Linville Gorge runs north to south and has two entirely different rims. Trails on the west rim start on top and go down into the gorge to Linville River. Trails on the east rim go to a series of mountains that offer views into the full length of the gorge, and of the North Carolina Piedmont to the east and the Black Mountains to the west. There are a couple downward trails on the east rim, but the biggest attraction is the mountains. It is fully 2000 feet from these mountaintops to the Linville River below. Hawksbill and Tablerock Mountains are two of these peaks on the east rim that stand tall above the gorge. This hike occurred on May 20, 2011 beginning at 8:00AM and ending about 2:30PM. The plan was to climb Hawksbill Mountain first, then drive south on FR 210 to the Tablerock picnic area and climb to the summit of Tablerock Mountain. Returning to the picnic area we would then take the Shortoff Trail through The Chimneys and on to the North Carolina Wall and The Amphitheater. It would be a full day since we had a 2 1/2 hour drive back home.
Hike Length: 7.4 miles Hike Duration: 6.5 hours
Hike Rating: Moderate, steep but short trails Blaze: No blaze, wilderness
Elevation Gain: 1630 feet Hike Configuration: Up and back, Out and back
Trail Condition: Trenched and rocky, some rock climbing
Starting Points: Hawksbill Trailhead, Tablerock Trailhead, Shortoff Trailhead
Trail Traffic: We saw no other hikers on the trail to Hawksbill Mountain, and only two others on the trail to Tablerock Mountain. The Shortoff Trail through The Chimneys is usually quite popular, but we only saw a group of four rope climbers at The Amphitheater, although there were several folks at the picnic area.
How to Get There: These hikes are on the east rim. From Marion, NC take US 221 north to the intersection of NC 183 at Linville Falls. Turn right on NC 183 and continue to NC 181. Turn right and go south on NC 181 and continue three miles to Forest Service Road 210 (Gingercake Road). Turn right on FR 210. At the first fork, turn left and continue through the Gingercake Acres subdivision. When the road surface switches to gravel, go 2.8 miles to the Hawksbill parking area, another 2.0 miles to the turn off for the Tablerock picnic area, and an additional 2.8 miles up the mountain to the picnic area. The west rim has a separate and different access.
View Hawksbill and Tablerock Mountains, Linville Gorge Wilderness in a larger map
It’s a good idea to stretch before any hike, but Hawksbill starts up right from the trailhead, and continues up for the entire 7/10 mile. Most hiking and trail guides rate this climb as moderate, mostly because it is short. It is quite strenuous though, so I always make sure to limber up. The trail itself is not in the best condition, basically a trench from over use that has become a drainage channel for storm runoff. That compounds the problem by adding lots of rocks to the channel. There are two areas on the trail where the problem has become so severe, the trail volunteers have built detours around the troublesome footage.
My brother and I happened to catch the beginning of rhododendron season on this mid-May morning. It’s a good thing digital photography is essentially free as I was shooting nearly every rhodo bloom I came upon. My brother is the one who taught me to pace myself on the trail. I sometimes tend to be a jackrabbit because I am anxious to see what awaits me, but then I wear down by the end of the day. On this day it was a good idea to stop and smell the rhodies, as there were lots of short bursts of strenuous climbing throughout the day.
The last tenth mile before the faux summit is probably the hardest. One of the trail detours is here, and it climbs very steeply over rocky terrain. When we reached the top, the trail split, to two different overlooks. The actual summit of Hawksbill Mountain is to the right, then up about another 200 yards.
The summit of Hawksbill is exposed granite, with lots of layers reaching out like scales on a fish. The tips are both pointed and jagged, creating an effect that looks like the bill of a hawk, hence the name. The profile of the mountain is unmistakable, you can recognize it from miles around as you approach Linville Gorge. There is scattered vegetation among the rock that makes up the summit overlook. There is rhododendron of course, but also mountain laurel, and the nicest surprise for our visit… the sand myrtle was in full bloom and looked delightful.
The views from the summit are 360 degrees. To the north is Sitting Bear Mountain and the north gorge, looking east reveals a massive forest that runs to the NC piedmont, the southern view is of Tablerock and Shortoff Mountains with The Chimneys in between, and the Black Mountains can be seen in the distance to the west. It is a magnificent spot with lots of places to sit and enjoy the surroundings
— and catch a little breather. I never can decide which direction I like best, they are all wonderful. Back down to the faux summit, taking the left fork of the trail goes to the southern end of Hawksbill to an overlook that provides a closeup view of Tablerock Mountain and the south gorge below. This isn’t quite as high as the summit, but has the best southerly view. The return trip to the trailhead is the same path as up, and always seems a whole lot quicker than the climb. It is, after all, only 0.7 mile. I always like popping back out to the parking area because it’s time to head to the next trail.
There’s a bit of a drive down Forest Road 210 to get to the Tablerock Picnic Area parking. It is first 2.0 miles to the turnoff, then a right turn begins climbing steeply up the gravel road. The first time you do this, you will be surprised after about a mile and a half when you reach a smoothly paved asphalt road, out there in the wilderness. This is the steepest part of the road. My guess is they got tired of bringing a road grader up there every year to get rid of the washboard effect and decided to pave it. Finally, 2.8 miles up Tablerock Road is the parking area. There is room for dozens of cars, and there are several picnic tables and campsites for families of all ages. There are also pit toilet restroom facilities.
The trail to the summit of Tablerock Mountain is on the northern end of the parking area. It is 1.0 mile to the top on a trail that is more gradual than Hawksbill. There are a couple other nice differences from the Hawksbill trail. The Tablerock trail is a lot better maintained as it is also the Mountains to the Sea Trail at this point. As you climb, unlike Hawksbill which is totally in the woods, there are clearings in the Tablerock trail where there are nice views to the west and the south. The clouds were doing particularly unusual things on this day so we got quite a show on our way up. There was blue sky, puffy white clouds, and grey threatening clouds. It seemed like the sky changed around every bend in the trail.
The summit of Tablerock is quite long, probably 200 feet of accessible area. I can’t see quite as much up there because it isn’t as high as Hawksbill, plus there is more vegetation on Tablerock, but because of its length there are a variety of viewing points. One difference from Hawksbill is the clear view of the western half of Lake James. The eastern side of the lake is hidden behind The Chimneys and Shortoff Mountain. The Chimneys are very clearly visible
— I can follow the narrow ridge that approaches the cliffs
— it makes me want to go there, so invariably I do. Tablerock is also said to grow an endangered plant, golden heather. Linville Gorge is apparently the only place in the world where it is found. Unfortunately, on my two trips to the top of Tablerock, I have yet to see any blooming.
Turning around to the north, the stony visage of Hawksbill is seemingly close enough to touch, and the Linville River carves its relentless canyon through the bottom of the gorge. If you are into panoramic photography, both Tablerock and Hawksbill have excellent surfaces for stabilizing your tripod. You probably don’t want to get caught up top in bad weather, because you are so exposed, but so far I have been fortunate. I tend to want to explore every little nook on the mountaintop, so I usually stay close to an hour. Jumping from rock to rock is almost like a childhood game of hopscotch. It’s great fun. The return to the parking is via the same trail. My brother and I continued on to the Shortoff Trail after we got down, but I have already written about that previously.
I am simply fascinated by the beauty that can be seen from these two mountains that overlook Linville Gorge. I never get tired of looking in every direction each time I go to the top of the gorge. If I lived closer, I would hike every square inch of Linville Gorge. Some call it the Grand Canyon of the East. I don’t know that I would go that far, but Linville Gorge Wilderness is indeed a treasure.
For additional tips, information, and useful links, please visit the following: Tips on Linville Gorge