Linville Gorge Loop Hike – Conley Cove/Rock Jock/Linville Gorge/Babel Tower Trails - 6/2/17 – 9 miles
In a moment of weakness I agreed to join a group hiking trip on the AT in New Hampshire and southern Maine later this summer, under the heading of “that sounds like fun while I am sitting here on the couch.” Those miles are considered the most difficult of the AT and I will suffer greatly if I don’t get off that couch! Time for some training work. I’ve been curious to explore Linville Gorge but have heard many cautions not to go alone unless very skilled at navigation (I’m not). I’ve hiked along the eastern edge of the gorge a few times and have followed the Mountains-To-Sea Trail from the western edge down to the river and up the eastern side, but always with other hikers.
My trail buddy Cathy joined me on a loop from Danny Bernstein’s Hiking North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains guidebook. I trust Danny’s maps and narratives, but she would say that hikers should have other maps, a compass, and brains for any hike. This is especially true in Linville Gorge, designated a wilderness area with no blazes and minimal signage. It is rough, rugged and…well, wild. I chose to hike the loop in reverse because the last 2.7 miles is on the gravel road, and I figured we would want to trend downhill rather than uphill for the boring part. My logic had good and bad consequences.
I christened my new-to-me Honda CR-V on Kistler Highway - not as much clearance as my good ole Pilot, but it’s got to do the job or else. (It did.) Don’t tell Jim how eroded the “highway” was in some places.
We parked at the Conley Cove trailhead. A half-mile in, we took a right onto Rock Jock Trail, which leads to rock outcroppings with outstanding views. We investigated several small paths on the left side of the main trail before turning back.
Shortoff Mountain across the Gorge. The MST climbs up Shortoff and then traces along about two-thirds of the eastern edge before turning east away from the Gorge and continuing into Wilson Creek Wilderness.
Put ‘em together
There are a number of viewpoints of these two iconic points from the western rim of Linville Gorge, all worth checking out. Rock Jock is worth the bumpy ride and a two-mile round trip hike, a little work to get the flavor of the Gorge.
We backtracked to Conley Cove Trail, turned right and took the plunge down to the Linville River. Late spring flowers peeked out at every turn.
At the river’s edge we found a large campsite area and a sign for Linville Gorge Trail, but no signage for Conley Cove. Score one point for hiking the loop in this direction or we might not have known that Conley Cove Trail intersected here.
Lunch by the riverside
After our break, we began walking upstream, i.e. steadily uphill, our pace slowed down by stepping over/around big rocks and numerous blowdowns that required thinking. The trail narrowed and dropped off sharply on the right (riverside) with vegetation crowding on the left. I joked that I would suffer a lopsided neck strain from bending to the right to avoid getting hit in the face by branches.
What’s in there, Cathy?
Okay, where is the Spence Ridge Trail? It should be coming in on the right, leading to the water – a brief detour for us because we wanted to see the Spence Ridge Bridge. This is a point against hiking in the opposite direction: I am terrible at interpreting narratives in reverse. Even with Danny’s map, the turn to the bridge looked to be very close to the Conley Cove intersection, but it seemed to take forever to get to it. Did we miss it? Nope, here it is – and the bridge is gone.
More trail practice with blowdowns and rough footing. The river was loud and often we caught glimpses of whitewater through the trees, but very few clear lookouts. Several times we took steep side trails to the water’s edge to check out waterfalls and cascades – all beautiful. If only the trail more closely followed the edge, but judging by the car-sized and house-sized boulders, it would be hard to do.
Is there a view from there?
Trail conditions slowed us down to the point where time wasn’t an accurate indicator of where we are on the trail. Danny’s narrative is not so detailed as to mention every campsite, etc. and we (I) continued to have trouble interpreting backwards. Which switchback does she mean? Which rock overhang?
Apparently we missed where Devil’s Hole Trail comes in from the right – but, hey, there’s Babel Tower! We are still in the Gorge.
At the base of a steep section of short switchbacks, we felt that we had located ourselves on the trail. At the top of the section was a trail junction – no signage at all, but we interpreted this as the Babel Tower Trail crossing the Linville Gorge Trail.
We walked a short distance to see Babel Tower’s base, but time was getting late so we turned around to continue up Babel Tower Trail toward the parking lot – yes, More.UP. This 1.3 miles seemed especially arduous. We were keeping a good pace, no longer slowed down by obstacles, but my energy level was depleted. A lot of self-talk that this was excellence practice for the AT in Maine next month, and that although it was difficult right this minute, once we finished and I sat down, I would feel better.
We met a couple walking down, carrying only a bottle of water, and asked how far to the parking area (after all, we still have 2.7 miles past that to walk on Kistler Highway to get back to our car). They had no idea how far it is or how long they’ve been walking. Next we saw a couple carrying loaded backpacks. They had been out for a couple of nights and were also heading to the parking lot.
An eternity later (15 minutes) we reached the lot and started off down the gravel road, a relief to be walking a gentle downhill with no obstacles (my brilliant plan). About half a mile later, the backpacking couple passed by in their car (driving to Conley Cove to get their second car) and gave us a ride – saved us two miles of walking. (Better than my brilliant plan!)
I share all these details to emphasize that no hike goes exactly as planned. Sometimes it’s easier, but don’t count on it. More often it’s harder in some way. Research routes before you go, read guidebooks, trail journals and descriptions (there are a lot of them out there) but don’t stop there because the information may not be up to date (ex. missing bridges). Look at the official websites for where you’re going, see what their current trail conditions and cautions are. (Wikipedia is not enough!) Take more than one type of map if possible. Orientation, map and compass skills are important – I should practice these. I’m glad I didn’t attempt this hike alone, as I would have gotten rattled at missing trail intersections, the lack of signage, and not being oriented in time and place.
The U.S. Forest Service website for Linville Gorge is here. (It notes the washed out Spence Ridge bridge and the necessity of a “wet crossing.” The water is often much too high for me to feel safe crossing there.)
"The wise man knows that it is better to sit on the banks of a remote mountain stream than to be emperor of the whole world." ~Zhuangzi