March 15-17, 2019
The Linville Gorge Wilderness remains an enigmatic place. The first time I heard of it was from a map. A man sat upon a rock with a backpack, emblazoned above him was the phrase, “A Place for Solitude.” When I first moved here, locals would regale me with stories, “you want to be careful there” and “those rattlers down there are vicious”. There was always the discussion of the infamous Brown Mountain Lights, mysterious orbs of light that appear with no explanation. People talk of the difficulty of the hiking and the “crazy people who go there.” Certainly I have a predisposition to folklore, but I knew that this number of people couldn’t be wrong.
While I have hiked most areas of Western North Carolina with alarming frequency, I have neglected the “Gorge”, as it’s called.
The actual history is equal to the rumors, complicated and dark. In the mid-1700’s, much of western North Carolina remained inhabited by the Cherokee. Daniel Boone was yet to find a passage across the Appalachians to the Eden of Kentucky and only those few, adventurous settlers made their home in what is now the High Country. During the summer of 1766, a Boone relative (some sources say just friend), Captain William Linville, his son and a hired cook, John Williams were exploring and hunting in the area of upper Burke County. They had traveled from the lower portion of the Yadkin and camped some ten (10) miles below the waterfall. As they slept, they were surprised by a band of Shawnee (who would venture south to raid both Cherokee and white), who shot and killed both Captain Linville and his son. William was wounded, but escaped to safety by horseback. Early accounts say the Linville’s were also scalped. In their memory, the wilderness now bears their surname.
From time to time, you hear of people being bit by rattlers, deaths from paddling the river, and people getting lost or even falling off cliffs while hiking. From all the stories that I’ve heard, I just have never really explored the area.
Ryan, Doug and I headed out for a Friday to Sunday 16-mile hike. That may not seem like much of a distance, but a Gorge mile is not a standard mile. We set in Friday afternoon after work at the northern point of Jonas Ridge Trail, just off Gingercake Road (near several mountaintop homes). We only hiked two miles to a campsite near the junction of Devil’s Hole Trail. The winds gusted mightily into the night. The temperature was only in the upper 20’s, but the winds, often at 40-50 mph, made it feel much colder.
In the morning we continued on Jonas Ridge Trail to near the summit of Hawksbill Mountain. Just before the summit, a faint trail led us around the western edge. The Ledge Trail is difficult and consists of boulders and slick spots. I slipped once, bruising my back and cutting my hands. From the Ledge, we rejoined Table Rock Road for a slight road walk and rejoined the trail at Table Rock Gap. It was slightly uphill, but nothing difficult like the Ledge.
Ryan hiked faster than Doug and I. We just took it slow and talked most of the afternoon. I had not met Doug before this trip, but enjoyed getting to know him. We chose not to summit Table Rock, but instead ate lunch at The Chimneys.
I was thoroughly blown away by the vistas and rock formations of the area. Given the views, it was teeming with millennials snapping photos of their yoga pants and trucker hats at the edge of the cliff. Soon we left the crowds and enjoyed the hike to Shortoff Mountain, where we spent the night. While the wind was not as strong, it certainly got cold. We made a mighty fire and soon were standing around talking and laughing.
In the morning, we hiked out to the car, just off Hwy. 126. It was a great trip, and while I debunked some of the mystique of the Gorge, I more fully respect this wonderful monument to nature.
Total mileage is 16 miles.
*History of Linville Falls, the Murphy Papers, Volume II, pg. 386.
*Linville Gorge: Field Guide to Place Names http://www.ncnatural.com/Resources/Adventure/Gorge/Field-Guide.html