“The Grand Canyon of the East,” North Carolina’s Linville Gorge, is located entirely in the Pisgah National Forest. This wilderness area provides a playground for all types of outdoor lovers. Sightseers and day hikers commonly visit the various deep swimming holes and gorgeous waterfalls that mark the Linville River. A wide range of trailheads allows for manageable day hikes to premier climbing routes such as Sitting Bear Rock, Table Rock and Amphitheatre. However, Linville Gorge is probably best known for its hiking circuit. Often said to have the most difficult terrain east of the Rocky Mountains, the Linville Gorge Hiking Circuit attracts visitors from all over the country.
Locals to the area cherish this wilderness gem. In fact, those who so often find themselves wandering the woods of the Linville Gorge Wilderness have earned the prestigious nickname “Gorge Rats.” My husband Joel and I spent many months together in the town of Boone – just 45 minutes from Linville. Living in the area surrounding the Linville Gorge, we put in countless hours exploring the rim of the Gorge – hiking short trails and camping on sites along the access roads. This year we sat on the edge of the Wiseman’s View scenic overlook and peered out over the enchanting wilderness. In that moment we decided it was about time we hiked down into the Gorge, camped by the side of the rushing river, and allowed ourselves to be tested by the strenuous hiking circuit.
A few months later, we loaded our packs and headed into the Linville Gorge for a three-day backpacking trip. We made several crucial preparations before leaving home that I would strongly suggest to anyone planning to hike the trails of the Linville Gorge Hiking Circuit: we researched the route, read online Linville Gorge hiking forums and purchased Phil Phelan’s guidebook, “Linville Gorge Hiking Circuit.” Not all trails on the Linville Gorge Loop are well beaten and often the blazed trail can be difficult to follow, so, it is imperative to be prepared and well equipped. In my opinion, no one should step foot into the Linville Gorge Wilderness without, at the least, a compass and topographic map.
Another important preparation for hiking the Linville Gorge Wilderness is, like with any backpacking trip, to consider your water sources. For shorter hikes, you may choose to carry in your supply of drinking water. However, there are no potable water sources within the Gorge. So, if you plan to hike for an extended time, be sure to bring along a filtering system. Apart from avoiding becoming lost, another great reason to bring along a guidebook is for locating quality spots to replenish your water supply. We had been warned to avoid filtering water from the Linville River as it is polluted with farm runoff. So, we opted to filter water from the springs and streams along our hike. Phil Phelan’s guide was helpful for knowing when and where to fill up our water.
There are loads of trailheads that give you the option to hike shorter portions of the Linville Gorge Hikers Circuit. During our three-day trek we made a few mental notes of killer campsites that would be fun to hike into for an overnight trip. Babel Tower, being one of those, can be reached with a day hike from Babel Tower trailhead. However, to complete the hikers circuit, or even a modified version of it, park in the Pine Gap trailhead parking area. The Gorge Circuit begins from the middle of the parking lot on a trail that can be, at times, unrecognizable. A well-beaten trail to the southern corner of the parking lot marked with a “Linville Gorge Wilderness” sign will be the point of return for the hiker circuit.
If you are up for the challenge, the Gorge will win your heart as it pushes you, wears you out and then rewards you with beauty. Those who have walked its soil before have left behind many scattered campsites, each with a small fire pit assembled from rocks found nearby. The best sites come with an incredible view and level ground to sleep on. Weekend hikers must apply for a required permit through the National Park Service.
However, if you go on a weekday (like we did), not only will you not need a permit; but you might just have the whole place to yourself. During the three days we spent in the Linville Gorge Wilderness, we only saw one other couple and their dogs. It was refreshing to find ourselves secluded among the soaring mountains and rushing river.
Completing the Linville Gorge Hikers Circuit entails 16,605 ft. of elevation change and 33.93 miles of scaling several mountains, crawling up and down 70-degree inclines and crossing the rushing river. Be prepared to follow your compass, bathe in the river, be awestruck by flawless views and tango with a few copperhead snakes. Whether day hiking or thru hiking the hikers circuit, anytime spent in the Linville Gorge is a transformative experience. We like to call the seemingly magical effect this wilderness has on those who forge its trails a “gorge cleanse.” It is surly a trip you will not regret taking.
In order to maintain the “magic,” the most important piece of advice I can give those planning to hike into the Gorge is, “Play your part in preserving the beauty by leaving no trace behind.”