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.
If you missed part one, now’s a good time to go check it out. 🙂
Day one of the Linville Gorge trail was a really doozy (doozie? Let’s go with doozy.) We covered nearly 10 miles of rugged drylands that layer the slopes of Shortoff, the rocky outcroppings of the Chimneys, and the mossy tops of infamous Table Rock, where we camped for the evening.
Fast forward to morning, around 7am, and Brad and I are both quietly debating (through deep sighs and shuffling in our respective hammocks) about getting up and starting breakfast. I think Brad got out first, which encouraged me to start warming up to the idea (and warming up physically, since the chill of the mid 30’s night before had not yet wore off).
We started a fire from the leftover wood and surveyed rays of the rising sun to the East (which at this time was now fully behind the monolithic Table Rock, which towered above the mini TR our butts were currently fixed upon). We knew roughly what we had to cover that day, between glances at our waterproof map of the Gorge and some notes I’d scribbled from previous hiker experiences. We also knew that most people tackled the Gorge anywhere from 2-4 days, and we wanted to do it in 3. We figured we were tough dudes, having hiked our fair share and camped even more. What’s 22 miles?
Well, 22 miles at your local state park versus 22 miles here? There’s quite a gap there, a gorge-sized one you might say. What we had hiked thus far was just typical up-and-down mountain mileage. What we were about to embark on in days 2 and 3, were largely expected, but nonetheless trying on the mind and body. At least for me, Brad’s a real trooper though.
We stomped out our little blaze and used a bit of our coffee to quench the fire’s thirst, and piled rocks on top to discourage a spread. Once the fire was confirmed dead and our route settled, we set out on an aggressive downhill journey to the absolute bottom of the gorge.
The trail down was steep and paved with roots. Brad and I likely hugged around 42 trees to keep from plummeting down the trail. As steep as it was, we weren’t on any cliffside, but deep in the forest area of the Gorge (where the river turns to falls before becoming a strong river again shortly after). Trees were abundant as they typically are on a nature hike, making your proximity to the river hard to determine. And even though the wind in the trees sounds suspiciously like running water at times, we could hear and smell the water as we grew closer.
We came to a small crossing of water, and filled up our bottles/water bladders. As we started purifying the water, we began to feel raindrops, and Brad and I both gave each other that “oh boy” look. We both sprang into action, yanking out tarps from the bottoms of our packs and looking for any covering we could uncover. Thankfully, as quickly as the search began, the storm clouds dissipated and left only a light soaking on the ground and tree leaves. With the air slightly more humid in the warmth of the forest, we pressed onward through the thick trails.
The trails of the Linville Gorge are very largely unmarked. It’s very highly recommended that you bring a detailed map, compass, and if you have the money, a GPS just to be safe. We had the first two tools at our disposal, and still found ourselves somewhat lost in this section in particular. There are a multitude of campsites, very open areas actually, that can throw off a hiker simply looking for the natural direction of the trail. For a solid hour or two, Brad and I pressed on through the turn-arounds, map checks, and head scratches, and found our way safely to the river.
And boy, it’s a river if you’ve ever seen one.
The width of the Linville River ebbs and flows as it wiggles down south, but it was at potentially its most dangerous and wide where we stood that morning — and we needed to cross it. In previous years, a steel and wooden plank bridge stood tall above the rushing waters, offering safe passage to any and all hikers smart enough to take it. However, recent flash flooding several months prior had destroyed the bridge, leaving hikers the choice of walking miles down stream to find safer (but still not calm) crossing, or the more risky option of rock hopping across right then and there. Even without heavy packs, this option is scary to say the least. The freezing temperature waters were moving fast, real fast. But after a quick bite to eat and some contemplation, we decided to try it — but be cautious and smart.
We removed our socks and shoes and tied them around our necks/packs. We tightened our packs and tested the waters barefoot. Freezing. Ice. Cold. My foot was blue with only a few short seconds in-stream. But once I had my foot in for the test, the adrenaline began to pump and I told brad to hand me his bag and make his way to the next rock. He passed, and I followed. We leap-frogged like that for the first few rocks, and suffered through ankle-deep, ice cold foot dips to get closer to bigger above-water stones. After much turmoil, we made it safe and mostly dry to the final rock, which required… well, a leap of faith.
It wasn’t really the biggest jump, nor was it that far from the water below. But it was still a jump. A jump that separated us from the lightly marked, dry, sun-warmed trail ahead. Luckily, a couple that was going the reverse direction was on the other side, and offered to catch our bags if we threw them. Without second thought we tossed our bags to the fellow across, who, while not the strongest looking dude, ensured our heavy bags made it across safe. We were clear to jump without the weight of our bags. Brad went first without issue. I took a good 30 seconds to clear the apprehensions from my mind and psych myself up. I made the jump no problem, but it was still scary as, well, excuse my language, scary as shit.
We ensured the helpful couple made it across with their beagle pup, waved goodbye, and pushed onward. The rest of the day would be a mix of joy and renewed energy, followed by pain and some emotional roller-coastering.
The next several miles on the trail were strenuous but doable. They were quite open in the campsite areas, and hilly and turned to straight climbing at many points. It all ran along the east side of the river, along the base of the gorge. It was cool and refreshing, and offered an endless source of water to purify. It was a blessing, and the joy of beating the first river crossing drove us forward. For a while.
My pants, cargo in nature and not at all good for wicking water and sweat, began to rub my poor legs raw, and made hiking quite the chore. We knew we wanted to make it about 2/3’s down the side of the river to make the next and last day easier. We settled on a campsite area (the name escapes me) that broke off (up the side of the gorge) to an access road where we could retreat in case of emergency. But, we had more miles to go, and we were both growing weary. The rawness I began to endure I don’t think was shared by Brad (to his luck), so I began to slow down immensely. It’s abnormal for me, as I consider myself a very strong hiker and general sportsman. But it hurt, I’ll tell you.
We bumped into some hikers again going the opposite way, who informed us we had about 30-40 minutes to get to where we wanted (and where they were just settled), and we kept pushing. The brush and plant life of the gorge had grown immensely thick, consuming most of the available walking space. So in addition to the hilly and bumpy trail, we had to duck, weave, bob and edge our way through several miles of tough but traversable trail. About an hour later, we finally made it — but not without some whining on my part. It was a learning experience (wear wicking clothes people!)
We setup our hammocks, made a tiny fire, and went to sleep. It couldn’t have been later than 7 or 8 pm. Sun was still hanging lightly in the sky. Though this day was wrought with turmoil, it was also one of our grandest adventures yet, and through the discomfort I was soaking up every manly minute. The peace and relief felt when I rested my body in that hammock is not a feeling I hope to soon forget. And the excitement I had for the next and final day (and the bojangles that followed) was immense.
Day 3 was, like this day, one filled with mixed emotion. The ups and downs, both physical and emotional, hit their absolute peak. But that’s a story… for next time. I just promise it won’t take 5 months to write. 😉