LINVILLE GORGE HIKE

 20150307_101040

By Trent Tibbitts

The toughest, roughest, most demanding, most rewarding hike per mile I have ever been on. Located in the Pisgah National Forest north of Ashville, North Carolina. The Linville River cuts between two mountain ranges. Creating a 2000 foot deep gorge with step hillsides topped with a cliff face.  It doesn’t look very intimidating when looking at a map.  In fact we blow it off as child’s play a the beginning of the hike. By the end we had full respect for the wilderness we  had endured.

20150117_113550

It was February 2015, Brandon and I were just20150116_115746 off a Hike we had done in late January 2015 in the Smokies when he started planning another adventure.  We had hiked from Twenty mile ranger station to Gregory Bald where we had camped the first night.  Then to the AT and camp site 113 for the second night before hiking to Shuckshack fire tower and back down Twenty mile creek. It was a 22 mile loop. The first day was all up hill after the first mile. 20150117_113048This is the Smokies and its a steep climb. This was one of those trail that you keep thinking you’re at the top but it just keeps going. I was out of shape and my pack was over weight . I had met Brandon that morning at a local Wal-Mart where I bought my food for the weekend.  That was not the best idea. But I didn’t prep and I need food.  I was grabbing what I thought I needed. Like; a 20150117_113002potato,  ribeye steak, rice, trail mix, pack of flour tortillas,  thin cut steak, can of tuna,  crackers and other things that were heavy.  The one pound of trail mix was the first thing I left on the trail. We arrived at the trail head around noon. By the time I made it to camp it was dark and Brandon and Mike had been there about 2 hours.  I’m glad I saw them first because I was camping with whoever I saw first. There were two or three other groups near by. I set up my hammock and not expecting any rain, I just had my rain fly tied lousy.  I grilled my steak over the open fire and cook the potato in the hot coals.  I could not eat it all and shared the rest with Brandon and Mike.  My pack is now 3 pounds lighter.  But it’s not that much help. It was cold but we were dressed for it. We all climbed in bed for a well deserved and need sleep. Around 2 AM the wind started blowing and didn’t stop. We were camped in what’s called a saddle.  The low point between two high points. So this meant we were where the wind had the easiest place to cross. The valley funneled the wind straight through our camp. My rain fly was going crazy.  I had to tie it down and wrapped it around my hammock for more protection.  I then put my parka over my head and chest and got into my bag as much as I could.  I slept good. The noise was the worst part. 20150117_114903The next day after packing up it was a short up hill hike to the bald. The wind was still going strong.  We were late getting out of camp and people were stating to arrive from hiking up for Cades Cove.  The views to the South were great 20150117_114847from the Joyce Kilmer over to Clingmans Dome. You had a good view of Fontana lake. It was mountains after mountains.  To the north was Cades Cove with a great view of the layout.  After 40 year of visiting the cove it was nice to see it from this position. Past the Cove was the foothills Parkway and the Tennessee Valley.  Maryville  was very clear and you could make out Knoxville. We could see all the way across the Tennessee Valley to the Cumberland Mountains. That is when I noticed 20150116_122820two little gaps in those mountains.  It couldn’t be what I thought.  I pulled out maps and sure enough,  it was.  Cumberland Gap.  I could see Cumberland Gap 90 miles away.  Wendy and I had been there two or three years ago.  To pick out a landmark 90 miles away with my necked eye was wild to me. I’m sure you couldn’t do it in the summer.  The bald is covered with grass and blueberry bushes.  We hung out as long as we could stand the wind and then headed on. Mike was still at camp. I keep up with Brandon until we got to the AT. I stopped to rest and he pushed on. Mike caught up to me just as Brandon got out of sight. He pushed on and I brought up the rear. The wind seamed to die down some. We made it to camp with daylight left. It was off the trail down in a small valley.  A lot of protection from the wind.  There was a nice place for their tents and a good water supply but I had to venture up a way to find a good spot for my 20150117_171145hammock.  We had a great night by the fire cooking the steak strips and making steak tortilla. We went to bed looking forward to a good night of sleep.  Well, it started snowing around 4 AM. Then turned to light rain. I put my boots in the hammock with me and covered my pack as best as I could.  20150117_202437It never got heavy but I was not sure what was coming  so  I packed up my wet camp and hit the trail around 7 AM. Fog had set in and there was no view. The trail to the tower was a mile down trail and when I got there knowing there was no view and it would add two miles to my trip, I turned onto the Twenty Mile Trail and headed down to the truck.  The weather improved fast. I lost a lot of elevation on the steep descent.  I could now see the old fire tower but I wasn’t going back. I made good time going down hill and a somewhat lighter pack. Brandon had driven,  so once at the truck I couldn’t get in. I napped in the bed. I then unpacked and dried all my gear. I explored the ranger station then packed things up as they dried. It was about 3 hours before Brandon showed up. Mike was not to far behind.  They got some great shot of the tower.  We drove to the base of Fontana Dam before heading home.

20150117_113405

Brandon was wanting to hike the AT north from newfound gap to Charlie’s Bunion.  Stay at the Ice Water Spring Shelter.  Hike the Boulevard to Mount LeConte for the second night and down the Alum Cave Bluffs trail to Newfound Gap road. This would have been great.  You start at a very high point with out a lot of climbing.  Day three is all down hill.  Great views. Stay in the shelter,  so no hammock to carry.  The Boulevard is a tricky hike so there is a challenge.  Mount LeConte is the second highest peak in the Smokies.  Alum Cave Bluffs trail is the best trail in the park.  It would have been a great trip. The only problem.  Everyone else thinks that way too. The shelter was booked when we tried to make a reservation.

20150308_144759

20150307_103038That is when Brandon asked for a backup plan.  I had been interested in the Linville Gorge for some time. I  have seen it in the Blue Ridge Outdoor magazine a lot. I told Brandon and he had been interested in the gorge for sometime too. Now we had to find a hike. I had the Linville Gorge Mount Mitchell National Geographic Map.  It has a lot of information but cover a much larger area and does not give detailed information on the trail we are looking at. Next stop is the internet. We don’t find a lot of information. One site gives a loop in the south part of the gorge but the information is loss at best. All the post we read talk about how this is the toughest hike they have ever been on, we got lost, we almost died, maybe not the dying part but they were making a big deal out of it. Brandon and I just said they haven’t hiked with us. I mean come on we just got off 22 miles in the Smokies. We hiked the Art Lobe Trail. We Climbed Pilot Mountain and hiked 16 miles that 20150306_122954day. We had been on the toughest sections of the BMT. We had done the AT in Ga. We had been up and down mountains in the Smokies. We had done all these things and more. We were experienced. We could take care of ourselves. What were these people talking about? We got this. With very little information we planed our trip and started the invitations. Everyone always wants to go hiking but when you start asking they can’t make it. The crew was four of us; Brandon, Jason who is an experienced hiker and has been with us before on the BMT, Russ who is an all around expert, and myself. The trip was set for March 6th 2015. We would drive up Friday morning and come home on Sunday. It was Monday and we still had not gotten much more information. As a last-ditch idea I searched Face Book for a page on the Gorge. That is when I found Linville Gorge Adventures and Phil Phelan. I read his web page and sent him a message telling him about our hike. He sent back a pumped up message about the gorge and got us excited. We exchanged several messages and he told us where we could get his book and a better map of the gorge.

20150306_115920Friday came and we were to meet at Brandon’s office at 5 AM. I was out the door around 4:20. About half way there I couldn’t find my phone.  I thought I had grab it but it wasn’t where I normally put it. It had the address to Brandon’s office, GPS and Brandon’s cell number.  So, I was lost. The only choice was for me to go to my office and look up Brandon’s number from my contacts off my email.  Luckily our office are very close. I get to my office and call Brandon.  He gives me directions and I grab my tablet so I would have something to take photos with.  Once at Brandon’s office,  I unloaded my pack and find my phone. That saved a pound from not having to carry the tablet.  The message I missed from not having my phone handy was everyone was running late.  Russ and Jason were there but I beat Brandon even with my delay.  Once Brandon got there, we loaded his truck with our packs and hit the road. A few hours and stops later we were in Morganton NC. With directions from Phil, we went to the CBS sports store to get his book and a better map,  The Linville Wilderness.  I also got another Map of other trails 20150306_144552close by. Russ got a set of Tracking poles. This would be the first time I ever used tracking poles also. I bought some at REI a few weeks pyro. I filled my water bladder at the store and we stopped at Subway before heading to the trailhead. We had seen this crazy looking mountain on the way into Morganton.  Turns out its Table Rock where we are going. It looks like a monolith sitting on top of a mountain range. Like a small Devil’s Tower.

20150306_112452The trailhead is on Wolf Pit Road and we get there in short order.  We are excited to get on the trail.  We grab our gear and hit the trail.  One thing I like about backpacking is that you have to bring everything you need for survival with you.  Total self-reliance. A few hundred yards up the trail and we find a good spot for a 20150306_11485420150306_121501group photo.  It’s still cold but the heat we produce as already got us losing layers. The trail from Wolf Pit to the Mountains to Sea Trail is all up hill. It’s not a bad climb at all. There are plenty of switch backs and steps cut into the trail. The area was hit by the 2013 Table Top wildlife and is wide open. Young pines are just starting to grow back. These affords us the opportunity to have great 180 degrees views. We can see Lake James very well. As we make our way up we are still wondering what all the fuss is over this trail.  By all measures, this is an easy climb. Where we are climbing is the south end of the gorge on the east side, Shortoff 20150307_105641Mountain. The Wolf Pit trail intersects the Mountains to Sea Trail a little over half way up. We turned right on it. Once we reach the top we start to see the rock face of the gorge.  It has only been an hour’s walk from the parking lot and 1100 foot climb to a different world.  We drop our packs and explore the cliff edge.  We take more and more photos as the views get better and better. Large ice sickles fall from the cliff face in the warm afternoon sun and crash down hundred feet below.  We pack back up and keep exploring each side trail to the gorge edge as we make our way to the top. We then find a nice over look that gives up a clear view up the gorge. We can see the Linville River cutting its way through the gorge.  This area was named for father and son setters who were scalped by Cherokee Indians. The upper gorge is very narrow.  Closer to the end it opens up and there is some room on the side of the river. We take a break here and eat a snack. We could see Table Top in the distance,  our goal for the day.  The map shows water there and 20150306_13064820150306_121642we were told by fokes at the sports store that it was the only water source for this part of the trail.  After the break,  we passed a small pond. The last water source, not a place you would want to get water from. We were all still good with our Water supply and with the promise of water at Table Rock we keep going. The trail pulled away from the rim’s edge and continue up a rise that did not get burned. We emerged from the woods to more fire damaged landscape.  We follow the Ridgeline with the gorge on our left and Lake James on our right.  It makes a large sweeping curve to the left.  It was down hill for the first time then right back up to a point and trail junction where the fire did not touch. The trail turns right and starts an almost straight down hill decent. We loose 500 feet of elevation, close to half what we had gained through out the day. I hated to lose it because I knew we would have to make it back up. Chimmeys gap was the20150306_141134 low point at 2500 feet.  Then came the climb back out of the gap. This side of the gap was pines that were 6 to 8 inch in diameter and 15 to 20 foot tall. The fire had 20150306_144552come through here but the timber was still standing dead and black with soot. In area trees blocked the trail. On the decent, I had been eating trail mix and had fallen behind.  The rest of the crew was now out of sight in the thick dead forest. It was a steep incline and I could hear them often over head. It was a 1000 foot climb to the top. I caught back up with everyone at a nice rocky over look. We had a good view of the Chimmeys and Tablerock. I took off my pack a rested for a minute while taking photos.  Then it was back on the trail and more climbing to the top.  It wasn’t any worse than anything else I have climbed. In fact it was a short climb compared to the climbs in the Smokies,  but it was late in the day, a day that had started at 4 AM. So when we got to the top and found a camping spot I was all for stopping here for the night. We did a quick survey of the area and pick our spots. Next order of business was to go find water.

20150306_163341 I took my head lamp just in case it got dark and a pullover if it got cold. Plus I had my water bladder. We had only seen three people on the trail and that was at the start. We came across a man and his daughter making camp. We asked about the water we had seen on the map. The map showed a blue diamond,  bathrooms and a parking lot all right together.  He told us there was no water there. The bathrooms were just privies. No running water. He said he and his wife ran into the same problem last summer and went 24 hours without water. He suggested that we check the tops of the rocks a long the Chimmeys for pools of water or ice sickles.  We split up in search for water. I stayed on the trail and everyone else checked the top of the rocks.  I came around the corner of the trail and had a great view of the gorge.  The trail is narrow here with some rock hopping. I found a rock slide and see ice sickles above. I made my way up and started harvesting ice. Putting it 20150306_171036straight into my water bladder.  I made my way to a large cave like over hang.  Would have been a great place to make camp. Had a wonderful view of the gorge.  I got as much ice as I thought I needed. Then headed back to camp about a quarter-mile away. I stopped to talk to the guy who told us about the water. He said he and his wife had done the same loop we were doing. When they ran out of water. He told us of the next water being about 4 miles away on the trail down to the river.  He said the bridge was out and they waded across. He said the trail was real rough and the climb back out was awful hard. He hadn’t eaten well and it was very hard for him. I asked if it was harder than the hill we just climbed up20150306_115755 out of the gap and he said yes. I wasn’t to concerned about him saying that the bridge was out because Phil had said there was a new bridge at the top of the loop. We knew we would have to wade the river at the down stream crossing.  This trail still hadn’t shown us anything that tough and rugged. What were these people talking about? Back at camp we prepared our dinner.  As the sun set. I used my new alcohol fueled stove to cook Mexican rice and pan fry steak strips for camp fajitas.  The camp fire was over looking the east and we had a clear view as the moon came up over the horizon bright red. It was big and was a grand sight to see. The wind was picking up and the temperature was dropping fast.  Water in my water bladder was already freezing.  Some of the guys boiled water and put it in a water bottle and slept with it. One, it helped to keep them warm and two, it kept the water from freezing over night.  I set up my hammock and made sure to tie the rain fly down good. I didn’t want a repeat of the night in the Smokies a few weeks back.  The wind was strong during the night but the rain fly did the trick in blocking it. Over night temperature was around 15 degrees. Everyone survived.  I was warm all night.

20150307_095637The next morning,  I was up first and got my things packed.  It was cold and I didn’t want to spend too much time in camp. I did get the fire going and made a cup of hot chocolate. I had lost my head lamp the night before while looking for water.  I needed time to look for it so I headed out before everyone else. I searched the trail as I walked but I had an idea it was where I had gathered the ice. Having not found the light on the trail,  I stopped at the landslide area where I was the night before and dropped my pack.  I back tracked my path and found the head lamp at the point where I had turned back.  Once I got back to my pack,  Brandon had caught up to me. The view up the gorge was fantastic from the trail.  We took our time and made a lot of photos as we explored the rock formations along the trail.  Jason and Russ caught up to us.  We passed a group of campers and asked about trail conditions.  They too told us that the bridge was out.  Last summer they had cross with a use of a rope up river and the rope may still be there. We walked on to a rocky over look that gave us a 360 degree view.  The discussion of what to do was intense. 20150307_101730 Was the bridge out or not? Did we want to hike down and see? If it was out,  then what?  Would we swim?  Would we hike back out?  Do we call a shuttle and leave from the parking lot at Table Rock? We text Phil and asked him about the bridge.  Yes that bridge is out, he said.  The new bridge is at the top of the gorge. With the winter flow and the added water from rain earlier in the week,  we would have to swim.  But we still didn’t think we would have to swim.  Surely we could find a way to cross. Maybe we could rock hop or find a down tree. We decided to go take a look.  We scrambled over more rocks before leaving the Chimmeys and entering the camping area next to the parking lot. Unfortunately the restrooms were locked. We stopped to rest and check the map. The Table Rock was right in front of us.  We took more 20150307_103149photos.  Then we climbed up the trail from the parking lot on the North West side of the mountain with great views of the gorge.  We passed two guys collecting water from a wet weather spring on the side of the trail. They gave us more advice on how to cross the river.  On up the trail where we were to leave the Mountains to Sea Trail,  we met a large group of Boy Scouts.  They to had done our loop last year. More advice on how to hike the trail. We started our decent to the river. It was straight down hill, no switch backs.  I was getting a little hungry so I slowed down a little to eat a snack while walking.  We started to hear water and was soon at a small creek and our first fresh water on the trail.  I used my new life straw filter for the first time.  From here it was up and over several ridges till we got to a camping area. We stopped to check the map. There was the trail we walked in on and it looked like it went straight ahead. There was a trail coming in on the right down the crest of the hill and a trail to the left. After looking over the map,  we went straight ahead.  After a few hundred yards of down 20150306_170514hill hiking the trail disappeared.  More map reading and discussion of what to do.  We turned back and bushed wacked our way up the draw to the trail junction. More map studying and up the hill we went. It was a short climb.  We passed a young lady hiking by herself.  I thought how dangerous it  for her to be alone. We soon came to another trail junction.  We turned left and started our decent to the river.

20150307_140240We got to the river at lunch time.  There were a few people hanging out on the rocks.  Two ladies with a dog were finishing up their lunch.  A couple was sitting on a large boulder that was once the landing of the now missing foot bridge.  We dropped our packs and began exploring the area for a way across.  Where the bridge once stood was a gap much to wide to jump.  There was a boulder below that we might could have jumped to but if we didn’t make it we would have been swept 20150307_141053down river in the raging white water.  The river was up due to rain just two days before our trip. There was a row of smaller boulders below a pool that looked like we could have rocked hopped across but again it was to big of a gap. I made my way up the river looking for a way to cross.  The gorge is very narrow and the hillsides are like walls.  I could only crawl and climb over rocks for a short distance before coming to a point that could not be traversed.  I made my way back to the trail and reported my findings.  Jason and Brandon tried a route a little higher up the hillside with the same 20150307_144354results.  I ate my lunch of tuna with crackers.  The talk of swimming the river came up again.  The air temperature was in the 50s. Remember it had been a low of 16 degrees over night. There was a very deep pool of water just above the spot where the bridge once span the narrow slot of swift water that funneled all the river. Not a place you would want to get caught up in.  The plan was evolving.  We looked where to enter and where to exit. What would be the easiest and fastest way across without getting caught the current and be pulled into the rapids.  Russ was the biggest supporter of this plan.  Jason was up for it too.  Brandon and I had not fully committed.  That was going20150307_140311 to be some cold water.  Part of the plan was to ferry our packs across on a rope.  Two of us on one side and two of us on the other to handle the rope and packs.  We stripped down to our underwear and put our clothes in our packs. Brandon and I were still not sure if this was what we wanted to do.  While discussing our options and had almost decided to bail out and head back,  we heard Russ splash in. There was no turning back now.  Jason quickly followed with a dive into the clear frigid waters. They were across in about 15 seconds. That doesn’t sound long. But believe me you couldn’t stand much more than that. After they caught their breath, Russ took a position on the lower bolder.  It had a 30 degree angle into the water and was not that good  a base. I think Russ may have swam with the rope.  We had found a big carabiner on the old bridge foundation. We used it to attach our packs to the rope. The upper end of the rope was looped around rebar that was part of the old bridge and I anchored it.  Russ ran the lower part of the rope behind his back while sitting and Jason anchored the end of the rope. Brandon loaded the packs and send them down to Russ who caught them and passed them to Jason.  Talk about a team building exercises. It was now mine and Brandon’s turn to swim.  We waded in until 20150307_144400the water was waist deep then started our swim.  I made the mistake of keeping my sandals on thinking they would help me walk over the rocks.  They were pulling me down a little and slowing down some too. I was almost to the other side and was at a point where I thought I should be able to stand up but to  surprise I could not touch.  I felt that I was in a fight for my life.  The cold water had taken my breath.  I was trying to take in deep breaths. I was getting encouragement from the guys on the shore. It was the most primeval feeling of survival I have ever had.  One on the back of the river I collapsed with deep gasping for air. After the shock wore off and I regained feeling,  I was the most refreshed I had ever been.  I also had a huge sense of accomplishment.  We got out of our wet short, got dressed and got back on the trail.

20150307_154300

20150308_092534The trail now followed close by the river.  Never losing sight of it. We were still in the narrow upper part of the gorge.  The trail was narrow and climbed up and down the side of the hill.  It really was a goat path. Large trees littered the way. This was becoming the worst part of the trip. More people were on this side of the river. There are a few trails coming in on this side and more camping opportunities. Most  If not all possible camping areas were occupied.  We made our way down to below the chimneys before we made camp.  Almost even across the20150307_171408 river from where we had camped the first night.  The sun was low in the west and its soft light painted the cliff face above on the east rim of the gorge. It was a sight worth the efforts of the day.

20150308_113040Our camp was a spacious area. We had plenty of fire wood and room to spread out.  Brandon pitched his tent and the rest of us hung our hammocks. We cooked dinner,  I had a setak cooked over the open fire.  Then it was a relaxing evening around the fire.  The night was not as cold as the night before.  The next morning I cooked eggs for breakfast.  We had a big day ahead of us. We broke camp and we all hiked together, getting back logged at each down tree we had to cross.  Some 20150308_115634were quite tricky, like a puzzle you had to solve before you could pass. The morning trail was much like the afternoon before.  It was a goat path on the side of the hill.  We took lunch at a campsite that was just passed where the gorge started to open up.  After lunch we hiked in the flat flood plain of the river for about an hour until we could go no further.  The river cut into the steep mountain side blocking our path.  This would be our second river crossing.  The river was very wide here and didn’t look to deep except right next to the bank on our site. We looked for a spot that wouldn’t be too deep. Again we stripped down to our underwear and I put my sandals on.  This time they worked as planned.  The river20150308_134841 turned out not to be too deep.  My shorts didn’t get wet. The water was cold but refreshing.  Jason took the opportunity to soak his knees for a while.  This is where the trail ends and your own your own.  After gearing up we wander and bushwhack our way down river.  We found a road a little inland and took it out of the national forest onto to private land.   About a mile on down the road it crossed the river and there was no way to continue down the river without crossing. We studied the map and decided we had to climb out up the mountain to the east. We were looking to hit the Mountain to Sea Trail on the ridge top. The mountain side was steep. I believe it was a 1100 foot climb.  We did not have a trail to follow.  It was get to the top.  We were soon on the west slop where the fire had burned all the trees. We were without protection from the afternoon sun.  It was slow going.  My tracking poles helped a lot. We had to take several stops.  20150308_135306We found the trail and took a left and continued to climb the mountain along the ridge line. This trail intersects the trail down to the truck almost at the top of the mountain so when we found a side trail that looks like it cuts a  cross the side of the mountain we take it.  It goes up and over several ridges but it was a shorter route.  The guys turned on the over drive and left  behind.  Once a Wolf Pit trail I turned right and it was all down hill to the truck.  It took a little longer to get down than I thought it would.  The small parking lot was packed.  We loaded up and headed to the nearest waffle house.  Great trip.

20150308_145656

Advertisements