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 day one was a doozy, and part two was a real doozy, then day 3 (this part) should surprise no one as the dooziest of them all. Let’s dig right in to how the day went.
I remember cracking my eyes open around 5am to the noise of some woodland critter poking around the campsite. In all likelihood, it was a raccoon, but my morning eyes were so blurry it could have been anything. In all fairness, we were on his/her turf, and likely squatting on his/her property, but nonetheless his/her scratching and sniffing woke me right up. After a few minutes of sleepy debate, I swung my hammock back and forth until I was able to swing my feet out and grip the dirt.
Brad and I wasted no time eating a quick cliff bar and hitting the trail. It was about sunrise now, 6 or 7am, and we were off and afoot on the trail ahead. We had a planned, I don’t know, 4-6 miles to go. Thankfully, though our time was limited by the setting of the sun, it was time we intended on making. I don’t know that I’ve ever hiked that fast with that much weight on my back that far into a trip. We were killing it.
Most of the hike that morning was still in the thick of the Linville forest, with the sound of the rushing river staying just within earshot. After a few miles of fast-footed boot-scootin’, the wiggly Linville river swung into view. Brad and I stopped a good 2-3 times to marvel at its beauty and fetch abundant, snow-melt fresh H20 to stay stocked up. But as we continued to marvel at how fast we were moving and what good time we were making on our last leg of the trip, trouble was lurking just around the corner. We knew we had to cross the river again to get back to the East side of the gorge, where we started just 2 days prior. Little did we know that we’d cross it not once, but thrice, in one of the more stressful “pivots” I’ve ever had to make as a journeyed hiker.
In a nutshell, the trail that led us out of the gorge was dotted on our map to cross the river, go up the side of the gorge, and re-connect with the MST (Mountains to Sea Trail) we grazed by on day one. The big issue with the Gorge once again reared its head today: the trail is poorly, almost entirely unmarked (to keep it as much a wilderness area as possible).
This became even clearer an issue when Brad and I needed to cross the river where the trail crossed as best as we could tell. But at the point we were at, the trail was beginning to fade and become less clear with each footstep. More than once we had to stop, turn around, and let the other go check and make sure we didn’t misstep. We definitely did unintentionally wander a few times that morning. Thankfully, we had plenty of time to get it figured out — it was only 9 or 10 am at this point. We wanted to be out by 4, well before the sun started to set.
After the trail had seemingly reached its meeting point with the river, Brad and I approximated and waffled with where we would cross most safely. We discussed, explored the path along the shore, and went back and forth about different concerns. The water was just as cold here as it was upstream, it was all melted snow after all. We didn’t mind crossing, we can fight that — we just didn’t want to fall in or get a leg stuck in a freezing river in January (for obvious reasons). But, we found a place and got to crossing like we did before.
The water was freezing cold, but careful movements and the support of a good walking stick, guided us through the waist high current without much issue. On the other side, we sat upon the rocks to dry our feet, re-equip our socks and boots, and get going. And here we thought the worst was over. It wasn’t.
It was here where we got somewhat lost. Or well, lost. Period. We wandered along what seemed like a trail for a good half hour, landing on a ATV-wide path that seemed like a clear enough direction to go in. Following that path all the way to the end, and guess what, the trail crossed the river again. Back to the west side we left behind less than an hour before. We looked around, didn’t see a trail, but could see where the river began to end and pour into Lake James. We did a 180 and walked back to where we crossed (at least 3/4 a mile). What’s worse, I couldn’t find my map. I knew it was on this side of the river thankfully, because I’d checked it before we took this ATV-size dirt path. I gave Brad a walkie talkie and he went back to find the map, while I surveyed the area for an uphill trail (supposedly marked blue). We communicated over radio for about 10 minutes, before he rolled up with the map. It’d fallen in the leaves near a pile of rocks we’d taken as a cairn-like arrow pointing us in the right direction just minutes before.
Brad had the idea to go a little further down the ATV-path, but in the reverse direction. It ended in a graveyard of stones with no clear trail leading in any direction. We had a few minutes of not-really-yelling-but-definitely-elevated-conversation with each other about a resolution: do we push uphill in search of the trail, and potentially get lost — do we cross the river again and try to find a road where we can hitch hike? We eventually settled on going back down the ATV path until we hit the river crossing. With the map firmly in our grasp again, Brad noticed some farmland on the other side of the river (yes, the side we came from earlier that morning). We lined the map up with our eyesight and were able to make out a farm road (a tractor path) for corn fields not far from the river. We also noticed that beyond the farmland, a road was clear on the map that would take us to our truck — but it would have us going the long way around the mountain, and then hiking the long road up to our truck (which was halfway up Shortoff mountain).
We figured it was our only real shot, and with the sun firmly in the center of the sky, we set out. We crossed the freezing river once more, dried off, and started along the corn field path to a potential road. Luckily, we were right, and our little dirt path with the field on the right and the river on the left turned into a dirt road that shot up at a rapid clip. Let’s say 75 degrees sharp?
We hiked up that road on some farmer’s private land for a good 20 minutes, hoping we wouldn’t run into anyone. The road began to crest, and the welcome downhill section of the road commenced. The road, shape and elevation-wise, was running in sync with shortoff mountain across the river to our left, which was comforting in one way and stressful in another (knowing we’d have to climb it again soon).
But then, just as the weariness began to wear on our bodies, we noticed a hopeful sight ahead. A familiar trail marker.
The glorious white circle blaze of the Mountains to Sea Trail. I whipped out my map and joyfully exclaimed to Brad that this was the intersection I noticed earlier that weekend! It would lead us right up to the Shortoff trail, and back to our truck. It added a few more miles than the original blue trail (which I’m convinced totally doesn’t exist and never did), but it was a direct, promising route home. I knew the MST, I trusted it.
This was our key home, our golden ticket. We arrived at the intersection, turned left onto it, and with a smile picked up our pace back beside the river. Unfortunately, the MST (once again) forced us to cross said river. In one way, it was an easier crossing, and in another, it was far worse. The water was more shallow and quite calm, given that this section was farthest from the falls and closest to the lake it pours into. But it was also nearly five times as wide, meaning more time in the awfully cold water.
In the interest of word count (which hasn’t been a consideration up to this point), let’s say the crossing went well except for the part where I snagged my foot under a large stone and fell face first forward into the water, pack and all. Now soaked, I booked it across the water to get to sunlight and dry land. Brad tried to do me a favor by helping hoist me out of the water from the elevated ground, but my foot again got snagged when he tried (this time a root), and he let me go back into the deep. Upset and drenched, I climbed out of the river and threw myself to the ground. I let some creative vernacular extremities loose from my mouth and did some minor pouting before removing my wet clothes, putting on smelly dry ones, and getting going on the trails.
In the fall, my boots had been soaked, but it was better than going barefoot for the next 3-4 uphill miles we had ahead of us. And boy is “uphill” the understatement of the year. This sucker went straight up the other dry side of Shortoff mountain, made no easier by the absence of trees and abundance of direct sunlight on our sensitive, un-sunscreened necks. The legs were sore, the rawness was torturous, and the grade of the mountain was unbelievable. It was a no-joke constant uphill for at least 1.5 to 2 hours, and it felt like it would never end. But we had to finish and finish strong, so when we finally reached the familiar wooden sign we’d passed just 2 days prior, the relief and jubilee was absolutely extravagant.
I collapsed dramatically by that sign, partly jokingly and partly in a oh-my-lord-don’t-let-me-die-here way, reflecting on the sheer accomplishment that was not only the past 2 hours, but the entire day. But the reflection ended shortly, as we picked up our things in pursuit of my air-conditioned truck and Bojangles chicken biscuits. Those sweet rewards lay at the end of the last downhill, the reverse version of the Shortoff trail we’d climbed at our trip’s starting point. We met some kind folks hiking up for a fun day hike, and asked they excitedly asked how the view was. Brad and I both grinned and mentioned it was well worth it, our smell being a good indicator that we’d been out there for more than just an afternoon.
There are countless times I’ve felt relief in my life. But physically, spiritually, mentally, and emotionally, I can’t sum up how powerfully relieving it was to see my truck where we’d left it. Not just because I’m glad it wasn’t stolen or broken into, or that I hadn’t left the lights on for the whole weekend, but because I knew we were done. We’d accomplished what we wanted to do and more. Much more. All told, the estimated 22 mile trip was still completed in less than 3 days, but we’d also tacked on a rough 4 miles extra, resulting in a 25-26 mile grand total.
We hugged the truck, tossed our bags in the back, said a thank you prayer to the Lord, and drove off. A seat has never felt more immaculate to sit in.
We called my sister and mom to let them know we made it, since we’ve had our phones off for the past 72 hours. We stopped at Bojangles to grab some dinner, which came with immense pains of getting in and out of the truck. Our bodies were getting pretty used to those truck seats, and weren’t too happy with our choice to depart, even for sustenance. We filled our bellies and went home.
Speaking of relief… that post-trip shower was a thing of beauty. I slept like a rock, and so did Brad (so he told me). All told, I lost 8 pounds, gained a lot of perspective, and ticked another notch in my hiker belt. The experience is something I hope not to forget for my entire life, and I plan to revisit often. Well, at least the river parts that I like, maybe not the whole thing. 😉
Linville Gorge, you’re something else. You’re beautiful, dangerous, and wild. Thanks for having us. I only hope people can experience the beauty of nature and God’s creation either by you, or by one of the thousands of other locales in not just North Carolina, but around the world. You kept the fire inside me burning even hotter, passionate to hike more of the world and see as much as humanly possible.
Let’s hike on.