Sheer Beauty: North Carolina's Linville Gorge

Drop off the lip of Linville Gorge into a world of rock escarpments, deep forests, and whitewater.
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Drop off the lip of Linville Gorge into a world of rock escarpments, deep forests, and whitewater.

Linville Gorge may be the most rugged, lung-buster of a hike in the East, but don't take my word for it. Ask Hansel Singleton and he'll set you straight.

"It's rough any way you go about it. Some trails are so rough, a rabbit would lose his fur comin' up," says Singleton, a 70-year-old specialist at the Linville Gorge Information Cabin. "But it's one of the most beautiful places in the Eastern United States and well worth the trip."

Amen on both counts. In the 12,000-acre Linville Gorge Wilderness, where trails are unmarked and have a way of disappearing, route-finding is a challenge for even the most experienced hiker. But with the help of a topo map, you'll soon begin to feel like an explorer penetrating a magnificent sylvan fortress; rock ramparts guard the length of the Linville River, a wild cataract that sheds 2,000 vertical feet in 12 miles.

The wilderness contains a 39-mile-long trail network, the backbone being the 11.5-mile Linville Gorge Trail that parallels the west bank of the river. It's reached by seven shorter trails that drop sharply from the lip of the gorge through forests of hardwood, hemlock, and dense rhododendron. As you descend, fleeting views of the river give way to spectacular panoramas of the rocky shoals below. On humid summer days, a dip in one of the many swimming holes along the river is close to heavenly.

For up-close views of the most striking rock formations in a gorge renowned for its geology, follow the Jonas Ridge Trail on the eastern rim of the wilderness to Hawksbill and Sitting Bear mountains. Or take 5.6-mile Shortoff Mountain Trail to Tablerock and the Chimneys. Generations of avid rock climbers have been inspired by these monuments.

Looking for the ultimate physical challenge? Then try the primitive Pinch-In Trail, which gains more than 2,000 feet in a little over a mile. Hansel Singleton describes it as a "seat of your pants" kind of trail. And you know Hansel tells it straight.

QUICK TAKE: Linville Gorge Wilderness, NC

DRIVE TIME: Linville Gorge is about 115 miles (21/2 hours) northwest of Charlotte.

THE WAY: From Marion, follow US 221 north. Turn right (east) onto NC 183 for 1 mile to county road 1238, also known as Kistler Memorial Highway, which leads to trailheads and parking lots.

TRAILS: There are 16 trails totaling 39 miles open for backpacking. Recommended: Conley Cove (go down this one, not up) and Babel Tower.

ELEVATION: Ranges from 1,300 feet at the river to 4,120 feet on Gingercake Mountain.

CAN'T MISS: Head to Wiseman's View for a spectacular perspective of Tablerock and Hawksbill mountains. Linville Falls, just outside of the wilderness, is also a must-see.

CROWD CONTROL: For solitude on the west bank of the gorge, head south of the Conley Cove Trail; on the east bank, travel south of the Chimneys.

PIT STOP: Famous Louise's Rock House Restaurant has down-home atmosphere, located at the intersection of US 221 and NC 183.

WALK SOFTLY: South of Tablerock Mountain and east of the Shortoff Mountain Trail are two protected areas that are home to the endangered mountain golden heather, peregrine falcon, and Heller's blazing star. Stay on the trails in these areas.

MAPS AND GUIDES:Linville Gorge Wilderness Trail Map can be ordered from the Grandfather Ranger District ($5, see address below). Allen de Hart's guidebook North Carolina Hiking Trails ($18.95, Appalachian Mountain Club Books; 800-262-4455) covers trails in the gorge.

MORE INFORMATION: Grandfather Ranger District, Route 1, Box 110-A, Nebo, NC 28761; (828) 652-4841. A free camping permit is required on weekends and holidays from May through October.