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Fall Foliage in Linville Gorge

posted Oct 30, 2013, 10:13 AM by Justin P   [ updated Nov 25, 2013, 11:12 AM ]

We had another weekend of Fall Foliage in the North Carolina Mountains, this time at Linville Gorge.  I headed out Friday night after work with Larredo and Grace and we met up with everyone else at a roadside camping area in Pisgah National Forest, near Upper Creek off FS-982.  It was extremely cold Friday night, with lows getting down to about 24°F, but a big campfire and lots of layers kept us warm through the night.  It was still cold in the morning, but warmed up a little bit as the sun came out.  After breakfast, we headed north on NC-181 towards the top of the gorge, making our first stop at the US Forest Service parking area for Linville Falls.  It was still a little chilly, but before starting our hike, I took off some layers as hiking in the sunshine would warm me up.  We started off down the spur trail to the main Linville Falls Trail and turned right.  Shortly, we turned off for the first of several overlooks for the falls.  The Upper Falls View has nice views of the twin upper portion of the falls, where two smaller cascades on the Linville River flow together before channeling through a narrow gorge above the main falls.  Although you can’t see the main falls from this overlook, it’s the only viewing spot for the canyon above it.

Next, we hiked up to the Chimney View Overlook.  This overlook is further down the river and provides a good view of the main falls as well as the two upper falls behind it, the only viewing spot to see both.  There were also nice views of the river downstream as it heads into the gorge.  From here, we hiked to the furthest viewing spot, Erwin’s View Overlook.  Along the way, there is a view of the gorge downstream where we could see northern portion of Linville Gorge.  From Erwin’s View, the falls are distant and seem quite small.  And it’s not possible to view the two upper falls from here either, but still a very scenic viewpoint with the mountains in the background.  We got some pictures and then hiked back to the cars. 

Continuing on Kistler Memorial Highway south into Linville Gorge Wilderness, we left one car at the trailhead for Cabin Trail and then shuttled to the trailhead for Babel Tower Trail.  We started hiking down the Babel Tower Trail, a moderately strenuous trail, less so because we were heading down.  Going up on this one is a lot tougher as its steep, narrow, and full of rocks, roots, and other tripping hazards.  There are a couple of openings along the trail for good views of fall color in the gorge, but the very best views were from Babel Tower itself.  Babel Tower is a tall rock outcrop in the form of a tower that rises high above the Linville River in a very winding section of the river.  The most challenging part of this hike was the very steep climb up to the tower itself.   We stopped here and had lunch while enjoying the views and climbing out on to different parts of the tower for panoramic views and photo opportunities.

When we were done here, we climbed back down and got on the Linville Gorge Trail heading north.  The trail is very winding as it parallels the river from above and in half a mile or so, we stopped at the bottom of Cabin Trail.  This trail is not well marked and it would be easy to miss it.  It’s also incredibly steep, gaining about 800 feet in less than three-quarters of a mile.  Fortunately, cold weather is great for strenuous hiking.  Although I  was certainly huffing and puffing going up the trail, at least I wasn’t sweating much.  Casey and I reached the top first and we got pictures of everyone else as they finally made it to the top.  Ida was walking Asha, her lab mix.  Although Asha did quite well hiking up the trail, as soon as she got to the top, she plopped down on the ground and passed out.  She would be sleeping well tonight.  From here, we drove out of the gorge and back to NC-181, stopping at the forest service parking area for Upper Creek Falls.  The hike to this waterfall is a mostly easy 1 to 1.5 mile loop hike, although we didn’t even finish out the loop.  From the parking area, we hiked down the trail towards the Upper Falls.  The trail begins gradually and gets a little steeper, although switchbacks make the slope pretty easy, and comes out at the top of the falls.  I couldn’t see much of the waterfall from the top, but the view over the top with the colorful leaves in the distance was beautiful.  There were also some nice cascades just upstream of the falls.  We crossed the river to a very scenic campsite where a couple were setting up camp and building a fire and then hiked down to the base of the falls.  This waterfall is a 50-foot rock slide and very beautiful, especially with the colorful foliage as a backdrop.  With many large rocks and boulders in the creek below the falls, there were plenty of opportunities to get pictures from different angles. 

Further downstream is a lower falls, but unfortunately, we didn't have time tonight to stop.  When we were done enjoying the waterfall, we hiked back up the way we came, rather than finishing the loop.  Casey had done the entire loop and the portion we skipped takes a while due to excessive switchbacks.  By this time, it was getting late in the evening and the sun would be setting soon and we had plans for sunset.  For a great sunset view, we continued just a couple miles more down NC-181 and stopped at the Brown Mountain Overlook.  It’s just a pulloff on the side of the highway, but clearings in the trees provide great views of the mountains to the east and west.  To the east, Brown Mountain, with its mysterious lights, as well as Chestnut Mountain can be seen.  However, the sun sets to the west over Jonas Ridge, the eastern edge of Linville Gorge.  There were great views of Table Rock, Hawksbill Mountain, Sitting Bear Mountain, and Gingercake Mountain.   Casey and I ran across the street, sitting on the guard rail to get pictures of the sun setting over Sitting Bear Mountain, a few minutes before official sunset.  When we were done, we headed back to the campsite and made dinner and a roaring fire before getting to bed early.  Although it got down to 37°F overnight, it seemed warm compared to the previous night.

In the morning, we packed up camp and headed back to Linville Gorge via the entrance for Table Rock.  It’s a long gravel road up the mountain and very dusty in the dry conditions.  The cars were covered in dust by the time we reached the parking area.  Rather than hike to Table Rock, which was very crowded on a nice fall weekend, we hiked in the opposite direction towards the Chimneys and the NC Wall.  We hiked on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail south from the parking lot towards the Chimneys.  This is one of the most scenic hikes in Linville Gorge.  After a short hike through a forested area, the trail leads along an exposed ridge line with fantastic views of the gorge and the many beautiful rock formations and outcrops that line the rim of the gorge.  A large group of rock climbers were climbing near the Chimneys, so to get some solitude and not disturb them, we had to look around for a nice place to climb up.  We found a steep climb that leads up to a great overlook on the Chimneys.  The climb up was steep, but short, and we had to climb through a beautiful rock arch to get up there.  We stopped and had lunch here and climbed around to enjoy the views from different angles.  To the east, we could see the rolling foothills and to the west we could see across the gorge with stunning cliffs lining the west side.  In the distance, the outline of the mighty Black Mountains could be seen in the distance. 

Fall color did not seem to be quite peaking yet and there was a lot of green left still visible (although much of this was from evergreen trees).  However, there were many beautiful patches of bright colors.  When we finished lunch, we climbed back down and followed the MST for a little while longer, taking an easy-to-miss side trail that leads down to the NC Wall.  This unofficial trail is the Amphitheater Trail and is not shown on maps.  It leads from the MST down to the Amphitheater, a canyon in the cliff face of the gorge.  It's another area popular with rock climbers and had truly fantastic views.  A small patch of colorful trees down in the Amphitheater contrasted beautifully against the rugged grey cliffs.  Further to the south, we could Shortoff Mountain and the end of the Linville River, where it flows into Lake James. 

From here, we hiked along the North Carolina Wall Trail, parallel to the MST, but several hundred feet below.  This is another unofficial trail.  The NC Wall is sparsely vegetated and so provides some of the best views of the gorge.  Much of the interior of the gorge is forested, with the river dividing the gorge in half.  But there are a few fantastic rock towers sticking up from dense vegetation and providing a beautiful contrast.  Almost immediately, we saw the Sphinx rising out from the canyon floor among the dense vegetation.  Towards the end of the trail, we saw the Camel, another rock formation that looked surprisingly like the animal. 

Altogether, we stopped at a three or four spots to enjoy the views and get some pictures and then took the trail back up to the MST and took this back to the parking lot.  Although it was only about a four mile loop, we stopped so frequently that it took quite a while.  We had initially thought about hiking up to Table Rock, but it would be crowded and it was getting late.  And we were getting hungry and knew that our favorite restaurant, Las Salsas in Morganton was not far away.  So we finished our hiking and drove to Morganton for dinner before heading back to the Raleigh area.