I will probably always be comparing Linville Gorge west rim trails that go down to the river to the Babel Tower Trail because that is the first one I hiked. Conley Cove is not quite as difficult because, unlike the straight-line trail that is Babel Tower, Conley Cove is a long continuous series of switchbacks. But, it is still a stern test of strength and stamina. This popular area has the unique distinction of having both a vista trail and a gorge trail. Before heading down, down, down into the gorge, the Rock Jock Trail enables hikers to find an overlook on the west rim that offers views of Sitting Bear, Hawksbill, Tablerock and Shortoff Mountains along the east rim. Throw in a great look at The Chimneys and The Amphitheater, and Rock Jock is an ideal spot for taking in all the east rim features from across the gorge. This hike took place on Thursday, May 19, 2011. We started at 10:00AM and finished about 3:30PM with lots of scrambling around on the boulders at river level to find the best pictures. The goal was to take the Rock Jock fork to check out the rim views before backtracking to the Conley Cove Trail for the descent into the gorge. If possible, we hoped to go about
½ mile upriver along the Linville Gorge Trail, then return to the west rim the way we came.
Hike Length: 7 miles Hike Duration: 5.5 hours Hike Rating: Difficult, strenuous
Blaze: None, wilderness Elevation Gain: 1300 feet
Hike Configuration: Split trail, up and back, then down and back
Trail Condition: Primitive, extremely rocky, narrow
Starting Point: On West Rim Road (NC 1238) on the left.
Trail Traffic: We encountered eight other hikers in four groups, all on the Conley Cove Trail. We did not see anyone once we reached the river.
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 Rock Jock/Conley Cove Trail is about 4.9 miles past the visitor cabin on the left.
View Rock Jock and Conley Cove Trails, Linville Gorge Wilderness in a larger map
As I was putting my gear on to start this hike, I was going through a mental checklist like I always do. Have I changed from my sneakers to my hiking shoes? Have I put my gaiters on? Pack? Camera? Sunglasses? As my brother and I headed out on the trail, I just had this feeling I was forgetting something. You know, you’ve felt it before. Well, about
¼ mile down the trail it hit me. My sandwich! Good thing I remembered. So back to the car to get it out of the cooler. I’d much rather do the extra
½ mile to backtrack than get to the bottom of the trail and realize I didn’t have my lunch. Man does not live on granola bars alone.
Not far past where we turned around before, we came to the split that goes to Rock Jock Trail. This trail is unusual for the west rim in that it is an overlook trail. Everything else on the west side goes down into the gorge. Not far up the path is a campsite, and a shortcut trail to the west rim road that would save half a mile if you were only going to Rock Jock. The laurels and rhodies were just starting to bloom; probably about four days early for the peak flowering. Oh well, the blooms that were out were lovely. The trail is mostly level with a moderate gain of about 200 feet over 1.4 miles, so it’s an easy hike for all ages. Easy, as in not strenuous, but it is rocky and narrow. Be careful with children near the cliffs though.
The trail reaches the cliff area and follows the ridge for about
¼ mile. This was the prime photo taking opportunity for me, but like Wiseman’s View it is best in the late afternoon when the sun is behind you. I’ve been to Linville Gorge enough now that I can recognize all the landmarks on the east rim. From north to south they are Sitting Bear, Hawksbill, Tablerock, The Chimneys, The Amphitheater, Chimney Gap, and lastly Shortoff Mountain. I couldn’t quite see Lake James from Rock Jock, but I know it was hidden down there behind Shortoff. I think the vista here rivals Wiseman’s View and you can see the south gorge better simply because it is closer. There are nice rocks to sit a spell and enjoy all that surrounds you. Even though it isn’t on a lot of the maps, Rock Jock Trail continues on southward and meets up with the rim road again, but we turned around at this point to go back to the Conley Cove Trail.
Well, it was time to take the plunge. All the west rim trails to the Linville River are steep and treacherous. Once you make your commitment to go down, you know it will be a tough, rough haul getting back up. I’m glad I remembered that sandwich. Conley Cove Trail is a series of many, many switchbacks. It crosses under the cliffs that were part of Rock Jock for the first little while. The trail is very narrow, the spring botany was already beginning to surround the trail. Like other gorge hikes it is also rocky, so I was careful at all times to watch where I stepped. Occasionally there was a small clearing in the trees where there was a nice glimpse at Tablerock Mountain. We passed a couple duos of hikers who were coming back up and each was huffing and puffing, a friendly reminder of what we had in store later. Two of the guys were with the Department of Fish and Game and were carrying fish tank packs on their backs. They had been down at the river stocking trout. Cool.
It’s 1.35 miles total down to the river. It took us about 55 minutes with a few stops for photos. When we reached the river there were probably a dozen primitive campsites. I assume this area is called Conley Cove… seemed good to me. We promptly plopped down on a great big log and had lunch. That sandwich I almost left in the car sure hit the spot. The water in the river was relatively tame here, but our plans were to head up river and look for some whitewater.
Near one of the fire circles I saw about a dozen red-spotted purple butterflies seemingly having an orgy. As I got closer, I could see they were having a feeding frenzy on 5-6 dead bumblebees. You learn something new every day out in the wilderness. Using the Linville Gorge Trail, a few hundred yards upriver, there was a series of boulders that crossed the river just right so I could hop from one to another and get out in the middle of the river. The photo at the top of this post came from that spot. From here, my brother and I kinda played photo tag. He went a hundred yards upriver and we exchanged shots of each other. Then, I leapfrogged him a hundred yards beyond and we exchanged pictures again. Finally we could see there was a pretty decent sized waterfall maybe 300 yards upstream. Getting there was the challenge. We couldn’t do it at river level, because it got more canyon-like.
The gorge trail started climbing steeply uphill, and uphill more until we were quite a ways from the waterfall that was our goal. We thought maybe we could go past the falls on the trail and it would come back to the river, but we ran into a roadblock. There have been some pretty severe wind storms in this area the past month (like most of the country), and we ran into a whole mess of downed trees. The trail was completely blocked with no way around. It was too steep to go down, and fruitless to go up, so we backtracked and looked for another spot to access the waterfall. Eventually we found a place where we could bushwhack about 50 feet downhill and reach the river bank near the falls. We had to scramble over some rocks and logs, but found a great place to view from. My brother setup his panorama tripod and captured the whole scene in 360
°. We stayed for a bit to enjoy the water and the sunshine.
On the way back down gorge, we went maybe 200 yards past Conley Cove just to check it out, but didn’t see anything that looked promising, so we decided to gut check and start the climb. The hike back up the Conley Cove Trail was a trudge as I suspected, but frankly it wasn’t as hard as Babel Tower because of the switchbacks. I had plenty of water left, so I made sure to stay hydrated. We saw a couple more pairs of hikers who were getting a late start going down to the river. The beardtongue had really blossomed while we were down at the river, so that was a nice treat to take our minds off the climb. It took us 70 minutes to get back to the car from the river
— not too shabby for a couple of fifty-something Meanderthals.
For additional tips, information, and useful links, please visit the following: Tips on Linville Gorge