The Linville Gorge Wilderness has held a low key reputation, as one of North Carolinas most scenic and rugged adventure destinations within the outdoors community for decades. Often referred to as, “The Grand Canyon of the Southeast”, its abundance of natural beauty and extreme terrain has become a mecca for campers, hikers, and climbers in search of adventure.
I’ve spent countless trips traveling around the outer perimeter of this place, hoping to one day take the time to properly explore it. As luck would have it, a trip to visit Grandfather Mountain, put me right on the front steps of the gorge for three whole days. I took the opportunity of carving out part of my schedule to spend the day hiking its trail, so that I too could catch a glimpse of its magical allure.
Located in the mountains of Western North Carolina, the Linville Gorge Wilderness holds the distinct honor of being Americas first officially designated wilderness area. Due to its forbidding nature and difficult to navigate terrain, portions of the area surrounding Linville Gorge is comprised of the last stand old growth forest left on the Blue Ridge Mountain range.
Its 11,786 acres lies within the much larger Pisgah National Forest and is managed by the Grandfather Ranger District of the U.S. Forest Service. If you find yourself driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway between Milepost 326 to 319, stopping to enjoy the beautiful scenery, you are gazing out at portions of this vast wilderness.
I decided to spend my first foray into the gorge, visiting what many consider to be the most majestic waterfall in North Carolina, Linville Falls. The Linville Falls Area can easily be found at Milepost 316 along the Blue Ridge Parkway. A short drive off the parkway leads travelers down a gorgeous stretch of rolling pastures, following alongside the Linville River towards the falls visitors center.
When planning a visit to the falls, make sure to arrive bright and early as this popular trail gets crowded easily. Rangers were on duty, handing out maps and giving out trail recommendations to the best views of the falls and the surrounding gorge.
There are two main trails to see the falls, each with smaller off shoots offering very unique perspectives. If you want to get up close and personal with the roaring rapids at the bottom of the falls, the Plunge Basin Trail has two sections that offer just that. This difficult and strenuous trail leads 0.5 miles to the Plunge Basin Overlook just below the Upper Falls. From here you can view the river as it enters the canyon chute leading to the falls. Its second section takes you on an arduous 0.7 mile climb down, onto the riverbed to see the Plunge Basin up close.
We decided on the longer, yet moderate Erwins View Trail. This trail follows the Linville River on a hike to four separate overlooks, from right up close to the waters edge, to all the way up the cliffs surrounding the Plunge Basin for a panoramic view of the entire area. We left the visitors center, following the paved walkway leading over the Linville River. The scouring action of this river, slowly eroding layers of dirt and rock over millions of years, created the gorge we get to enjoy today.
Our first stop along this trail, the Upper Falls Overlook, lies just a brisk 0.5 mile walk from the parking area, making it the most popular overlook here. Squeezing through the narrow passage leading into this area, tucked between the river and the cliff, was slow going as it could only accommodate one person at a time. The closer we got to the falls the worse the trail became as the excess moisture turned the ground into a mud bath. Once you arrive at the overlook, you’ll find two separate areas to gaze out into the powerful force that helped shape this region.
Directly ahead is the Plunge Basin, where the water begins its descent into the narrow canyon chute leading to the lower falls. The sound was deafening. We stood and watched as the water slammed into the solid rock walls, churning itself into a foam as it plunged out of sight. Following the waters path from its point of origin, we turned ourselves around to view the cascades of the upper falls. A small wooden bridge originally lay here, bridging the gap between the overlook and upper falls, but the area is currently closed to visitors. Still, dozens of people found their way across shore to get a closer look at the cascading river as it roared towards them.
Leaving the Upper Falls, we began the 0.2 mile hike towards the next overlook, Chimney View. This is the most strenuous section of the Erwins View trail. Hiking it was akin to climbing a long drawn out circular staircase. Despite the burning sensation in my thighs, we couldn’t have picked a better day to hike. The sun was shining, we had a cool breeze blowing at our backs, and the trees were just barely hanging on to their last bit of fall color. A small side path leads off from the main trail onto a narrow corridor, that exists onto a tiny circular overlook high above Linville Falls.
This is a great overlook from which to view the cliffs surrounding the Plunge Basin near the Lower Falls. From up here, its easy to get a better appreciation for why the Cherokee name for the Linville River is Ee-see-oh, which means “river of many cliffs” when literally translated. From this perch, we get a commanding view of the entire falls starting from the cascades of the upper falls, swirling down through the plunge basin, and roaring out through the lower falls into the Linville River. Something I happen to notice, which might be lost on other visitors, was the craftsmanship of the vintage looking stonework surrounding all the overlooks here. They have the same camp style as other Civilian Conservation Corps projects throughout the country.
Next, we hiked the short path leading away from the falls area, over to the opposite side of this mountain ridge to get a glimpse at the northern section of the Linville Gorge itself. From the Gorge View, one gets to peer down the steep valley that funnels the Linville River into the gorge. I think the awesome vastness of the gorge is lost on people that haven’t otherwise seen it from a different perspective and think “This is it". There are better overlooks along the Blue Ridge Parkway that give you that enormous, open view of the gorge surrounded by all of its famous mountain peaks, such as Chestoa View (pictured below).
Just a few mere feet from the Gorge View is the final overlook on our trail, Erwins View. A short staircase leads up to an elevated platform, with a birds eye view of the entire area surrounding the falls. This is what I’ve been waiting for. From up here you can view portions of the Blue Ridge Mountains cresting just above the horizon, surrounded by a far reaching and formidable forest. The enormous mass of trees breaks right as the river emerges, cascading 90 feet down over a series of cliffs into the Linville River below.
For the majority of people visiting Linville Falls, this will be their only exposure to the vastness of the Linville Gorge Wilderness that lays just south of us. As one of the least developed gorge in the public land system, getting to the hiking trails in the area can seem pretty daunting to the average person.
Even so, trails leading to Hawksbill Mountain, Tablerock Mountain, Sitting Bear Mountain, and the Chimneys, have all become so popular in recent years that finding the trailheads is only a matter of pinpointing your gps to the right location on a map. Upon leaving the falls, well be venturing out to summit one of the most famous peaks within the Linville Gorge Wilderness, Hawksbill Mountain!