Having begun our day by hiking to Linville Falls in the north, we decided to explore the eastern rim of the gorge to hike Hawksbill Mountain. This peaks name is derived from the fact that its contour against the horizon, appears to resemble a hawks bill emerging from the top of the mountainside. The best way to see this effect is from the Wisemans View Overlook along state road 1238. Being one of the least developed gorges in the country, a trip through its dense forests and steep terrain will transport you to a place that would still be recognizable by its early inhabitants.
With that being said, there are no paved roads within the Linville Gorge Wilderness. The only way to access it is by traveling along the various state roads that follow the perimeter of the area, within the much larger Pisgah National Forest. I managed to get my hands on a National Geographic Topographic Map of the Linville Gorge on Amazon just before departing on this trip. It contained everything we needed to get around the wilderness. Trail length, roads, and scenic landmarks are all clearly marked which makes the area easy to navigate. Not only is the map waterproof and tear proof, but it also contained tons of information on all of the state parks, nature preserves, and stops along the Blue Ridge Parkway in this corner of North Carolina.
In conjunction with using our own g.p.s., we managed lock in on the main road from which most of the trailheads are located off of, state road 1265 also known as Table Rock Road. Turning off of highway 181, we headed south on Gingercake Road, which eventually turns into Table Rock Road. After driving a short few miles through a gorgeous mountain community of rustic cabins and charming cottages, the paved road abruptly ends and turns into pulverized gravel. You are now officially entering the Pisgah National Forest.
After a short 10 minute drive, we passed the first parking area containing the Jonas Ridge Trailhead. Hiking north along Jonas Ridge you can reach Sitting Bear, Ginger Mountain, and Devils Hole. We continued our drive at a snails pace through the primitive forest road for another 8 minutes until reaching the Hawksbill Mountain parking area. The trailhead is clearly marked and theres enough space for nearly a dozen cars to park, plus a couple campsites for anyone planning to spend multiple days here. If you wish to spend a few days here, overnight stay permits within the gorge are free and can be easily obtained by contacting the Grandfather Ranger District of the Forest Service.
Having arrived somewhere around 8 am, we had the entire trailhead to ourselves minus one other hiker named Steve and his husky “Zeus”. While we didn’t intend to hike up the mountain together, it just so happened that we kept continually running into one another for the first half mile of the 1.6 mile trail. The journey up to Hawksbill is considered strenuous due to its 700 feet in elevation gain within such a short distance. Adding to that is the rocky terrain full of boulders and rocky ledges that have to be navigated, slowing even the most experienced hikers.
The same difficulty we face on the trek up is not unlike what some of the early explorers faced when they first arrived in the gorge. This area has a rich history dating back to the Cherokee whom resided here during the warmer months of the year, since time immemorial. The dense hardwood and pine forests surrounding the Linville River supported a rich ecosystem, bringing people here to hunt grouse and turkey, fish its streams for trout, and gather from its abundant stands of wild plants and berry bushes.
Despite all of this, it was deemed impractical for settlement by European Americans until the later half of the 19th century. When the logging boom of the early 20th century arrived to the region, the forbidding nature of the natural landscape proved to be its saving grace. Having been spared the clearcutting that so much of the surrounding area suffered during that period of time, we now get to hike through one of the few remaining examples of old growth forest in the Blue Ridge Mountains range.
During one of our chats with our hiking companion Steve, he mentioned how he initially planned to drive his way to the Table Rock Parking area a few miles south past our current location, but ran into several downed trees blocking the road. The entire week prior to our arrival, the area had been hit hard with powerful storms, even forcing the Blue Ridge Parkway to close several miles of roadway surrounding Mount Mitchell due to bad road conditions. He wasn’t planing on climbing to summit the peak, but instead was headed towards a section of trail near the top of Hawksbill that followed the Jonas Ridge south. He figured it would be roughly 2 miles to reach Table Rock Mountain from the point where we parted ways.
We could tell we were getting close to the top as the dense canopy of rhododendrons keeping the entire trail shaded, was slowly becoming brighter and brighter. After zigzagging our way uphill over countless switchbacks, we finally reached a small clearing at the edge of a steep hill, with a view worth hiking for. Looking due east, we were starring out at the rolling landscape of ridges and valleys within the Pisgah National Forest.
Just on the ridge above us, we could hear the shuffling of feet and clamoring of packs. Within a few moments we were smack dab in the middle of a camp right on top of Hawksbill. A local group of friends had decided to hike here the previous day and cowboy camp under one of the large ledges on the summit, hoping to catch the sunrise over the valley.
They informed us that there were two separate overlooks. A small side trail to the left of the campsite led us to a clearing with wide open views of Table Rock and Shortoff Mountain.
Getting back on the main path, we continued past a small hedge of wind swept pines and onto the peak of Hawksbill Mountain. This is easily one of the most spectacular views in all of western North Carolina. From here, we could see The Linville River snaking its way straight through gorge and disappearing into the horizon. It looked like a scene straight from The Land Before Time.
Looking southwest, we could almost make out the top of Mt. Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi River. Despite the fact that we’ve spent several days looking out over the rolling mountains of the Piedmont, viewing them from up here feels like an entirely new experience.
Sitting up here feels bittersweet, considering that we will not be able to hike Table Rock Mountain due to the road closure. Still I feel grateful to have had the opportunity to enjoy my time exploring this wilderness.
Just a few days ago, the Linville Gorge was only a place I briefly read about, while sitting in my breakfast nook, looking for somewhere new to explore. Now its a place I am completely smitten by. I hope to return here in the near future, knowing fully well that I have only just skimmed the surface of the wonders laying hidden within the Linville Gorge Wilderness!