Explorer William Linville and his sons were scalped by Indians in 1766 in what would eventually become known as Linville Gorge. I do believe I’d be fine with going through life not having anything named for me. The Linville Gorge Wilderness in Burke County, NC was one of the first protected areas in the country under the Wilderness Act of 1964. I’ve enjoyed this rugged country a number of times now. The west rim of the gorge is known for its steep descents down to Linville River, while the east rim is a series of spectacular mountaintop climbs that offer 360 degree views of the gorge below and the surrounding Pisgah National Forest. The area is isolated and primitive… you would expect that in a wilderness area. I’ve learned to be totally focused on what I’m doing when hiking Linville Gorge Wilderness. This hike took place on Thursday, April 28, 2011. We started at 9:50AM and finished about 1:15PM with longish stops at the river to marvel, and on the Babel Tower for lunch. The goal was to descend the Babel Tower Trail to the Linville River at the bottom of the gorge, then stop at Babel Tower on the way back up.
Hike Length: 2.6 miles Hike Duration: 3.5 hours Hike Rating: Difficult, strenuous
Blaze: None, wilderness Elevation Gain: 1300 feet Hike Configuration: Down and back up
Trail Condition: Primitive, extremely rocky
Starting Point: On West Rim Road (NC 1238) on the left.
Trail Traffic: We encountered six other hikers in two groups. One couple had camped overnight on Babel Tower. The other was a family of four day hikers.
How to Get There: From Marion, NC take U.S. 221 north to the intersection of NC 183 at Linville Falls. Turn right on NC 183 and go one mile to NC 1238, otherwise known as the Kistler Memorial Highway or the West Rim Road. This is a dirt and gravel road. The Babel Tower Trail is about 2.1 miles on the left.
View Babel Tower Trail, Linville Gorge Wilderness in a larger map
The last time I did this hike I must have been having a bad day because when I finished, I was whupped. I sweat so much that day, I could ring my shirt out. I hung it out the car window to dry while I was driving back to the main road. I learned on that day, again, not to wear cotton on a hot summer day. So, I knew to expect to be tired. I exercised a little bit less the day before. I went on a day when the temperature was in the high-fifties rather than the mid-eighties, and I wore seasonal appropriate, wicking clothing. This was still a very strenuous hike despite the short length. The bottom line was, the climb back up is 1300 feet in just 1.3 miles. The down was no slouch either. It was rugged, rocky primitive terrain that was hard to navigate. The trail starts out benign enough, but within 1/4 mile we encountered the roots, and then the rocks. Babel Tower is a wilderness trail. Yes, there is a modicum of maintenance, but there is something new every step waiting to stub your toe, or sprain your ankle. There are downed trees across the trail. Some we went over… some we went under… some we went around.
What I wasn’t expecting was blooms on the mountain laurel. That usually happens around here in mid-May, but it seems everything has been a couple weeks early this year because of a very mild February. We saw the first bloom at about 3300 feet. The further we went down, the more there were. The wild iris was also blooming its magnificent shade of royal blue. The flowering was truly an unexpected treat. After about 1/2 mile, the trail begins to pop out of the forest a bit, so there are views of the north gorge. It’s a nice introduction to the beauty that lies ahead. Over the course of the next 1/3 mile down to Babel Tower there are occasional outcroppings that offer long distance views to the south of Hawksbill Mountain and Table Rock Mountain, as well as the first glimpse of Babel Tower below.
We reached Babel Tower after about 50 minutes, but saw there was a couple packing up their camp. So we decided to continue down the trail to the river, and to visit the tower on the way back up. The last 200 feet of down is done in about two tenths of a mile. Here the Babel Tower Trail merges with the Cabin Trail and the Linville Gorge Trail. This is the most treacherous, rugged stretch. We scrambled over and around large boulders and massive root systems. We definitely were on our toes to avoid slips, trips and falls. All along the trail we could hear the river rushing below, an encouraging sign that heightened our excitement. About 200 yards from the river, the trail makes a very sharp right turn (make note of this for your return back up), then heads very steeply down. I had to do some sliding on my butt to get safely down some of the rocks left slippery by the previous night’s rain.
Let me tell you, the climb to the bottom was worth every root and rock and sticker bush along the way when I stepped out of the forest and onto the rocks that lined this stretch of the Linville River. There are rapids there, so my ears were filled with the exhilarating sound of roaring water. The mountain laurel were in full bloom and the tulip trees were beginning to open their petals so my nose inhaled their succulent scents. Both upriver and downriver the scene was enlightening. There were cascading creeks stumbling down the mountainside to add their bounty to the river. The night before had been the horrible storms that came through this area after leaving their unimaginable devastation in Alabama, so the river was running mightily.
My buddy and I stayed about 30 minutes swallowing the scenery, and a snack. There were a lot of rocks here to clamber on and over, so I examined the rapids from every angle. There is a trail that runs the 12-mile length of Linville Gorge along the river’s edge. In this area, however, there was no obvious way to navigate the sheer, canyon-like walls of rock. I understand why the gorge trail leaves the river and climbs up and over Babel Tower at this point. We hated to leave, but were also anxious to see what Babel Tower had to offer on this day.
As hard as that final descent was, the climb back up was even harder. It was very strenuous, on lungs and on thighs. Having been here before though, I was excited about what was waiting above. We got temporarily lost and confused for a minute when we couldn’t make out the trail. Finally, my friend noticed an arrow carved in the back side of a hemlock tree that indicated the proper direction. This was that sharp turn I mentioned above. After about 25 minutes of huffing and puffing we reached Babel Tower, and a small crowd. The couple we encountered before had finished packing, but were still there, and now they were joined by a family from the Boston area made up of two teen children, their dog, and their stressed forty-something parents. I asked the couple how the storm was the night before, and they said it was really, really windy. We kind of traded places with all of them, as they headed down to the river, and we stopped to explore Babel Tower.
The granite tower stands 60-70 feet high and has sheer cliff faces on three sides that drop more than 200 feet to the river below. Be sure to watch your step. There are several flat, protected areas that are ideal for camping. The northerly view featured rapids on the river, and the southerly view was filled with Hawksbill and Table Rock Mountains. We could also see the east rim of the gorge, inviting us to explore sometime. Seemingly the entire surface was covered with blooming mountain laurel, a pink sensual delight. As we stopped for lunch, we pulled out the trail map to examine the destinations of all the trails that wind in and out of the ridges and gaps along the west rim of the gorge. You can hike for days in the Linville Gorge Wilderness.
Time to suck it up and take on the brutal challenge that was the return up Babel Tower Trail. We had plenty of time, and I knew from experience not to be in any hurry. We paused for a couple moments breather and a few pictures every 15-20 minutes. About half way up was a strategically perfect log placed right on a bend in the trail that overlooks the east rim and the north gorge. It was an ideal opportunity to take our packs off for a few minutes and review all the beautiful sights we had seen. I was pleased with my stamina so far; I was sucking wind by this point the summer before. The last 1/2 mile is a reminder of the loose rocks and roots we encountered on the way down. I can’t stress enough the importance of paying attention along this stretch of the trail. It would be so easy to trip and fall or turn an ankle. We reached our car barely more than an hour after we left Babel Tower. I was amazed how much better I felt than last summer, and won’t be intimidated by this hike in the future. It was a great day; beautiful weather, fantastic scenery, and a pure delight being out and about in the Linville Gorge Wilderness.
For additional tips, information, and useful links, please visit the following: Tips on Linville Gorge