: heavy sustained rain. The river had been at 57cfs when we departed; when I caught a cell signal the next day, it was at 115cfs. Not as bad as what happened a few days later (600+cfs!), but enough to worry us loop hikers. With no bridge in the gorge, high water levels would mean our attempt at a loop would be abortive. I had started a fire in the drizzle, and it was burning brightly, but this downpour killed it utterly. I had thrown up a 5×7 nylon tarp, and we huddled under this to cook dinner. The cheap tarp was soon misting from the heavy rain, but we were happy, joking about how the gorge was teaching us a lesson on our first night.
It was during dinner that Chris noticed his ideal tarp spot wasn’t ideal. I think what gave it away that it was problematic was the sight of his Thermarest floating out from under his tarp. The site he had chosen looked amazing–flat ground and soft tendrils of grass here and there–but it was also evidently the low spot of the saddle, and water came rushing down from the higher ground on either side of us to make his sleeping quarters more aquatic than terrestrial. I spent a happy night in my hammock, but poor Chris was less thrilled in his pond. Interestingly, he just texted me yesterday to say he had purchased a hammock . . . We bear-bagged our food beautifully, a shame since I found my Snickers bar stash soon afterward.
The next morning we lolly gagged again. It was beautiful. The gorge often offers such unexpected treasures, repaying the effort it demands to navigate its trails.
I got a fire going easily (a benefit of fallen, fire-burned limbs), and Chris dried out his clothes. We both took ambles down the an idyllic double-waterfall creek to fill our water containers, but we cursed the subsequent uphill return, not the last time we’d bemoan uphill climbs.
Somehow there are a lot more uphills in the gorge than downhills! The climb along the MST that morning was a brutal, extended uphill that eventually–before our loop was over–I came to regard as a moderate grade, a testament to the gorge’s rugged nature. At the top we were blessed to watch sheets of rain move across the back of Table Rock. Chris was most eager to get to the Amphitheater area, an access point for climbers, so after we caught our breath we pressed on. Down we went off the MST on Amphitheater Trail, descending to an amazing lunch spot overlooking a rock face known as the Mummy. The squared-off snout of the mountain in the image below is Shortoff, the mountain we first ascended the day before.
After lunch, we followed what we believed to be the Upper NC Wall trail, enjoying heady views and powerful winds. We both decided that we wouldn’t tell our spouses about this little segment since we said we wouldn’t take any unnecessary risks! This “trail” is essentially a scramble along the precipitous edge of a sheer rock wall. It was a necessary one risk, we decided. Back to the MST, we hiked through the Chimneys to the Table Rock parking lot, desolate at that hour. We availed ourselves of the bathrooms, lamenting how poor the views were compared to our past natural surroundings, before going up to go down Little Table Rock trail. And I do mean down–wow. My trekking poles were a godsend. Camp 2 was on a wooded rise between two creeks, a place with dense line needles underfoot that tempted us to go barefoot. Heaven! We lazed about that evening, enjoying the finest campsite of the entire trip.
Of course I left my Snickers out of the bear bag that night, too.
The next morning began gorgeously with a short hike to the Spence Ridge trail, then descended down to the river. The weather had turned stunningly beautiful, and Chris and I soon scouted our crossing point south of the former bridge and got our gear across by rockhopping and throwing our packs to each other. We then spent an hour and a half swimming in the river. I did briefly pull on my pants over my underwear/swimsuit when another hiker and his female hiking partner emerged from the woods, but other than that, we had the river to ourselves.
We enjoyed a brief adventure over and under fallen trees on the LGT (Linville Gorge Trail) on the western bank of the river, oohing and ahhing the whole time until we came to the bottom of the Conley Cove trail. This trail zig zags up the western rim of the gorge, and part of me recognized that this trail wasn’t awful, but our packs were suddenly REALLY heavy, and Conley Cove’s upper reaches proved daunting to us since we hadn’t gotten our gorge legs yet. We took a long break nbear the top before locating our next trail, Rock Jock. Rock Jock headed south along the west rim of the gorge, offering staggering views as compensation for uneven terrain until we realized we were low on water.
And Rock Jock was an adventure. In our minds, we had viewed this as a chance to make up some ground since we would be (judging from the map) just contouring–following a single elevation line, a little up, a little down. We learned a lesson in gorge contouring! The reality was unexpected 40-foot scrambles up boulder fields in tight canyons, ducking under some fallen trees and scrambling across the top of others that were three feet in diameter. Late afternoon found us at Mossy Creek near the southern terminus of Rock Jock, dead tired. Mostly dead. After fifteen minutes we managed to unpack our filters and restock on water. A nice couple of insanely fit young hikers appeared, eyeing us with doubt when we mentioned we might bushwhack from Rock Jock’s last turn over to Pinch-In trail to skip a climb up to Kistler Memorial Highway. Foolish doubters! That is just what we attempted. Bu Mother Gorge kicked our tails again, this time with dense, vicious post-fire vegetation. It would have taken a machete to negotiate the vegetation, and we were utterly tired. Defeated, we were faced with 600 feet of elevation gain, a straight shot up to Kistler. That was defeating, too. A nice couple stopped their vehicle when they saw us flopped in the road. We exchanged breathless pleasantries, never rising from our recumbent states, before they drove on, convinced we might live. We eventually got to our feet, though, walking south to a campsite on the left where we quickly set up shelters and made a smudge fire to keep skeeters at bay. Dinner this night, as all in the gorge, was a welcome infusion of calories.
We managed to pack out a little trash from that site the next day.
The next morning was initially cloudy, but by the time we started our chatty ramble down Pinch-In trail, the sun was out and warm. Pinch-In is a precipitous slide down a ridge to the river bottom, and it offers stunning views.
We opted for the optional reroutes on Pinch-In; some good soul has put in some time on that trail to discourage erosion. Our return to shade and pine and rhodo and river at the bottom was nice, too, after an hour exposed in the sun, and for the next two heavenly hours we walked south along the LGT, avoiding the not infrequent poop piles of the local bear population. We saw lots of poop, some bear-destroyed rotten logs, but no bears during the trek.
We were probably talking too much, because when the LGT appeared to dump us out on rocks along the river, we just followed it, somehow missing our turnoff for the Leadmine Trail that allows one to circumvent private property in the southern end of the gorge. Hmmm . . . Our only option (beyond backtracking–yuck!) was a scramble on rocks above the river. The river scramble with packs was exciting, to say the least. Gulp. Just out of the image below is the river.
Off the rocks again, a well-established trail led us to . . . Private property? Huh? We knew we had missed Leadmine now, but we don’t like to admit defeat. I noticed that the property was marked with orange ribbons and forest service medallions, so we followed its perimeter, a zigzag route that took us eventually to the bottom so a slope Chris said was probably the limit of human climbing without rope. Well, friends, if you miss Leadmine, you can bushwhack up to an intersection of five trails on a little saddle, but I don’t exactly recommend it. It is scenic and all, but . . . whew. Intense. It is a quick way to gain elevation, so steep there is only dirt in front of our faces. We avoided the private land and backtracking, but we had to scramble with hands and feet. Miraculously, we strolled into the trail just 50 feet from our target intersection, a feat that energized us greatly after our previous day’s failure. The steak and beer we were dreaming about for dinner seemed easily in reach. But the gorge was not done with us.
We passed a lovely creek on the MST, headed now toward the southern river crossing. Did we fill up? Nope. Then we discovered some sadist had routed the MST over another “hill.” Slight switchbacks obscured the trail ahead, but each turn only exposed more uphill. Steep, brutal, the gorge-will-break-you uphill. I began to realize I was feeling cool . . . Not good. At the top, Chris had similar symptoms, and then we realized we had just finished our last water. Rather than enjoy a bout of heat exhaustion, we relaxed awhile. Okay, this is a euphemism for collapsing. As always, though, there was a nice view.
I was in better shape than Chris as we descended to the river, having consumed a bit more water, but at the river we spent another 45 minutes cooling off. I don’t like drinking from rivers, but we had no choice, so I got out a Renovo Trio .05 micron triple filter and filled up. The activated charcoal filter in the Renovo left the river water tasting like any other water, a pleasant surprise since our clothes smelled more riverine.
Our last haul was supposed to be back up the MST to Shortoff, over a trail known as the Schoonover Crossover, then up Faulkner Flats trail to its intersection with the Wolf Pit trail we originally came in on. This was the gorge, though, so it didn’t work that way. Seeing what we took to be the crossover, we felt like we were so close and got to talking again . . . and then we were near the bottom of Faulkner Flats somehow. Hmmm . . . Yep. Wrong turn. We shouldn’t have been going downhill, but in our near-the-parking-lot glee we had taken another wrong turn. We tried to persuade each other that Faulkner Flats was really a pretty reasonable grade for a gorge trail (it is), but nothing felt reasonable at that point. Setting our minds on the parking lot, we trudged on without stopping, a weary end-of-day ascent until we completed our loop, four days and 23.08 miles later. The old map didn’t quite line up with my GPS breadcrumbs, but you get the idea.
It was an wonderful trip, a great indoctrination for Chris and a wonderful return for me. I’d been to Table Rock more recently, but to be able to spend four days in that wonderland again was extraordinary. Hope you enjoyed the ride!