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Backpacker Magazine – March 2011

America's Best-Kept Secrets: Linville Gorge Wilderness, NC

by: Michael Lanza

Exploding foliage on mile two of this route. (Steve McBride)
Exploding foliage on mile two of this route. (Steve McBride)

In A rugged, 12,000-acre wilderness with rare Eastern solitude
Out Permit quotas and mobbed trails at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the nation’s busiest

Find challenging terrain and scenery that’ll make you forget about that national park—what’s its name, again?—over on the Tennessee border. Hard-to-find trails and more than 2,000 feet of steep relief keep out all but the most determined backpackers. But the rewards on this 22-mile, three-day circuit are sublime: cliff-edge views of the precipitous, lushly forested gorge, a river bejeweled with swimming holes and falls, old-growth hemlock stands, rhododendrons and mountain laurel, and an unusual degree of solitude–all within striking distance of the densely populated Eastern seaboard. From the Linville Gorge trailhead, follow Trail 231 south; at two miles, drop your pack for the short out-and-back up Trail 240 to Babel Tower—and your first view of the gorge falling away beneath your feet. Camp in an open area of flat rocks near the junction of Trails 231 and 240. Continuing south, Trail 231 winds intermittently toward and away from the river, pinging from fishing holes to rock formations and passing several campsites. Nine miles from the trailhead, link to Trail 234 for 1.5 miles, then turn north on Shortoff Mountain Trail 235; for the next three miles, you’ll get great views of the gorge, culminating at Tablerock’s aerie 1,500 feet above the river. Link Trails 236, 233, and 231 to complete the loop.

Local knowledge At mile nine, where Trail 234 meets Trail 231, take 231 two miles south to tour a seldom-seen pocket of never-logged forest. It’s a dead end, so few people ever come back here.

Do it From US 221 at Linville Falls, turn east on NC 183. Go one mile to Kistler Memorial Highway (SR 1238), turn right and head a mile to the Linville Gorge trailhead.

Map Trails Illustrated Linville Gorge-Mount Mitchell ($12,

Permit Free; limited to two nights on weekends and holidays from May 1 through Oct. 31. Pick up at the cabin on Kistler Memorial Highway.

Contact (828) 257-4200

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Reader Rating: -


Nov 08, 2012

Agree, agree agree on getting a better map and doing research. This place can easily get the best of us turned around. First time I saw the place was in 1970 when a bunch of High Schoolers from Asheville visited Wiseman's view to clean trash below it for the first "Earthday". Fell in love with the Gorge and hiked the trails religiously for years during and after college. Will always remember camping out "on top" of Babel Tower for the first time and hoping I didn't walk in my sleep.... Some great swimming holes in the summer, but beware winter hikes and check the weather. You don't want to be caught in the Gorge after an ice or heavy snow storm. One or two rescues a year usually pops up on our local news. Love the place.

Bob Underwood
Sep 06, 2012

Mr Lanza, youll help your readers and yourself by refering them to the right MAP. The best map in print for this area is NOT the NatGeo but the US Forest Service map for Linville Gorge 2009. Now you can re write your article calling trails by their proper name instead of an obsolete numbering system that no serious hik er in this area uses. Note that i said ' best map In Print'. You can get a better map on yahoogroups linvillegorge --and this too, needs refinement. Probably the best map is a slightly improved map in the yahoogroup FILES ( Join. Scroll down to LG Grand LOOP 2011 gif.). Thats what stands for now and if some dedicated soul wants to put together a more comprehensive map they can have at it. Map editing is tedious work! The main advantage of LG Grand LOOP is that it cuts out a lot of extraneous information. Trails ( in green) are really trails and not hypothetical routes. Incidently , the GRAND LOOP itself ( shown in red) is a strung-together series of smaller trails that completely encircle the Linville Gorge WITHOUT going along a road. Youll need a GPS to follow it. It is 39 miles long and uses unoffical trails not approved by the US Forest Service--and not found on their map.

Kerry Scott
Jun 21, 2012

I'll never forget my days in Linville Gorge while attending the North Carolina Outward Bound School there in 1972. Trails? What trails? Looking sideways at thunderstorms roaring down the gorge in front of you. Legs shredded by rhododendron. My three day solo by some nameless creek making me really look at the natural world. God must be proud of what he did in this place. I hope we can be proud of what we do to it.

Jun 21, 2012

Best kept secret? You've got to be kidding.

Jun 21, 2012

For us here in NC Linville Gorge is no secret. Some of the most rugged yet beautiful territory I've ever seen.

Jun 21, 2012

i just want to say that i have considered Linville Gorge for some time now and i appreciate all the comments! you just moved it up on my life list and may have saved me from getting lost or injured.
Thank you

Bob Underwood
Mar 23, 2012

Ok, where to begin. First of all its a mediocre photograph of an ordinary looking trail. Linville Has much more spectacular scenery than THIS! EDITORS!! ??. Now the Natgeo map is useless for trail hiking so you want the USFS map edition 2009. The USFS map has a few mistakes too but irrelevant here. On the USFS map trail 234 does not exist. I guess the writer is referring to the Mountain to Sea Trail (MST) 440. Problem: There is no official trail connecting 440 to 231 so the trail that makes this connection is unofficial and not shown on any printed map. The connecting trail is unofficially called Leadmine and it is not AT style hiking. Lead is a slip-and-slide thru 4 steep gullies and quite rough to backpack. There is no official sign naming it but youll spot some tacked on tree signs ( if they havent been ripped down ) saying 'MST 1 mile'. If you go too far south on 231 youll hit a wall forcing you into the river. Backtrack a little and look more carefully for Lead. Ther may be a few dark blue blazes... The maps and waypoints for this are on the mentioned website and also on yahoo groups Linvillegorge. Leadmine will be the roughest part of your hike. Once you connect to the MST go right 20ft turn left and follow the MST to the Linville river. No bridge. Dangerous to cross in winter. The MST (440) - will merge with 235 and you can take it to Table Rock. Youll need to reach 233 Spence Ridge and your USFS 2009 map will give you two options both steep: 1) you can take 236 Little Table Rock trail OR 2) you can take continue on the MST. For simplicity, take 236. Its a little sticky in wet weather. . Turn left downhill on Spence 233 , cross Linville River bridge, and turn north on 231 Linville Gorge Trail (LGT). At his point you have closed the loop and are on familiar territory but you have a Long ways to get back to your car. You could cut the long tail off this loop by parking at ---well, you can read a map. Its a Bitch.

Feb 15, 2012

I agree with everyone on here about skipping the natgeo map. There is also a complete map with waypoints and tracks for those who have a GPS unit, it is available at are the guys to trust in my opinion because many of the contributors are out there almost daily. Be safe and have fun.

Josh (BRW)
Sep 29, 2011

GOATS also need beware ;)

Aug 21, 2011

This circuit is very inaccurate in the description. Also note that the Natgeo map is filled with serious trail errors. Here are some examples given to members of the Gorge Rats on
241 (Bynum Bluff) doesn't proceed east out to the canyon at the river, it stops at the intersection with 231.
232 (Brushy ridge) is shown as continuing east and intersecting LGT (231).
240 (Babel Tower) is OK
244 (Devil's Hole) shows an intersection with LGT - which I think is OK since there is a sign there.
No trail is shown between Sitting Bear parking and HawksBill
233 (Spence Ridge), 236 (Little Table rock), 229 (Conley cove) all seem to be accurate
247 (Rock Jock) only extends as far south as the razor point area, and it looks like they show it going to Zen point and Razor point as the end.
234 (Pinch In) is good
231 (LGT) ends in the south just like the USFS map shows- no southern gorge exit shown.
Interestingly the Nat Geo map shows the MTS ascending Shortoff coming to a 4 way intersection of trails. They show MTS proper as continuing up the jeep path, with a right turn leading to parking, and a left turn being a longer route that comes back in at the top.

So before you even try this circuit ... do more research than you are finding in this article.

Reader beware.

Rick Van Wy
Aug 19, 2011

I have done some of the trails also. It is true that there are no blazes, it is very rough and definitely not a trip for a beginner or not in good shape. Recommend that you ask about bear hunting areas as I found hunters coming through the camp site one morning. Thankfully the bear didn't.

Rick Lutz
Aug 19, 2011

you, me, Bodie... this fall? We could combine football game somewhere... camping, campFIRES!!!

Aug 18, 2011

There are very little, if any trail markers. The trails are not maintained by the forest service in order to keep it as natural as possible. A few of the trails do have some basic maintenance performed by volunteer groups to keep them passable but again it is very minimal. Just go down the old gravel forest road on the ridge line (same road used to get to Linville Falls) and you'll see the trail heads and usually a small pull off for parking

Aug 18, 2011

One of my favorite places. I don't think we should tell anybody else about it.

Aug 18, 2011

I think the Trail head they are talking about is the Pine Gap Trailhead just south of the Forest Service parking lot for Linville Falls (there is also a NPS entrance for the falls) on road 105/Kistler Highway. I believe you can get permits a month early (you can call the Nebo, NC USFS office and they will fax you a permit), so you can get september permits starting the first working day of August. Groups are limited to 10. Skip the NatGeo map for the map produced by the USFS, it is cheaper and i like it better. Also, I may be wrong here but I think trail 234 has been closed, it is no longer on the USFS maps.

Aug 18, 2011

I think the Trail head they are talking about is the Pine Gap Trailhead just south of the Forest Service parking lot for Linville Falls (there is also a NPS entrance for the falls) on road 105/Kistler Highway. I believe you can get permits a month early (you can call the Nebo, NC USFS office and they will fax you a permit), so you can get september permits starting the first working day of August. Groups are limited to 10. Skip the NatGeo map for the map produced by the USFS, it is cheaper and i like it better. Also, I may be wrong here but I think trail 234 has been closed, it is no longer on the USFS maps.

Aug 18, 2011

Also, the terrain is brutal. A lot of it is scrambling more than hiking, there are no blazes.. Wioleta is right, this place will take your breath away.

Aug 18, 2011

There are LOTS of trailheads for Linville. I just came from here last weekend. In my research for it, you should search for a USFS map, I also found out that some people who had done the loop that Backpacker described ended up getting lost on non-existent trails at the southern connector of the Gorge. Do lots of research. Permits are needed from May-October, max stay is 3 days 2 nights, max group size is 10. Camp sites can be sketchy IN the Gorge for more than 1 or 2 tents. Hammocks recommended

Aug 18, 2011

I agree. This place will take your breathe away.

Jun 09, 2011

Is there a more detailed location for the trail head?

May 17, 2011

A permit is still needed May-October; not sure what the limit is.

Apr 22, 2011

Back in the late 90's I went with some groups and it was beautiful. Needed to get a permit early as the Wilderness was limited to 40 overnight visitors then. Is that still the case?


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