Located in the Pisgah Forest between Lake James and Grandfather Mountain is an amazing piece of real estate called the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area. This rugged area is the most popular wilderness area in the Eastern United States for climbers, hikers and nature lovers. Covering 12,000 plus acres, the wilderness area is so rugged and demanding that America’s elite special forces units utilize the area as a training ground.
Linville Gorge is named for William Linville and his son John who were the first white visitors to the area. Apparently, the Cherokee Indians were not happy with the Linville’s incursion into their home ground because in 1766, the father and son team were scalped and killed.
Linville Gorge became one the East’s first designated wilderness areas in 1964. This designation insures the solitude and a pristine environment of the area. No mechanized equipment or vehicles are permitted with the area and all visitors should observe ‘No Trace’ camping rules.
The best time to visit the Gorge is in the spring and early summer before the vegetation gets really dense and the snakes (timber rattlers and copperheads) begin to be active. Each year upwards of fifty people get lost and need to be rescued. Even the most experienced, well equipped hiker can get lost in the Gorge due to the fact that this is a true wilderness area. The trails are only minimally maintained and fallen trees often block the way. Dense Rhododendron and laurel thickets, downed trees, steep rocky trails and the Linville River itself make the Gorge area a treacherous trek and one not to be attempted by ‘tender foots’. Many hikers are injured each year and there have been several deaths throughout the years.
Linville Falls is the centerpiece of the area and according to legend, the Cherokee executed their enemies by tossing them down the falls. Linville Falls is actually a multi-tiered water fall culminating in a 45 feet tall final cascade. No one is believed to have ever survived the final plunge. Swimming or climbing on the the rocks at the falls is not permitted.
Entering the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area is a nature lovers dream. There you will discover plants such as Golden Heather and Heller’s Blazing Star which are two species which exist nowhere else on the planet except for neighboring Grandfather Mountain. This time of year, Toad and Large Flowered Trillium abound as well as several other rare species of plants.
Whether you are into Hiking, Backpacking or Rock Climbing, the area offers the best environment for these pursuits east of the Mississippi. There are 39 hiking trails of varying degrees of difficulty for the entire family to enjoy. For those who wish to get away from the ‘beaten path’, try the southern portion of the gorge south of the Conley Cove Trail in the western half and south of the Chimneys in the east. Another great area for solitude is the northern section of the gorge surrounding Brushy Ridge. Due to it’s rugged nature, this section is lightly trafficked and very quiet.
Free camping permits are required only for weekends and holidays between May 1 and October 31. Visitor with permits are allowed to stay for 3 consecutive days and 2 nights between May1 and October 31. Permits are not required between November 1 and April 30 or for those who do not stay over night. Each visitor or group may receive one permit per month and groups are limited to 10 people. Penalties of $5000.00 and/or six months imprisonment may be levied on violators of these laws.
A few important safety tips:
People with heart or breathing problems should NOT attempt to hike in the gorge.
It is unwise to hike, camp or climb alone in the gorge. Always let someone know when and where you plan to hike. A twisted ankle, broken leg or snake bite can leave you stranded and alone in the blink of an eye!
Learn how to read a compass and a map and always have both handy when hiking in the gorge.
While a camp stove is preferable to an open fire, tend any flame carefully particularly in the Spring and Fall of the year. If you must build a fire, try to utilize existing fire rings. BE CAREFUL!
Bury any human waste at least 100 feet from water and at least six inches deep.
Be extremely cautious while hiking around cliffs. Hang on to the children!
Always be alert for copper head and timber rattle snakes. While not plentiful, they DO inhabit the area.
Always boil water for at least twenty minutes if you intend drinking river water.
During hunting season, make sure you wear brightly colored clothing.
Be prepared for cold temperatures at night even in the dead of summer and be aware of the signs of hypothermia.
Access to Eastern Section of Gorge
From Marion, take U.S. 221 north to the Intersection of N.C. 183 at Linville Falls. Turn right on 183 and continue to N.C. 181. Turn right (south) on N.C. 181 and go 3 miles to F.S. Road 210 (Gingercake Road). rurn right onto F.S. Road 210. At the first fork, turn left and continue through the Gingercake Acres housing development.
The first parking area is for the Devils Hole Trail – approximately 2 miles from Gingercake Acres.
The second parking area is for Hawksbill (parking area on left and trail on right) – 1 mile from Devils Hole.
The third parking area is for Spence Ridge Trail and North Table Rock Trail – 1 mile from Hawksbill.
Continue 1 mile to the first intersection and turn right (you will pass the Outward Bound School sign). Stay on this road, bearing to the right, through several switchbacks and you will arrive at Table Rock Picnic Area.
Access to Western Section of Gorge
From Marion, take Highway 221 north until it intersects with N.C. 183. Turn right on N.C. 183 and continue 1 mile to Old NC 105, Kistler Memorial Highway. Trailheads and parking lots, accessing the western section of the Gorge, lead off of Kistler Memorial Highway.
Kistler Memorial Highway via N.C. 126 can be reached from Marion by travelling down U.S. 70 east to Nebo. At Nebo, take N.C. 126 across Lake James and continue 8 miles until turning left on Old NC 105, Kistler Memorial Highway.
Kistler Highway is a gravel surface road and very rough in places.
It is not recommended for 2-wheel drive vehicles.