Linville Gorge illustration

This Beauty’s a Beast

North Carolina’s rugged Linville Gorge offers gut-busting hikes with breathtaking rewards.

The roar of the Linville River woke me up. I unzipped my tent and peeked out. Straight ahead of me, angry water cascaded over rocks seen and unseen. On the far side of the river, the east side of the Linville Gorge stood nearly straight up, some 1,700 feet into the North Carolina sky. Behind me, the gorge’s west ridge rose like a thick green wall. 

I crawled out of the tent and looked up and out as if from the bottom of a U. Gray clouds promised to soak my two hiking buddies and me all day long, but for now, we remained dry. It was April 2016, and a spring breeze whistled through the hickory, oak, maple, locust, and poplar trees, cooling my skin and carrying with it a damp whiff that confirmed the coming rainstorm. 

My back barked its complaint, chastising me for sleeping on a thin mattress pad after bearing the weight of my backpack for hours on end the day before. I started a fire, put water on the Jetboil, and waited for it to simmer. I wanted the morning to last forever. I smelled everything, heard everything, felt everything, as I do every time I descend into the Linville Gorge Wilderness, 12,000 acres of untouched beauty in the Pisgah National Forest in the Blue Ridge Mountains. 

My friend Andy joined me by the fire. As I dumped the contents of an instant coffee packet into my hiking mug, he jokingly questioned my toughness, openly doubting whether I had the guts to drink strong coffee. 

“Put two in there!” he said. 

Goofball, I thought. But I did it anyway. I took one sip of this double-dosed drink and my eyes opened wider, as if pulled by strings. Another drink and sunshine shot out of my ears. A third and I could have juggled the boulders that dotted the river. I peered into my cup. What magical elixir had Andy coaxed me into creating? I nursed it slowly, hoping to make whatever it was doing to me last. It was, and remains, the most memorable drink I have ever had.

In the years since, I have tried to replicate that cup of coffee—one packet, two packets, hotter water, cooler water, cream, sugar, black, and every combination thereof. But nothing comes close to matching that joyful jolt of java. I finally concluded that the coffee had nothing to do with it. It was the place, not the drink, that warmed my heart that day. Such is the power of the Linville Gorge. 

My love for the Linville Gorge started simply enough. About five years earlier, I had asked my friend Ryan, an avid outdoorsman, to take me for a daytrip somewhere that combined great hiking and great fishing. The Linville Gorge had long been his go-to place, so he chose that as our destination.

He picked me up at my home in Charlotte, and by the time we concluded the 2.5-hour drive northwest, we had been transported back centuries. The Linville Gorge is often called the most rugged area east of the Mississippi River, and I’m not going to argue with that. Its forest remains virgin because it would be too hard to get lumber out of there. 

At the time, my idea of roughing it was cooking on a charcoal grill, so the first hour of the hike—starting at the top of the west ridge and going down quickly—shocked me. I cursed the roots put there to twist my ankles and the branches reaching there to slice my skin and the rocks dropped there to send me sprawling. 

We turned right, the trail flattened out, and thick woods swallowed me. I couldn’t see more than 20 feet in any direction. Did the outdoors have to be so outdoorsy? I started to wonder what Ryan had gotten me into, and whether he’d be able to get me out. 

Then we reached the bottom. 

I looked up and around, and my anxiety turned to awe.

The sun glistened off the water. The canopy of trees we had just left shone as green as a leprechaun’s daydream. Sheer rock faces up and down the river hinted at the centuries the water had spent digging deeper into the earth. Continuing that task, the water rushed over a short fall and pounded into a pool below—nature’s own white noise machine.

Ryan and I stepped onto a smooth, multitiered ledge in the shape of an L that overlooked the pool. We put our fishing lines into the water. The current took our bait up and to the right. Then and now, I’m a clueless fisherman, but even I couldn’t miss the trout and smallmouth bass so desperate to introduce themselves to me. 

I wondered what we had gotten into. Then my anxiety turned to awe.

We drained that pool of all its fish, and then turned north, looking for the next spot. We danced along the west bank of the river, each bend more spectacular than the last. I hopscotched into the water, 10 feet from the river’s bank, onto a rock the size of a Hula-Hoop. I hollered at Ryan, “Do you think anybody has ever stood here before?”

He smiled and shook his head. On the next cast, I landed a trout I’ve lied about so often that I can’t remember how big it actually was. My excited, goofy, bellowing, gleeful laughter echoed off the gorge walls. “I guarantee nobody has ever done that from there before,” Ryan said, and I’m not sure he meant it as a compliment, but I will always think of it as one.

The climb out that day, following Cabin Trail, was brutal—1,000 feet up in three-quarters of a mile with a 32 percent grade. It was like walking up your roof if your roof were overrun with rocks and trees and mud and roots. My heart pounded, half out of exhaustion, half out of fear. Darkness loomed. I unleashed a torrent of silent epithets at the crackpot who blazed this trail. Seriously, what nutjob thought straight up was the best way out? When we finally reached the top, I bent over to catch my breath. My knees, hips, and core were sore for days, but it was that weird kind of pain you delight in, maybe even brag about.

In 2013, I was laid off from my job. I had a million questions and zero answers to any of them. Was my career over? How would I provide for my wife and kids? Life felt like a constant scramble up the Cabin Trail, only I never reached the top. I carried anxiety like an overstuffed backpack.

Meanwhile, a bunch of friends and I had been planning a trip to the Linville Gorge. I wore myself out worrying about whether I should go. What’s an unemployed guy doing going on a weekend getaway with the boys? I knew my perception of my situation was warped. All I could see was the trees that had swallowed me. I needed to step out—or be pushed out—to gain some perspective. 

I often find peace in the strange symmetry of putting down intangible challenges and picking up real ones. A hike in the Linville Gorge is all-consuming. Your feet can’t wander from the path, and neither can your mind. I finally decided to go because not going would have been worse. I walked out front for much of the hike, pushing through brush so thick I occasionally lost the trail. At one point, fellow hikers and I shuffle-footed across the river, holding on to one another as we braced against the current that pounded our thighs. Our long slog up the Cabin Trail was hard, of course. But not as hard as the first time. 

We camped up top that night, high above the river. The glow of the fire illuminated our tired faces. I ate a bratwurst that was almost as memorable as Andy’s coffee. We told stories deep into the night. Some of them might have even been true. I hadn’t relaxed like that in months.

I developed a mantra for when I hike at the Linville Gorge: “One easy step. That’s all I want. One easy step.” I rarely find it. I mumbled that to myself during the April outing as I lurched over a fallen tree. We ended up finishing that hike an hour later. I climbed into Ryan’s car, soaked to the bone, exhausted, and relieved the hike was over. Yet I was also sad to be returning to real life. 

This is the part of a love letter to a place where normally I would urge you to visit the Linville Gorge, to promise you will find beauty, joy, and peace there. All of that is true. But I also should gently and humbly say that the Linville Gorge is not for everybody. Of the 39 miles of trails there, just about every single one of them offers a knee-crunching, hip-busting, back-breaking reason to stay home on the couch. But the benefits of hiking there make all of that worth it. The rewards are physical, mental, and spiritual. 

The source of Linville Gorge’s power—the reason coffee tastes better, leaves look greener, and laughter echoes louder off the walls—is that the gorge is real and hard and punishing and unchanged by our changing world. 

So, yes, please visit the Linville Gorge. Immerse yourself in its rugged beauty. But be careful. Watch your step. Wear your sturdiest hiking boots and carry your biggest fishing net. And most important, bring your favorite coffee. Double servings. Trust me on that.


Matt Crossman is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. Email him at mcrossman98@gmail.com.

Illustration by Brett Affrunti

Originally Published August 2018