The Linville Gorge Wilderness Area is part of Pisgah National Forest, located in the Appalachian Mountains of western North Carolina. The gorge encloses the Linville River, which flows south from its source high on nearby Grandfather Mountain, carving a serpentine route through the eastern Jonas Ridge and western Linville Mountain, swiftly descending over 2000 feet in 14 miles before opening up into the Catawba Valley and Lake James. The area provides excellent opportunities for backpacking, mountain biking, and rock climbing, for enthusiasts of all skill levels. The local ecosystems are incredibly well preserved, and the gorge is home to many colorful species of rare and beautiful plant and animal life.
The original name for the area, given by its ancestral Cherokee neighbors, is "Eeseeoh," meaning "the river of many cliffs." A fitting name, as the Linville River, due to its rapid descent, has sculpted the surrounding earth most expertly, leaving a variety of unique and strange rock formations in its wake. Great spires of rock tower hundreds of feet over the river at various intervals of its journey through the gorge. Rock climbers will find beginner climbs and expert challenges on the cliffs, especially along Jonas Ridge at Table Rock and Shortoff Mountain.
A thick pine and hardwood forest covers most of the gorge and surrounding area. Much of this forest is virgin uncut, spared the over-logging which plagued much of that area of the country in the past, due to the difficulty of the terrain and relative inaccessibility of the gorge. Several ecosystems co-exist in close quarters; damp, rocky soil and dense rhododendron thickets prevail in the coves near the river, while above on the drier hilltops the system is actually fire dependent. Linville Gorge is home to no less than five species of rare or endangered plant, such as hell's blazing star or mountain golden heather. Other prevalent species in the area include virgin hemlock, sand myrtle, red chokeberry, azalea, turkey beard, bristly locust, yellow root, silverbell, orchids, ninebark, and wild indigo.
Linville Gorge also boasts a rich contingent of animal life, including deer, bear, squirrel, raccoon, grouse, turkey, vultures, owls, hawks, falcons, trout, and salamanders, to name a few. Copperheads and timber rattlers also make the gorge their home, demanding caution from hikers and climbers. Hunting and fishing are permitted in some areas.
The gorge is named for explorer William Linville, who was killed by the Cherokee in the area in 1766. It was first designated a "wild area" in 1951 by the Forest Service, and became part of the National Wilderness System with the passing of the Wilderness Act of 1964. In 1984, the North Carolina Wilderness Act expanded the original 7580 acres to the 12000 that it is today.
Despite its incredible natural splendor, trekking into Linville Gorge is not a task to be taken lightly. The Wilderness Area designation stipulates that no development is allowed within the gorge. For the hiker or backpacker, this translates to trails that are unmarked and rarely maintained; the only markers or signs to be found are at the gorge entrance points. The trails are quite strenuous, and can be hard to find at times, especially in the southern part of the gorge. In addition, hikers will have to battle through downed trees, dense rhododendron overgrowth, slippery rocks, and difficult trails running along steep cliffs with nothing but roaring water below. Several routes also require crossing the Linville River, which is quite rapid and deep in places. It comes as no surprise that typically 45 to 50 hikers and backpackers become lost or injured on the trails each year, and need to be retrieved by rescue squads.
I spent four days backpacking in the gorge with some friends in the fall of 2001, and I can attest to both the natural wonders and the inherent challenge of the area. We were rained upon for much of the trip, and the whole gorge seemed perpetually inhabited by a thick fog. The trails were immensely overgrown; the poncho I had slung over my backpack to keep my meager possessions dry was ripped to pieces by clawing rhododendron branches by the end of day two. Several times we became lost, sometimes for an hour or more before the trail was regained, and reading the local topography off the map soon became an indispensable skill. The hiking was very tough, we had trouble starting fires, it was cold, and while crossing the Linville River, I lost my footing and fell in, backpack and all, ensuring that every item and article of clothing I had with me was thoroughly drenched.
But, even though the way was hard, the scenery was breathtaking. The overgrown trails, green rhododendron leaves, and the general wetness of everything gave me the distinct impression of trekking through a rainforest (not that I have ever done such a thing). One of the fondest memories I have of the trip is hiking along the eastern ridge of the gorge, in an area where there had been a fire recently. We were walking along a narrow column of rock that fell away into a sea of mist on either side, with twisted black tree trunks, the solemn reminders of the blaze, erupting from the earth here and there.
The challenge and sense of danger, in the end, made the trip all the more rewarding. Overcoming some seemingly impassable obstacle, or finding the trail after being lost in the bush and racing against the setting sun, produced a surge of giddy elation in all of us, like we had just conquered the world. It was one of the first backpacking trips I ever took part in, and remains one of the best. It also spawned the tradition of the post-hike "victory beer."
Linville Gorge is open to visitors year round, although a permit (free) is required for overnight camping from May 1st to October 31st. Hunting or fishing also require permits, and are only allowed during certain times of the year and in designated areas away from hiking trails. First-time visitors should consider stopping in at the Linville Falls Visitors Center, open 9-5, April 15th through November 1st; maps of the gorge are for sale there which are quite detailed and accurate (a very good idea for backpackers), and the rangers there can answer questions and provide good advice. To obtain camping permits in advance, contact the US Forest Service District Ranger at (828) 652-2144.
If you do camp in Linville Gorge or anywhere else, please practice no-trace camping: pack it in, pack it out.
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