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

MCBRIDE_LINVILLE-445.jpgExploding 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, natgeomaps.com)

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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