Linville Gorge: Pine Gap Trail and Bynum Bluff Trail – 1/19/19 – 3 miles
Linville Gorge: Grand Canyon of the East, rugged wilderness, wild forest. On paper, a straightforward looking canyon cut by the Linville River, accessible by trails from both sides. On paper, bridges that cross the river make a rim-to-rim hike a day’s adventure. Don't be seduced by a map - do some thorough research before you tackle it.
Danny Bernstein’s succinct description from Hiking North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains might make a hiker pause: “The Linville River starts at Grandfather Mountain and flows through high valleys into Linville Gorge. Here, the river snakes for 12 miles, slashing through the canyon and ending in Lake James …The gorge is 2,000 feet deep in places and is so steep and inaccessible that the forest within it has never been logged. The Wilderness Area itself, encompassing more than 11,000 acres of protected land, is a solitary world filled with the roar of the river.”
On every hike in Linville Gorge I’ve learned lessons, most times painful ones. From getting lost in the fog to heat exhaustion (never alone, always with other hikers), time and again we have overestimated human abilities and underestimated the ruggedness of the Gorge. A reliable 2 mile per hour pace for me anywhere else is not possible here. A 10-mile day is going to take all day and you’re going to feel it. Navigation skills are required and still you may question your location because the pace you are used to doesn’t apply.
An invitation to visit Cathy in her mountain hideaway near Linville Gorge sounded just fine. I was very much looking forward to a short hike on some new trails to help me gain confidence. Cathy, her son Patrick, her new four-legged Plott hound, Ellie, and another hiking friend had hiked in an enchanted dusting of snow in the Gorge earlier in the day. Over dinner they relayed a tale of Ellie catching a scent and tearing off into the thick forest. For an anxious half-hour they searched and called for her until she suddenly reappeared. Hmmm…let’s try going into the Gorge again tomorrow with Ellie, keeping her on a leash. I wonder how that’s going to work…
Morning was crisp and clear, blue skies and a brisk wind served up with a leisurely breakfast by Patrick, the resident chef: venison sausage, eggs, grits and toast. Yes, I’d love a second cup of coffee!
We drove along gravelly winter-worn Kiestler Highway on the western rim of the Gorge. Our hike plan was a loop: Pine Bluff Trail down to the river, then a short stretch on Linville River Trail to Bynum Bluff Trail, back up to Kiestler and a road walk back to the car – 3 miles. (Note: Pine Bluff Trail is #231 on the Forest Service map of Linville Gorge Wilderness and the Linville River Trail is also #231...)
Traces of snow were lingering on in the shadows (which was just about everywhere). Everything else was slippery wet. Ellie wore a red harness on a leash, but that lasted about ten minutes, as it wasn’t at all practical to hold onto the leash of an enthusiastic dog on slick rocks and steep terrain. We give credit to Ellie as she stayed with us. We attempted to keep her between the first and last person and the red harness was easy to see. Pine Bluff Trail is surprisingly level and benign for short stretches, but don’t get complacent, especially in icy conditions.
We slid down this on our behinds
At a four-way intersection, Patrick led us left to drop down to the river’s edge. A breathtaking scene: enormous boulders, thundering water flow, wild and deserted (though surely it’s crowded in summertime, multiple campsites and fire rings, a great swimming hole – I don’t think I would like camping here with a crowd.)
Ellie likes the water so Cathy kept her on leash
We couldn’t walk too far downriver because of the high water level and it was too cold to sit down on anything, so after the photo ops we retraced our steps up to the 4-way intersection.
At that point Cathy suggested extending the hike, but I stood my ground to hike up Bynum Bluff Trail and road walk back to the car as planned – I was determined to complete a Linville Gorge hike without regrets. I knew they couldn’t resist going further into the Gorge. I offered to drive to meet them at another trailhead, so they opted to continue on the River Trail and back up to Kiestler Highway via the Babel Tower Trail. Caution: if I can’t drive on the rough road, they’d have to walk the road back to me.
We parted ways at 12:30 p.m., me alone to hike up Bynum Bluff, Cathy and Patrick and Ellie to Babel Tower. They thought they would be finished by 2:00 p.m.
Did I mention that none of us had a map so all distances and time frames were estimates? Apparently we have learned nothing from Gilligan and the others.
Bynum Bluff was an excellent trail, a brief steep ascent and then a long gentle ridge walk with many viewpoints towards the Gorge, Hawksbill and Table Rock clearly visible most of the way.
Hawksbill and Table Rock
Hawksbill and the Linville River
I reveled in the solitary walk in the woods, the chill temperature, noisy leaf litter, bare trees. Because the conditions were so good, I felt a teeny bit of regret at not going along with my friends – BUT I was happy and didn’t want to become unhappy.
Taking my sweet time, I returned to the car around 1:30 p.m. and drove towards our rendezvous trailhead, but the washed-out gravel road was too rough and rutted to safely continue. I pulled over to wait, knowing that it would add about a mile of road walk for them. I was delighted to find cell coverage, so I ate my lunch, checked email and FB, edited photos.
Cathy and Patrick did not return by 2:00, or by 2:30, or by 2:45. At 3:00 I began walking to meet them, and they came around the corner after just a couple of minutes. Turns out the route they hiked was longer than they had estimated. What a surprise! But they were happy with their choice as well.
Only three miles for me, but a win all the same. Thanks, Linville Gorge! Back to Cathy’s place for another great Patrick-inspired meal, an adult beverage and a campfire.
“In wisdom gathered over time I have found that every experience is a form of exploration.” ~Ansel Adams