I’ve heard it quoted fairly often (including by folks as the US Forest Service) that Linville Gorge is the most rugged area east of the Rocky Mountains. Having hiked the Appalachians from Katahdin (Maine) south to Wade Mountain (Alabama), I have to admit that Linville Gorge certainly is as tough as anywhere I’ve ever been. The Whites are indeed a challenge, as is Baxter State Park, as are parts of the Great Smoky Mountains, and the Black Mountains are about as tough as they come.
But my first foray into the Linville Gorge was a wake-up call. I’ve had hikes kick my ass in the past, but the trails down into this deep, narrow
canyon were the most physically challenging and toughest in memory. The scenery is also on a par with what I’ve experienced in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and the Longfellow Mountains of Maine. Again, the eye candy may even surpass those ranges. I’ve seen higher walls, but never in such abundance. I’ve seen eastern rock, but never so much of it running north to south along an extremely deep gorge.
The Linville River has sliced an astounding wound into the Earth here. In places it’s more than 2,000 feet deep. Further enhancing the experience of seeing this, it maintains that depth for miles along the course of the river from the northern end to where the canyon finally gives up to the foothills and Piedmont in the south.
For some weird reason my hiking experience in Linville Gorge has always been very brief and shallow. In years past I would spend my short visits to the area standing at overlooks and peering down into the gorge, and just a couple of half-mile hikes into the gorge itself to see the powerful Linville Falls which lie at the northern edge of the canyon. I have to admit that I was generally occupied in bagging peaks elsewhere than seeking solitude and scenery inside the most powerful canyon in the eastern USA. I was robbing myself, I now reckon.
Since I missed a day hike with friends into the gorge two weeks ago, I figured that I could take advantage of a rare two days off from work to ride the short two hours to Linville Gorge. (Again, with the place so close to where I live, I cannot really explain why I have spent so much time avoiding it!) To do anything much of a loop hike in the gorge, one needs to have some kind of shuttle set up, be prepared for a long road hike (which I loathe), or do some backtracking. As I am so far unfamiliar with the gorge, I chose to do a short in-and-out backpack that would take me quickly to the bottom of the canyon where I could set up camp, do some exploring, and a return hike to my vehicle the next day.
I’d heard that there were some spectacular views along the Pinch In Trail, along with some top-notch campsites near the intersection of that trail with the Linville Gorge Trail. So it was an easy choice for me to pick that one. I left home a bit later than I’d intended (almost always the case) and arrived at the trailhead around 11:00 am. I found the parking lot along the Kistler Memorial Highway (it’s a dirt track more suited to four-wheel drive than what one normally assumes to bear the title “highway”) to be empty. The first thing that I noticed as I prepared my backpack was that it was really cold and overcast, and that there was ice on the surfaces of limbs more than a few inches off the ground. At first, I was afraid that the ground would be iced over and that I’d have to abort the hike (since I hadn’t brought my yaktrax along). But I soon realized that the ground was wet and that the temperature was rising even as I prepared to hike down.
The Pinch In Trail has a reputation for being one of the roughest in the gorge, with possibly only the Rockjock Trail surpassing it in general ruggedness. The trail passes into the forest out of the parking lot and soon begins to descend at a not unreasonable rate. Suddenly, though, I came out of the woods and into the burned area from the severe forest fire of last year. This was an especially intense fire during a terrible drought and the fire burned not only the tree cover, but also succeeded in igniting and burning off some of the forest loam. Any worse, and the fire would have burned right down to the mineral soil. As it is, I think the forest is going to have a tough time of recovering. Time will tell.
Despite hiking through the burn (a natural event, after all), one is almost immediately struck by the fantastic scenery lying to the north and south. I kept stopping along the trail to seek out views on the exposed cliff tops, with each few yards finding views to rival or exceed the ones that had stopped me in my tracks minutes before. Soon, I found the trail descending at a more and more tremendous rate, moving down into soaring rocky canyons and passing beneath and beside towers of pale stone. The hiking is hard on your legs, but pleasing to the eye. At one point, peering down beyond a tower of rock that stands in the way of the trail, I could see the route of the Pinch In Trail following the contour of the ridgeline that dropped precipitously toward the Linville River.
At around this time, I began to be able to hear the roar of the still distant river. Even standing more than 1200 feet above it, I could feel the power of the engine that had sliced this canyon into the seemingly solid rock. I shouldered my pack and continued on, moving through the severe burn area and dropping down into the parts of the forest where the fire had finally lost its impetus. Even with a living canopy above my head, I could see the carbon black remnants of the fire that had somehow been brought to heel as the flames got down to the river. Perhaps earlier fires had used up much of the ground fuel. I don’t know. But I can say that the power of the fire was spent by the time it reached within a few hundred yards of the river, and the trees in this part of the gorge were not consumed.
The intersection of the Pinch In and Linville Gorge trails leaves you with two choices: north or south. I looked at some extremely beautiful campsites to the north (within ¼ mile of the intersection), and then went south to see what was available. I located a great, level campsite with a huge stone fire ring and a bench someone had cobbled together with a river-washed plank deposited after some storm, and supported by logs. I chose this spot, as it was not only the most pleasing to my eye, but had the great plank bench for cooking and meditating.
Normally, I would never build a campfire in a wilderness area. I have actively discouraged others from doing this, too. But for some reason I felt the need to build a campfire. Maybe because it was a good bet I was the only person in the gorge on this Sunday, late March evening, or because it was such a well-used fire ring. Or maybe because I felt like being a hypocrite. I can’t say. I will admit that this is the first campfire I’ve built while backpacking in over twenty years.
In short order I had my tent up, my stove ready for cooking later in the afternoon, and the fire going. I scouted around for firewood (the river leaves it in abundance along the rocky banks), piled it up high, and went to scout out a spring for filtering water which I found not far north of the intersection of the two trails. Later, after I’d cooked my supper, stored everything away, and hoisted my food bag high into a tree (this is bear country, in a major way), I grabbed my camera and went on a sight seeing trip north on the Linville River Trail.
What struck me first of all is that almost all of the big hemlocks are already dead from hwa infestation. I’d expected that, but it’s still shocking to see my favorite evergreen going into extinction. Weirdly, one of the first things that happens to a big hemlock when the bugs have sucked it dry and it dies from starvation, is that the bark sloughs off and one sees the under layer of the bark red—almost like raw meat standing bloody. See what we’ve done? Alas.
I found some fantastic views along this part of the trail, but as the day was drawing to a close, I headed back to my campsite and built up the fire. Soon, I had a really tremendous blaze in the fire ring and I was tossing on logs that I would have assumed far too large to burn effectively. The fire gobbled them right up, though. I made a few more trips to the riverbank to gather more firewood for the night and returned to meditate, just gazing into the flames. Soon, though, I had to realize how tired I was and I retreated to my tent. As I was lying there, preparing to huddle in my new down bag (first time I’d used it), I peered up through the door of my tent and realized that I had set up directly beneath a hemlock tree. A few needles were hanging on, and I could see them against the fading twilight of the cloudy sky. A twin twilight for me to see: that of the day, and of all hemlock trees in the east.
The night went quietly, and I slept a good ten hours! My sleeping bag kept
me warm, but I have to admit that the cotton bag liner I’d bought went a long way toward making the sleep more comfortable. It was nice to pull the cotton liner up around my shoulders during the coldest parts of the morning and feel the extra warmth.
After breakfast (a nasty Mountain House concoction), I methodically packed up my campsite. I’d used up all of the water I’d brought with me and knew I’d need some for the steep climb back to my truck, so I stopped at the spring I’d located the day before the pump some water with my new filter (MSR Sweetwater). The pump worked great and I soon had two bottles filled for the brief, but extremely steep hike back up.
During the night, the clouds that had stayed high the day before had come down much lower. While before only the highest peaks had been in the clouds, now the mists had descended to around 2500 feet or so. Thus, the tops of the gorge walls were all but invisible as I pushed on and on along the Pinch In Trail.
A winter of not much hiking had really done me no good. Fifteen pounds heavier than when the season began, and loaded with a 40-lb pack, the one and a half mile hike took me an hour and fifteen minutes to climb. And it was a very rough climb. Some people think that the Pinch In Trail should be abandoned, as it’s extremely steep and, worse, succumbing to erosion in a way that makes portions of the trail not much more than a ditch where storms can dig deeper and deeper into the ridgeline. If the wilderness aspect of the area precludes any engineering on this trail, then it should probably be abandoned to the heavy foot traffic it absorbs now.
Finally, much wetter (from perspiration, not rain), I arrived at the
trailhead and my truck. By this time my thighs were screaming and it felt great to shed my pack, towel off, don a fresh shirt, and climb into the seat of my vehicle. I wanted to get in another brief day hike before I started back, but when I arrived I found the entire area (higher on the northern end of the gorge) to be completely socked in with very thick cloud cover a slight mist. As I had wanted to do the hike for the views, I decided to postpone it for another day and I headed back home.
Where I promptly showered and fell asleep again for a five-hour nap!