Babel Tower Cabin Trail hiking Linville Gorge Trail scrambling Trip Reports WNC

The First Time I Underestimated Linville Gorge

So this is actually the first trip report I ever wrote, originally posted at My family and I had been to Linville Falls from the Blue Ridge Parkway before, but this would be my first time actually entering the Linville Gorge. There have been a few edits, removing silly emoticons, and changed a few of the numbers as I later found out. The guys at LG.N helped me plan this trip, and warned me that I might be biting off more than I could chew for my first visit. In fact, it was on this trip that I received a piece of advice regarding the seriousness of Linville Gorge that still stays with me:

“Two entities will see your hike: God and Linville Gorge.

If you bite off more than you can chew God will forgive you….. Linville Gorge will Not.” 
~ Bob Underwood

One of the things I really want to highlight is how we went up to the top of Babel Tower. We didn’t realize there was a very easy trail that accessed the top, and we scrambled and free climbed up to the top of it from the south face. Way sketchy, but we were all into climbing a lot. I don’t recommend anyone takes that route. Some of the hiking I had done prior that I thought would prep me for this trip was  the Raven Cliff Falls/Dismal Loop in the Mountain Bridge Wilderness of SC, Table Rock State Park in SC, and also some backpacking at Sam Knob and TurkeyPen near Brevard. I was unprepared for how rugged the terrain would actually be in Linville Gorge. Daunting then, it is something I have come to love now, over 3 years and over a dozen trips later. If you’re planning to hike in Linville, and looking at routes on the map, forming a plan, it’s a good rule of thumb to estimate an average hiking time of 1 MPH. You may go less then that, depending on how difficult of a situation you get into, and how many times you stop to take in the view.


Well, we made it! Our PLAN was to park at Pine Gap, hike Kistler to the Babel trail, ascend Babel, then down to LGT up to Pine Gap, check out the rock face there at the toe by Bynum, then out to Kistler back to the car.

Let me start by saying, after my first trip into Linville Gorge, I underestimated it in every way.

Started out praying for our safety, the trip and that we would be marvel more at our Creator than his creation (which I knew I would be inclined to do). Then as we were pulling our packs out of the car, an ambulance drove by with his window down, waved, and yelled “Don’t do it!” but at least he said it with a smile. Hmm, this was when I began to wonder if I underestimated.

We headed up the road from Pine gap and saw a Blue square blaze on the east side of Kistler before Cabin. Does this go anywhere?? Pine Gap parking to Babel parking lot is a long haul, but it was a nice teaser as we could make out the gorge from the road. We finally get to Babel, excited, and ready to bring 2 cars next time we come so we can shuttle along Kistler. There were plenty of just-off-the-road campsites to crash at. I was actually surprised at how all the campsites we came across, even in the gorge, had such significant fire rings/pits.

(The view from the first rock outcrop on Babel Tower Trail, Babel Tower is the small peak in the middle)
We hiked down Babel after taking a few trailhead pics to the first rock outcrop where the trail turns dramatically. Wow, absolutely amazing. We took a break here because one of my buddies took off his sunglasses at the Babel parking lot and left them on one of the rails. We watched his pack while he ran back. We loved this view. It was very motivating when the guys who were with me that had not been involved in any of the planning looked down, saw Babel tower, and said “is that where we’re going?!?” It was a pleasure to say “Yeah!” The hike down to Babel tower was enjoyable, with just enough canopy to keep us cool. The trail is so eroded in places it becomes a ditch, but no so bad I guess. As we were descending, I began to understand why I should be more worried about a broken leg or rolled ankle than any wildlife.

We saw several large leafed trees, with clusters of leaves of about 8 or 9 roughly bigger than your hand (on the small ones!) Does anyone know what kind of trees they are? We enjoyed them all throughout the gorge.

(The way we went to the top of Babel Tower – which later I found out is the hard way)

So we made it to the Linville Gorge Trail (LGT) and immediately were met with overview sights of the river, then we hopped over the crevasses and boulders, hung over the hanging rock, checked out the cave/shelter overhang, etc. We eventually climbed up to the top of Babel Tower. There’s some trees there that are nice to climb and post off of, making the top easier access. On the way to the pinnacle, there is a pretty sketchy looking rope. I opted for a lift from one of our guys who stayed on the ground. The view of the gorge is absolutely breathtaking. I underestimated the vastness and how huge everything was. I’ve been looking at this through Google Earth for too long. I was blown away from atop Babel Tower. The spirit of exploration soared in all of us in this area. At this point, we had all decided this was the most awesome place we’d been. The exploration and sheer childlike wonder that was induced made this much more than a hike to see some beautiful vista. This was a completely foreign world to the east, unlike anything we’d seen. One friend had spent 3 months in Haiti as a missionary and he said all the dead trees reminded him of Haiti. I really feel like they add a it of beauty to the whole area. Anyways, I wish we would have explored it more thoroughly, but we moved on.

(Erich climbing down the south face of Babel Tower, with Ben waiting below)

We hiked west on the LGT looking for the campsites along the 2nd peninsula. After taking what seemed like a trail down to the river (across mostly boulders really), we ended up at the waterfall/swimming hole. Some guys were already there sliding down the waterfall and jumping off the cliff so we moved up to the campsite on the beach to dip in the river to cool off and eat lunch. We saw a bunch of minnows, but nothing else really. This looks like a great campsite, unless the water is high! After we ate lunch, we were trying to figure out if we had passed the LGTCS4 and were really at LGTCS1, or not. (NOTE: These are campsite names listed on the 2010 edition of the LG map from Compass was really helpful here by determining which bend in the river we were facing. Plus, I thought there was no way we had gone all the way up to CS1, so we hiked back up to where we left LGT and continued on. The trails are tough to follow here with all the boulders. I started to get confused myself by the way the LGT curved by this offshoot trail, and I almost convinced myself it was Cabin. Either way we’d end up back towards Kistler so we went on, but I was about 80% sure we were still on LGT.

We met up with some guys who had just come down Cabin at a rock outcrop overlooking the first peninsula. Verified we were on LGT, and gave them some help as they were heading towards Babel tower. I told them we came in Babel and we were planning on hiking out Pine Gap. “Wow you have a full day!” Did not fill us with enthusiasm at this point. I had greatly underestimated how long we would be here. I figured 3 hours to go from Babel to Pine Gap. We were right around 3.5hrs here and hadn’t even hit Cabin yet. We voted to exit on Cabin. The guys from LG.N were right. This is not the Appalachian Trail, and distance cannot be measured normally. I was amazed at how little ground we seemed to cover compared to how much time we spent covering it. LGT is also extremely overgrown with thorny brush, to the point for several long patches we could not see where we were placing our feet.

(Looking up Cabin Trail)

Coming in, I knew and had explained to my buddies that Cabin would be one of our early exit routes should we decide not to go the whole way. We knew it was approx 900 ft out over 3/4 of a mile, and it would would be steep.. but we were totally caught off guard by what a grueling and miserable hike out this was. This is also where I figured out that I under-estimated the heat. Even though said 75F for Linville Falls, it was hot and humid this whole trip. One friend said he had done some research and Linville Gorge was actually listed as a temperate rain forest? I’d believe that! Phew! Having a river soaked bandana really helped out here. There were some straight up climbs on rock that were at least 6ft steps. Wow, this was tougher than anything we’d ever done prior. Free climbing Babel Tower was a cakewalk compared to this. At one point, we even saw a trail of blood drops, which only added to the mood of the hike. We all still had water and were drinking it, but even with that… we must have been taking a break every 50ft. I totally underestimated Cabin. I anticipated climbing out via Pine Gap!

(Blood on Cabin Trail)

Once it started to level off, it was so nice to be back to Kistler, where I just had been hoping a few hours earlier I wouldn’t have to hike anymore of, haha. The thunder also began as we hit Kistler, too. Even though we were ragged out, we were wishing someone would give us a lift but acknowledging that we wouldn’t give a lift to any guys that looked as rough as we did. As soon as we got back to the car and got our packs in, the rain fell torrentially. Coming out from Kistler, we could scarcely see the road at some points! Small kindness from God, surely.

Didn’t go to Wiseman’s or Linville Falls like I had planned, and we didn’t eat at Louise’s. Although, I did stop in and pick up a copy of Allen Hyde’s hiking guide. 2011 3rd Edition. I haven’t had much chance to look through it yet.

One thing’s for sure… we all can’t wait to go back. Enjoy! Thank you all for all your help in planning this trip! I had so much more confidence going in than I would have going in green! I imagine taking someone up Cabin who was not already in love with adventure… that would quite ruin any further adventures for them for a long time.

Conley Cove Trail hiking Linville Gorge Linville Gorge Trail Linville River North Carolina Sandy Flats Trail scrambling Spence Bridge

The report that started this ball rolling…

If you’re reading this, it’s probable you’ve already read this on Facebook or… This is the trip report from March 24th, 2012 where my wife Jenny went with me to Linville Gorge. After typing this up and publishing it, a lot of people seemed to enjoy it and it was in response to this report that it was suggested that I start this blog. So here it is..

3/24 Trip report

I always underestimate Linville Gorge.
I’ve hiked there 4 times before this trip, and I should know that by now.

My wife, Jenny, is so gracious that for my birthday she agreed to go to the Gorge with me. This will be her first time into the big ditch. My original plan was to park at Conley Cove, take Conley to LGT then north to Cathedral Falls. On the way back, we would detour on Rock Jock to Hacker’s Point, then back to the car. But I got greedy.. Looking at maps before the trip, I was reading Allen Hyde’s Hikers Guide, and he had Sandy Flats on the map. Sandy Flats had been closed in 2004 by the USFS, which I knew, and it was not on Kenneth Crump’s 2010 Mapbook (available in the forums at I want loop hikes, and the Gorge does not offer them typically. I had done some recon on Sandy Flats for a friend who asked about it a month ago, and heard it was closed and probably overgrown but should still be followable. So, with way less research than I should have done, we parked at Wiseman’s View and went down Sandy Flats, which is easy enough to find from the intersection of KMH/Wiseman’s.

Let me interject here and say it has been raining here this week and everything is wet. Waterfalls are flowing, even where there wasn’t waterfall before. Jenny is carrying her DSLR camera pack, and I am carrying water, food and supplies for both of us (in my untested Mountain Hardwear Splitter pack), weighing in around 20lbs. So here we go..

It was definitely overgrown and was pretty much what I estimated. Not far in, we came to the cliffs, and our hike turned into a scramble. At this point, wisdom should have kicked in and said, “Turn back and do the original plan.” Sadly, I didn’t hear it because ambition was speaking much too loudly. Even then, I should have known better. We kept going. Our scramble down had turned into a waterfall from the rain, and while we did not get soaked, it was certainly slick. We kept following surveyor’s flagging that marked the route. Someone has been through here, but not enough to leave an ultra obvious path. We crossed over more water, and found a solid branch that was taller than I am we used as a walking staff. I had poles with me, but the branch allowed me to go ahead on the path and stabilize it, giving Jenny a secure handhold as she came down. I named this staff “Mercy and Kindness,” as I kept praying to God for the river to come soon and it would have been much more difficult without it. So, with Mercy and Kindness, Jenny and I made it to the final tiers of waterfalls and pools before the LGT. We stopped here, took a bunch of pictures, and enjoyed the calm and serenity of the lush Linville jungle. We emerged, freshened from the rest, at the Sandy Flats campsite where we stopped to take the shoes off and eat lunch. By this point, the sun was out, the sky was blue, the clouds were sparse and white. It had turned into a perfect day. I forgot I had packed the ENO DoubleNest in the very bottom of my pack, otherwise it would have been a real nice, sunny relaxing time. As it was, we still had a rejuvenating lunch stop. It took us over 2 hours to get from Kistler Memorial Highway to the Linville Gorge Trail. We turned south and headed for Cathedral Falls, the scenic goal of this trek.

I had not been on this section of LGT, and I assumed it would be flat near the river. If you’ve been in the Gorge, you’re probably laughing at me right now. You’re probably asking, “Did this guy even look at a map?” The answer is…barely. I looked up the original plan on Google Earth.. Anyways, back to LGT. It was up and down and narrow and plenty of views from high above the river. We began to feel the pitter-patter of rain, and decided to put the Marmots back on. I had brought a trash bag for Jenny’s camera pack, as it wasn’t waterproof. We put our hoods up, ready for the rain. “Great first trip to the Gorge for your wife, Josh. REAL smooth,” I was thinking. The rain began to increase, and the dark clouds rolled in, bringing low bassy thunder with them.  Then the lightening came, and eventually the lightening caught up with the thunder and they occurred simultaneously. As we decided to take cover under a thicker patch of rhododendron, it began to pour. Then sleet.. and then hail. It was hailing on us. Awesome. Instead of taking the opportunity to make me feel like a fool for bringing us out here, Jenny graciously laughed it off and insisted we get out my camera (Canon PowerShot D10, waterproof) and make it a memory. I have an awesome wife.

We prayed for the hail to stop, and we had to wait for the answer to finally come. About 50 steps ahead of us, there was a deep rock overhang, which would have sheltered us from the storm. (Correct me if I’m wrong, but wouldn’t this be a lightening magnet? Or was it simply that an overhang is not a good place to hang out with the expectation of staying dry? Help me out, guys.)  The sun emerged and we kept going and finally some color showed up on the river. Picnickers were crossing Spence Bridge, and we were almost there. Not far past that, through the mess of trees along the bank, we saw an obscured Cathedral Falls and a group of guys hammocking right in front of it. It’s a steep slide down there.. Not content with our view, we slid down the mud and I asked the guys if they minded if we walked through their site. They kindly allowed us, and we scrambled down to the boulders in the river. Sitting upon these boulders is truly the way to view Cathedral Falls. Now that the sun was shining, and our torrential day had turned to perfect weather again, we were thankful for all the the rain because the falls were gushing! We exchanged a few words about how great the Chimneys are with the guys sharing the site and headed out. There was a downed tree with all the branches broken off but stumps left, and we used that as a hand ladder to haul ourselves out. That’s a lot of work to get down to the river!

As we kept on down LGT, we admired the rock structures and amazingly huge boulders along the river. Those boulders are so big I cannot believe it, and if they broke off and tumbled down from Table Rock that would definitely be a bad day at the river! We saw a downed tree that almost nearly crossed the river not far north of Conley Cove. There’s a cave-like overhang that all kinds of goat graffiti on the walls.. Disgusting.

Conley Cove came, and I was excited for it at the moment. Later as I reflected on the trip, I realize this was our halfway point. That’s tough! Conley Cove was the clearest and easiest to follow trail we’d been on all day. Although steep, the switchbacks make it much easier. It seems like they never end, though. I started singing, “This is the trail that never ends, yes it goes on and on my friend, some people started hiking it not knowing what it was and they’ll continue hiking it forever just because this is the tra…” There were lots of downed trees along the trail which made for difficult crossing. Those tree trunks are big! As we got closer to the top and where the off-trail to Conley Cave begins, the Conley Cove trail became Conley Creek. The storm had flooded the trail, and it made for wet hiking. Up to this point, we had dry feet. Even in the storm, our shoes were wet on the outside but stayed dry inside (not even waterproof!), but a final bit on Conley got through Jenny’s shoe. We passed Rock Jock, and came across the flagging for North Rock Jock up on the right. That looks totally inviting, I really hope it gets re-established, even if just by consistent and wise use (not haphazard). I’d never been happier to see Kistler Memorial Highway.

Until we started walking back to Wiseman’s View. This is all uphill and a total grind. Ugh! Not much else to say about it.. There’s an interesting bog that resembles Lost Dog Pond on the west side of the road that was full of frogs. It started raining lightly again, and we the Marmots back on. I carried Jenny’s camera pack on my back and slung my pack over my shoulder. By the time we got back to the car,  8 hours and 51 minutes later, we were so exhausted I didn’t even want to go to the overlook at Wiseman’s View. The clouds were casting darkness over a lot of the Gorge anyway, and I knew I’d be back. On a side note, KMH has a few ruts but nothing my 2wd Toyota Matrix couldn’t handle. I was pretty encouraged by that. Owning a Subaru still wouldn’t hurt my feelings, just in case anyone is feeling generous.

What an incredibly challenging and humbling day in the Gorge. I love that place, and it reaffirmed what I tell people about it: “If you want to play, you gots ta pay.” Indeed.

A huge thank you to my wife, Jenny, who was such a trooper and maintained a gracious countenance as we waded through my poor planning and misjudgment. You are an excellent wife, Honey.