bushwhacking LNCW Mossy Monster North Carolina scrambling Sphinx Trip report

Linville Gorge LNCW Trip Report

We arrived at Table rock parking approximately 8:30pm, and it was plenty dark already. Camping just south of the picnic area was not exactly what I thought would be the greatest spot to camp, but with our route in mind and not wanting to carry all of our gear on that route, I opted to sacrifice on our campsite. I remembered there being campsites south of the parking, but in our haste to make camp we mistook the ones just prior to the Linville Gorge Wilderness signs for being the ones we were looking for. We picked a site with a fire ring on the southeastern most space, and set up our campsite.
After setting up camp, we chose to headlamp hike up to the Chimneys versus Table Rock, since we were unfamiliar with the TR trail and had no desire to mess ourselves up in the dark. We made our way south on the Mountains to Sea Trail until the first rock outcrop and clearings. The sky was so clear, the stars were really vibrant and we were dazzled with sights of the Milky Way spanning it’s way across the night sky. Even with it being so dark, we were able to make out the silhouettes of the Chimneys and the west rim of the Gorge, and then the ranges beyond. Further south in the Chimneys, we were able to spot the campsite Dave and I found last December beneath the sky bridge, as it was given away by the occupiers headlamps.
It was slightly unnerving as I hung my hammock only a yard or two away from a tree bearing the sign “North Carolina Bear Sanctuary.” As I had prepped for this trip and the prep overflowed out of my mouth, most people questioned my hammock plans as making myself a bear snack, which I dismissed; however, as I laid in my hammock for its maiden overnight voyage away from the circle of the guys in my group, I felt somewhat like a bear snack. To release the suspense, dear reader, I did not become such a snack. Our sleeping was impeded by the noisy campers in the vicinity. At last watch check, one group had a loud repetitive guitar player singing off-key until at least 1:15AM. He wasn’t crooning Jack Johnson-esque tunes either; he was belting them out like some drunken combination of Kurt Cobain and Homer Simpson, hollering and hammering the same 3 chords over and over and over despite our mocking and Josh’s yell of “shut up!!” Beyond our serenade, we found clear skies beyond this hour to be a double edged sword. The stars are beautiful, but up on the ridge the 75% illuminated moon directly overhead turned on all the lights for us. Hanging in an ENO DoubleNest became a blessing, as the extra fabric served to shade my eyes.
We started stirring and moving about around 7AM, witnessed a vibrant and neon sunrise, broke camp, stashed our bulk in the van, and headed south on the Mountains to Sea Trail (here on out, MST) around 8:40AM. We kept on through the Chimneys, and actually didn’t scramble around much. We were pretty set on getting to the Mossy Monster trail , so while we enjoyed the scenery, we didn’t stick around. By 9AM, we were on the trail to the Mossy Monster.
I was keeping my eyes out for a right turn for the descent gully, and took the first one. I had forgotten about Zak Kuhn’s photo of the dead tree with the white tag remnants, so I took the wrong one. The trail we were on took us to the cliffs between Apricot and Mossy Monster, where a couple had pitched there tent and spent the night. What a spot! It was great to bring all my guys to the cliff edge, point down to the Mossy Monster separation crack, and say, “That’s where we’re heading. We’re going DOWN that crack.” We took some obligatory pictures and headed back up to the trail, found the right descent trail, and headed towards the gully.
We surveyed the first scramble and found it to be quite wet. There was steady water flowing down the rock, although the volume wasn’t that high. With careful foot and hand placement, we got down the first scramble with out much problem. If you make your way out to this scramble and decide it looks too sketchy, I promise that this is the point you should turn around. If this were icy, it would be extremely difficult if not impossible to make it down safely without crampons. We are now on high adventure.
The trail beyond the first scramble was easy to follow, albeit steep. Someone has definitely been using it. The Mossy Monster separation crack is awe-inspiring and impressive. Some posting got us down the initial entry, and I was glad to be wearing approach shoes with sticky soles. The separation crack, unlike the first scramble, was free of any water and totally dry. The photos I took down here were all blurry, so most of them didn’t turn out. The descent through the separation crack was one of my favorite parts of this trip, and it was over way too soon. Once we exited the crack, the trail (which was easy to follow) turned north, down a ledge, and circled back around to the beginning of the NC Wall and shortly after entered the Talus Field.
The Talus Field is tricky footing not only because the terrain is so uneven, but because every now and then we’d find slabs that shifted under our weight. Committing to a step with full body weight only to find your step shifting down under your feet is kind of unnerving. Like the Mossy Monster separation crack, this was over way too soon. We took a few pictures as some of the outcrops before we got to the tree climb area.
There has been some discussion as how to get to the ledge from here. It’s obvious where the tree climb is once you make it there. Some bark is worn off the step branch, which is a nice handle to hold at the crux of leaving the tree for the ledge, but the tree seems alive and solid enough. Still, I chose the free climb to the ledge about 15feet beyond the tree. There are plenty of hand holds, but with a slight backwards lean to the free climb it looks much easier to climb the tree. I vote for making the free climb the “official” path, although people will inevitably choose whichever they deem easiest/less risky in the moment of decision.
After we were all on the ledge, I knew we would be faced with the option of staying on the ledge or choosing the Brute Force Route (from here on, BFR). Shortly after the tree/free climb, there is an obvious break in the bushes on the right with a rock staircase heading down. I’m assuming this is the stair steps to the BFR. Knowing we did NOT want this route, we steered left to stay against the wall, and within a few short scrambles found ourselves at The Cove, back on the ledge, and overlooking the Sphinx. The ledge is very scenic with great views every step of the way. It is fantastic to see how the perspectives and viewing angles highlight the Sphinx in different ways. With each step, that awesome rock formation seemed to change shape.
With the Sphinx’s spine coming more into view as we progressed south, the question of when we leave the wall arose. We had seen the giant boulder along the ledge, as well as the downed tree which can be seen in Google Earth. I had speculated this being a direct traverse down to the base of the Sphinx, but going with my gut and listening to advise, I chose to keep heading toward the Amphitheater. There was never an obvious right turn to head towards the Sphinx. Once at the Icebergs, I was able to climb to the top of the first one for a survey of the area, and climbing to the top of the second Iceberg confirmed at least the general direction and wall we needed to be heading for.
The bushwhacking along the LNCW was thick and had plenty of briars and brambles, but at least there seemed to be a faint and general path towards the Amphitheater. Not so with the Sphinx. Whereas before we were allowing a “path” to guide us, once we made the northern turn off the ledge and back towards the Sphinx, it was all trial and error. In some sections, we were able to stick to the wall; however, frequently that was overgrown and the path of least resistance pushed us back out into the bush. The brambles out there are beyond scratchy, and seem to have the highest concentration of thorns at ankle level. Every patch we went through insisted we would be held back, and a number of times I had to stop and “untie” my feet from the thorny vines. Also along the wall, there was a good amount of water trickling down and off the wall. We got into some mud here, but really none of it was so slick to lose our footing. We kept an eye on the Sphinx, not really knowing where the ascent point was, hoping it was not at the base of the spine. That joker looked long and steep. We made it into the pines, and this is a good indication of when to really bear west until you run into some rock. Where we ended up was a rock face about 10ft high directly in front of us, which The Spire formation was on. Two of my guys climbed up and over that to ascend, but the rest of us worked our way south along the wall and came to what we knew had to be the right point to start working our way up. There’s an easy incline with a burned tree that is perfect for posting your foot on to make it up the first step. I doubt this tree will last forever, but if it doesn’t, this route is still what I saw to be the best option. From here, it is a very easy walk (similar to the UNCW) to the Sky Bridge. At this point, there’s two options. (1) An easy spot to rest, with fantastic views, and no more scrambling involved. (2) The final scramble to the top of the Sphinx. What makes the final scramble intimidating is the crevasse below it. The scramble itself is not difficult, as there are some decent sized jug handholds, and decent ledges for footholds. (Let me interject here: I was wearing FiveTen Guide Tennies, which are approach shoes with sticky C4 Stealth Rubber and dot tread. These give great grip on rock surface, and I’ll review them in another post. For the purposes of this report, just understand I wasn’t wearing sneakers and the final scramble may be more dangerous than I’m judging, based on the shoes I was wearing). There are plenty of spots for good hand and foot placement up to the top. Just go slow, keep your wits about you, and do your best not to look down if that kind of thing bothers you. It also helps if you have a spotter on the first level, at least when you’re coming down. If you’re unsure and you have someone suggesting foot placements, it’s a great help.
The Sphinx! We made it to the top! As we were getting closer to the Amphitheater on the ledge, I was beginning to wonder if this would happen. I was not about to miss the Sphinx after all the effort and planning. Here we stood. The Sphinx. Friends, that is what victory tastes like. Sitting up there with some of the most magnificent Gorge views to be had makes any lunch you stuffed in your sack taste good, although my homemade trail mix with bacon and orange cranberries was pushing the limit of “everything tastes better in the bush.” Anyway. We arrived at the Sphinx pinnacle at 11:30AM, and we ate, rested, and hung out there until around 12:15PM. So we descended the Sphinx and…
Here is where we got split up.
I didn’t realize we had decided to split up, so I was running around in the bushes by myself like I don’t know trying to keep my group together. Didn’t work. Erich and Josh had taken the proposed direct climb up to the LNCW ledge, and everyone else had taken the wall back to the Icebergs. I thought I had just lost the other guys and went back for them, but since they yelled they were OK, I figured I was too far behind to be safe following them so I rejoined the wall group. What they reported was a wet but not overly difficult time, climbing up about 4 or 5 ledges to get to the main ledge. They encountered the first snake, a baby rattler, and came away unscathed. In the thought of route making, it would be more difficult than following the lower wall. Realize though, that the ferocity of the briars and brambles between the Amp and Sphinx is what caused them to take the direct route up the ledge. If this were cleared out, it would solve a lot of problems with this path.
We descended between the first and second Icebergs, and towards the lower mouth of the Amphitheater. For whatever reason, I gave very little study to this area in the planning stages of this trip. I suppose I just assumed there would be a well used climbers trail all the way to the bottom (that would be OBVIOUS from the bottom as approached from LNCW). Instead, it was a giant scramble through prime snake territory. As we came in, we angled right/south and stayed closer to the side (not hugging the wall by any means) of the Daddy and the Mummy. About 5 minutes into the Amp, I heard Josh start singing and whooping and scrambling at a pace that could only have been attained by a snake sighting. At least the fat 2″ diameter Copperhead was more interested in traveling down than Josh was. This is probably why we kept towards the right side. Eventually we worked our way up and over to the site that looks up into the Mummy’s rappel gully. We took a break here and watched as a couple climbers set up to rappel. We moved on before watching them make it down, but as Zak had said from his previous report… It’s steep. From here we kept towards the south end, and the bushes got thick. We could tell where the descent gully to the Amp was from the UNCW, so we eventually just made a straight cut north to get there. Lo and behold, a path that was way better than what we took to get there! Our group had split into two in the Amp, and by the time I got there (2nd group), the first guys had gone up. Apparently they didn’t see the trail to the left and thy climbed up the creek. When we got there, we heard them yelling, “Don’t climb the creek!!” I guess not!
Once at the top, it was decision time. The MST or UNCW back to the car? We had votes going both ways. I really wanted to summit Table Rock after the LNCW, but judging on how worn out my guys were, I figured UNCW was a great compromise, so that’s where I cast my vote. I don’t know if the aye’s or nay’s won, but we did the UNCW anyway.
I’m glad we did! It was fantastic to see the Sphinx from the UNCW cliff ledges, and to trace where we had gone. The best part about the whole thing was that we were on the ledge the same time a group began climbing the Sphinx! It must have been Kurtis and his guys from Tampa. It was only a few minutes after 2PM when we saw someone up there. I took a few photos and a couple videos, and then we moved on. The views of the Camel and Apricot were nice and really made me wish for some more adventure, although…the Gorge had taken pretty much every ounce of energy we could muster. Fighting bushes and briars and scrambling ledges all day takes it out of you, but it’s so worth it. If you want to play, you gots’ta pay…and indeed we did. On the way back to the car, I noted the Twin Towers and Catbrier Point. That looks like a mess getting out there, but tons of fun!
And what better way to conclude this trip than dinner and a slice of Strawberry Rhubarb pie at Louise’s? Nothing concludes a day in the Gorge like a slice of pie. I can’t wait to get back out there.
Categories LNCW Trip report

Guest Post: LNCW Trip Report by Dusty Allison

I want to give a big thank you to Dusty Allison, who works for Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine. He has graciously allowed me to use his trip report of Linville Gorge’s Lower North Carolina Wall that he posted on He did this trip last year, and this is a great description of what awaits those who would venture into this area.

If you are not familiar with Blue Ridge Outdoors already, you are missing out. It’s my favorite outdoor magazine, and highlights so many of the things that make the Blue Ridge area so grand. I have BRO to thank for fueling my passion for Linville Gorge, as the first issue I picked up featured the Gorge. Make sure to stop by your local outfitters and pick one up for free! If you’re in Greenville, SC – that would be Appalachian Outfitters near Haywood Mall and Half-Moon Outfitters on Laurens Rd. Or you can also visit

Lower North Carolina Wall Trip Report
by Dusty Allison.

Seth and I met up in Asheville on Friday morning and were at the Table Rock parking lot and hitting the trail by 10. It was a little later than we had hoped but we were still in deliberation mode on which side of the gorge we would hit even as we drove up Hwy 221. Having made recent adventure pilgrimages with Seth such as the full Black Mountain Crest trail and the Plott Balsam range while we bagged a few more peaks for the South Beyond 6000 challenge, I knew that I would introduce him to the Gorge properly by either taking him through LOST and some of the canyons on the eastern side or the Lower NC Wall (which I myself had not even done yet but had read plenty regarding it here on the forum). Knowing that the TR road would be closing in just 3 or 4 weeks, I made the decision to go big or go home. So we turned the wheels toward Gingercake and silently hoped for minimal ice on the NC Wall.
Even getting a late start, I can never get beyond the Chimneys without leaving the trail and scrambling all around, up, over and through this fantastic playground. The visibility for the day was perfect and there was little snow within the gorge itself as we surveyed the magnificent surroundings from the top of the Chimneys. I pointed out and named all of the gorge landmarks that I knew and that we could see as well as the Black Mountain range to the west and the Roans looming to the north. We also eyed that landslide scar with much curiosity that spills eastward from the Chimneys down into the valley. A lot of our recent bushwhacking/off-trail adventures have been free climbing and scrambling many landslide scars all over Mt. LeConte in the Smokies, so we vowed that we would return soon enough and give that scar the exploration it deserves.
So my plan was to leave the MST and head down the Mossy Monster trail and then head out to explore Apricot Buttress and the Camel before doubling back and heading down the MM chute to the lower wall. it good company and conversation or the fact that we have been on too many recent outings where we have to hike in long distances before ever getting to the good off-trail stuff in the Smokies, but I missed the MM trail. Yep. However, I did not realize it immediately. We made our right turn on what we thought was MM and I even remember thinking quietly to myself “Huh..that’s funny..the Mossy monster trail is marked with a white quartz rock. I remember reading that the Amp trail is also marked with one of those. Funny coincidence!”…and down the trail we went. That’s how sure I was that there was no way we could have already hiked as far as the turnoff to the Amp. As most of you here can imagine…my mouth dropped as we neared the stone-cairn junction for the climbers descent trail and the South buttress trail and that big beautiful canyon reveled itself. Holy Gorge Rat….we just arrived at where we were supposed to come out at the end of the day!
After a bit of head scratching and a couple of chuckles, we made the decision that instead of returning to the MST, we would traipse across the Upper NC Wall back northward to the gully leading down to the Mossy Monster and pick up the original route there. The Upper NC Wall was a gorgeous and exceptional unexpected journey and it was great fun to look down from the brink to get our first real glimpse of the day of the Sphinx.
It did not take long to get the junction where we would begin the steep gully descent. Ironically, this steep terrain was one of the only areas on the whole trip where we found ice. We slowly and carefully made our way down until we finally stood at the top of the impressive separation crack of Mossy Monster. We made this fun descent with no problem and easily found the path at the bottom that would lead us along the base of the NC Wall.
The journey was majestic and straightforward as we moved along the wall bounding from rock to rock. We took turns grabbing a few pics of one another on the pinnacle before the tree climb. As a couple of the photos show, looking back at each other on the wall was almost as impressive as the pinnacle due to the sheer wall of rock both above and below the ledge we were traversing!
Once we reached the tree climb, I went up first without much trouble. There was definitely a crux moment when you leave the tree and rely on your body to cooperate with the rock to make the ledge. I turned to help Seth with his pack so he could make the climb and I could already tell that he was a little skeptical about the tree and was scouting other potential routes. He finally settled on going a few feet beyond the tree and going free form on his clamber up the rock. Despite my initial reservation, Seth nailed the execution and was soon standing with me on the ledge. So it IS possible but it still doesn’t make it easy to watch the person attempt it!
And here is where it got real fast! From the tree climb to the Sphinx is the infamous question mark and the point where the challenge and pain went to Mach 9 quickly. After exploring a few possibilities of going out a ways south along the ledge, we began to have concerns that we were going to have a hard time safely descending all of the numerous ledges and rock bands that stretched between us and the Sphinx. So after I dropped down the ridge almost directly above the Sphinx and fought unfathomable briars while scouting, I eventually retreated and climbed back up joining Seth who was waiting, watching and listening to me curse the blasted briers that were already drawing blood fast. We made the collective decision that we would retrace our route almost to the tree climb and do the direct southwesterly route that was faintly visible from earlier travelers. It was the closest thing that had the look of human travel and we hoped for the best as we quickly started dropping down the hillside. We very quickly found out this would not be the case as the brambles and thorns swallowed us both. For maybe a half hour, we could not see each other as we beat, whacked, stomped, slid, screamed, cursed, bled, and slithered our way toward the Sphinx. I cannot express the joy that we felt after we finally found ourselves at the base of that awe-inspiring formation with stinging slashes and exhausted muscles. Seth and I both have found ourselves in some nasty and gnarly situations but those briars were some of the most vicious and insidious varieties we have encountered.
Having viewed a lot of the pics of the Sphinx, I knew the route I wanted to quickly ascend up to the middle ledge. There was no way that we were not going to the very top after the fight made to reach this magnificent rock. I led the way crossing the sky bridge and climbing to the top while Seth followed so I could get a few pics of his ascent. The views of the gorge from the top of the Sphinx are priceless and we spent a little while there relaxing, smiling, and taking it all in while nursing a few of our wounds.
From the top, we knew that we were going to descend the Sphinx and bushwhack directly over to the lowest ledge of the Lower Wall to make our way to the Amp. The rest of the journey was fantastic but uneventful compared to the epic bushwhack from the tree climb to the Sphinx. Although it is long and unbelievably steep, we both agreed that the ascent up the Amp was just as fun as the descent of Mossy Monster, Golden rays of light from the quickly setting sun transformed the Amp into a beautifully hazy illuminated chamber of gold. The streams and rivulets flowed strong, cascades plummeted from the rim and the blend of soaring rock, water, and light all merged to create a sight to behold. It served as the perfect farewell to two weary but elated travelers as we finally made the journey back up to the MST and headed north toward a couple of cold beers calling our names at the car. Once we hit the Chimneys, the moon rose above the rocks while the sun finished setting, the stars emerged, and I looked back over my shoulder…already wanting to go back for a second round in that majestic and rugged landscape.
Here is the link to my pics of the day:
bushwhacking hiking LNCW North Carolina scrambling Trip Planning

Lower North Carolina Wall

The date is set.

The adventure we have been looking forward to for almost a year is nearly upon us, and we need to do it before Daylight Savings Time is over so we have as much daylight as possible.

I’ve been studying maps, reading trip reports, compiling data, asking questions, going through picture sets on Flickr, building hype, and looking forward to October since last fall.

The Lower North Carolina Wall in Linville Gorge.

Described at the most difficult “hike” in the Gorge, it is actually a complete scramble. Descending down through gullies in the cliffs, hugging walls, fighting briars, climbing trees and ledges, steep elevation, and what are supposed to be the most amazing views in the entire Gorge.

The picture for this post has the LNCW behind me as I’m standing at the edge of Razor’s Edge Rock (a must visit destination in Linville Gorge if you have not been there). The trip will include hiking the Mountains to Sea Trail past the Chimneys to a trail that takes us down to the Mossy Monster descent gully (this is a specific area I need to study. I don’t have a GPS so finding it may prove a challenge). Scrambling down the gully to the base of the cliffs then following the wall will eventually lead us to a ledge that must be ascended. The two options for this are either up a dead tree (dangerous) or a 20 foot ropeless rock climb up to the ledge (also dangerous). Then it will be trying to decide when to head into the bushes towards the Sphinx, the prominent rock feature below the cliffs, which is about 10 stories tall. Once the Sphinx has been conquered, it’ll be back to bushwhacking through briars and bushes until we get to a boulder field at the base of the Amphitheater, the canyon area on the far right side. That will be a stiff uphill climb until we get back out, to where we’ll join back onto the Mountains to Sea Trail. From the point we leave MST to where we are back on it is less than a mile (i think), but the brutal terrain will have us on that route the majority of the day. That’s the best recollection of the route from the data I’ve gathered, and anyone who has been through there already, please correct anything if I’m wrong.

There is much I don’t know, and as October is coming upon us quickly, there is much work and research to be done and questions to be asked. A huge thank you to my friend Bob Underwood for all his help, as well as the guys reports who have done this previously.. Zak Kuhn for all your pictures, Dusty Allison of Blue Ridge Outdoors, Mark Moser, Marshall Weatherman, and the Gorge Rats at

As someone who was made to marvel, this is going to be worth the effort. If you want to play, you have to pay… that certainly applies to this trip, even moreso than any other rough hikes in Linville.. but I’m willing to go great lengths for these moments.

What started as simply an excited post for an adventure has become a reference point for gathering a few reports and hopefully all the photo sets that have been published online.

For further study, please visit the following links and photo galleries:

“The Lost Boys”
Three guys from Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine do LNCW

“New Years Day hike, with detailed shots of LNCW from across the Gorge at Sunshine Point”
by Michael “Hawk-Eye” Hollar

“LNCW on 11-11-11” by Zak Kuhn

“LNCW on 10-30-10” by Zak Kuhn

(updated on 8-28-2012 to include…)

“LNCW on 12-02-11” by Dusty Allison

“LNCW on 12-04-11” by Marshall Weatherman

(updated on 9-9-2012 to include…)

“Lower NC Wall” by Rickey Shortt

(Updated on 9/26/2012 correcting Zak’s last name from Ford to Kuhn; thanks for the heads up on my error, Zak!)

“LNCW on 9-30-2012” by Zak Kuhn
The best photo documentation of the route to date, with critical turns highlighted.

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(Updated on 10-2-2012 to include Zak’s latest photos)