Background: The Linville Gorge Wilderness is one of the most rugged hikes in the American East. The opposite of well-worn and accessible, the Linville Gorge loop is rough, untamed, and a serious challenge to experienced hikers alike.

This trip was planned out over several weeks, and tackled by two friends with years of experience and equipment under their belts. Even then, parts of the trip has us whining for a hot meal and our own beds. But it’s a box certainly worth checking off the hiking bucket list.

Bradley and I arrived at the Wolf Pit trailhead to Shortoff Mountain at 15 minutes past 9 on a brisk Saturday morning in January. Our bags were packed in my truck, and we had all the supplies needed for our three day, two night, 22-mile trip through one of the toughest hikes the eastern coast of the US has to offer.

We double and triple-checked our supplies, put away our phones, wallets and keys, said a first of several prayers to the Lord, and set off on the uphill trail to Shortoff Mountain. This would not be our last time going up Shortoff in this trip, but we’ll save that little tidbit for later.

Bright eyed and bushy tailed, we rose up the mountain, taking a picture here and there, soaking in the already amazing views the dry, almost desert-like side of Shortoff had to offer. Though this face of the mountain was littered with crisp, dried trees and grass (odd for January) and overcome with a brown khaki-ish color, doing a 180 in place offered grand views of NC’s infamous Blue Ridge Parkway. Just below that was close-by Lake James, the beautiful blue reservoir that the Linville River (which cuts through the Linville Gorge) fills.

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But we continued forth, not looking to lose time.

After about an hour, we crested the broad shoulders of Shortoff to our first glimpses into Linville Gorge, the beautiful, terrifying, and awe-inspiring abyss that ran thousands of feet below our, well, feet. The Gorge, year round, is dense with trees and fauna of all kinds, and at its heart, is run through by the aforementioned Linville River. Naturally, this abundant foliage and water draws wildlife of all kinds — from bears to falcons to many other land, water and air-dwelling critters. This area is very unscathed by humans, thanks to (for the most part) a respect for the ‘leave no trace’ policy by hikers and caretakers of the land.

Once over the first crest of the small mountain, we continued along the other, far greener face of Shortoff that ran along the inside of the Gorge. Views of the Gorge on the left and views of the parkway and piedmont on the right, this portion of the trail was dotted with campsites with incredible view potential — and certainly excited us to return another day. We remarked at one in particular for a while, but continued on our quest to conquer Shortoff and make it to our destination before dark.

After a long uphill trot to the top of Shortoff, which seemed to go on for hours due to the grade flatlining after that first crest, we could spot in the distance our goal campsite: Table Rock Mountain. It was clearly far in the distance, miles and miles. We weren’t near tired at this point, but the water bottles were starting to come out, and the wiping of sweat from brows had certainly commenced. Nevertheless, we pressed on with renewed energy, as the trail now shot dramatically downward — sloping off Shortoff and into Chimney Gap.

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On our way down we met a friendly older hiker whose name now escapes me, but the fellow was well-versed in the art of traversing the Gorge, and was able to give us a good estimate of the distance to our destination. Luckily, the man had camped at Table Rock the night before, and left from there that morning toward our starting point, Shortoff. His estimate was less than encouraging, saying we had a good 6 hours ahead of us (it was about noon now), but that he was going at a slow pace. Again, the man seemed advanced in his experience with the trail, so this again was less than encouraging. But we thanked him for this advice and kept moving.

Bradley in the lead, we made great time down Shortoff and across Chimney Gap, which was very dense with trees, keeping our heads clear of the sun’s harsh rays. The difficulty came more when we had to ascend the next range: The Chimneys. Thankfully, the Chimneys were connected via another Gap (unnamed) to our goal: Table Rock. We just had to make it up this hill (read: mountain) ahead of us. We bucked up, tightened our packs, and started the uphill push.

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The ascent was rough, brutal even. It was lengthy, and the elevation climb from the bottom was somewhere in the range of 1000 ft. And that was after descending nearly that much from Shortoff shortly before. But we made it. We topped the southern face of the Chimneys and celebrated with a 10 minute nap and some water. We even found some snow piles, which we immediately applied to our overheated necks.

But knowing Table Rock was within reach, and the sun not getting any higher in the sky, boots were put back to the trail. We wandered by the trail into the Chimneys, which are monolithic slabs of rock and granite that extend high above where the mountain dirt ceases. Up here, climbers were practicing their vertical stone traversing, enjoying the beautiful, bright, very spring-like weather. Nice for January.

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We stopped once or twice for photos, and admired the once again gorgeous pit that is the gorge, before dropping down from the Chimneys rocky top and heading into the woods to find our campsite at Table Rock.

We arrived off the wooded trail to the parking lot at Table Rock (it’s a big tourist attraction that draws in a lot of view seekers). We checked the local billboard for news of trail changes, downed trees or rocks, or any other important notes. As the sun began to fall farther in the horizon, we booked it up the side of Table Rock in search of an open primitive site to set up camp. Thankfully, along the rock that offshoots Table Rock, aptly dubbed Little Table Rock, we found a open, welcoming site on the bald of the rock.

It was at our destination. It was at the top of a beautiful peak. We arrived early (4:30). It was perfect.

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We gathered firewood from dead limbs of fallen young trees that had collapsed from the strong winds of the mountains. After lighting our fire, we setup our hammocks, changed our socks, and settled in for a cup of coffee and some chicken and rice from a bag. Our desert was oats and some awesome pie-in-a-bag treats that Brad picked up from REI. Score.

The sun set over the horizon at the south end of the gorge, where we began just 9 miles and 7 hours prior. We clambered into our respective hammocks, strung up Brad’s find-your-hammock-when-you-need-to-get-up-and-pee-during-the-night LED hammock lights (my little sister calls them party lights), and enjoyed our view of the crystal clear sky dotted with big blue stars. Off in the distance you could see the small town of Morganton dimly lit up with lights from the center of town. Comforting, in a way, after being in the wilderness (literally) for the past day.

The sun would rise on the other side of our camp at 7am. We could sleep well for a few long hours. The winds were rough that night (we were atop a mountain after all), but we had the tarps, quilts and sleeping bags to stay more than toasty in the 38 degree weather.

And so ended our first of three days in the Linville Gorge. But the first day was only just over, and we’d yet to tackle the real challenge: descending and traversing the Gorge. There the foliage runs wild, and the water runs even wilder.

But we’ll save all of that for part two and three. Thanks for reading.  You can see the whole photo album here.

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