I’ve been meaning to get back to the Linville Gorge Wilderness for months now, but I’ve been waiting for the local heat index to move from its usual summer setting (Generally Insufferable) to its early autumn range (Mildly Annoying). Last Sunday we finally got a hint of the cool days to come, so it was a perfect time to take up a recent visitor’s suggestion to explore Hawksbill Mountain, a jagged peak on the east rim of the gorge.

Hawksbill from Wiseman's ViewHawksbill from about 1.25 miles away — at the Wiseman’s View overlook on the gorge’s west rim.

With a summit of just over 4000 feet, Hawksbill is one of the high points of Linville Gorge Wilderness. It’s always cooler the higher you go, but most of the hiking at Linville Gorge starts high and dives low on steep, treacherous trails that are tiring enough in sane temperatures. I’m like, sure, if you want to face 95-degree heat and humidity you can swim through because that kind of thing interests you, then head right to the Gorge in the middle of July. Otherwise, wait for more tame temperatures.

Hawksbill Trail signLeft turn at the half-mile point.

Hawksbill is a training-wheels hike for the Gorge’s terrain. It’s only .8 of a mile to the top, but with 770 feet of ascent (average grade: 18%) you’ll be working up a sweat about a hundred yards in. It’s tree tunnel and roots for the first half mile, then you turn left and start slogging up a steeper, rockier trail. Great views start opening up pretty soon, hinting at the most spectacular views to come.

Blue Ridge Mountains from Hawksbill Trail

The Blue Ridge from an overlook along the trail. Most of the lower elevations were fogged in, providing that head-above-the-clouds perspective prized by hikers everywhere.

Trail to the summit

Eventually the trail evens out near a large rock beside a flat area that looks like a nice campsite. If you look closely, you’ll see a little trail over to the right of the campsite — this is the trail to the summit. This picture was taken about half-way up.

Rocks at top of Hawksbill

Here’s one view from the top.

Very sharp crags

Here’s another.

Yeah, just another mind-blowing panorama under perfect skies and cooling summit breezes. Why would anybody ever want to hike up here?

Well, there’s only so much splendor I can stand before my feet get the itch to start hiking again. I headed back down the trail to the junction where it’s a right turn back to the car and a left turn toward the gorge. What the heck, I figured, I’ll try left.

I was hoping the trail might provide an overall view of Hawksbill but it was lost behind the tree cover. The trail doesn’t dive into the gorge; instead it tracks the ridge of the east rim. The hiking’s easy by Linville Gorge standards but there’s still quite a bit of up-and-down. It also passes through a couple campsites that could be fine places to base-camp while exploring the gorge.

After about three-quarters of a mile I found this intriguingly titled turn: Devil’s Hole Trail.

Devil's Hole Trail

How could I not turn there? Well, there was the fact that I had no map and figured my GPS unit could get me unlost just in case. After a steep half-mile down into the gorge it occurred to me I’d have to come back all that way, and I had no idea how far away the that diabolical hole might be. Felt like a good time to break for lunch and head back.

Stump shot with flash

On the way back I stopped at a stump and tried to see if I could come up with anything photogenic. Not sure if I did, truth be told.

Frog next to a tree

I did happen across this frog, though.

First glimpse of fall color

And a few hints of fall color.

This hike was just long and arduous enough (4.7 miles and 2000 feet of ascent) to whet my appetite for more Gorge outings. A few things to keep in mind if you’ve never been:

  • It’s a designated wilderness: Some trail junctions are signed but many aren’t, and none of the trails have blazes. The official Forest Service map recognizes on a fraction of the actual trails, because hunters, anglers and loggers traveled the gorge for decades before the wilderness was established.
  • The best source for Linville Gorge trail information is Linvillegorge.net. The site’s volunteers have GPS tracks of just about every passable trail in the gorge (and a few impassable ones, I suspect). Folks on the discussion board are authoritative and patient with newbies.
  • Standard advice from the forum’s regulars: think of your hikes in terms of hours, not miles. With all the rocks, roots and precarious climbs, it can be hard to do better than a mile an hour in some areas.
  • The gorge has bears. Camp (and cook) accordingly.

Links for this hike:

Google map for this hike:

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