Seeing the Linville Gorge from its heights a couple weeks back gave me a burning itch to check out its depths the next time around. One of the easiest ways to go deep is to find the Spence Trail on the east side of the gorge on Table Rock Road. The trail descends relatively gently to floor of the gorge, where a footbridge crosses the Linville River and more explorations await on the Linville River Trail.

Tree color

I figured taking the sane, reliable route would drain all the drama from this week’s update, so I found a nearby unofficial trail from the good folks at, uploaded one of their tracks to my GPS unit, and charged forth into the forest.

What happened next demonstrated beyond doubt that the proper response to a burning itch is to consult a medical professional. I’ll stop short of saying “don’t go this way if you’ve got a lick of sense,” but I will say you’d better damn sure know your way around a topo map and compass. The longer I was out there, the louder the voices in my head were screaming, “dude, you are toast if you drop your GPS unit down a crack.”

I started out on the southeast side of Hawksbill Mountain on a faint rumor of footpath called Ledge Trail. It’s barely visible from the road, though not impossible to find. It’s just south of a gravel road that looks like it goes down to a campsite. It’s wild and overgrown, but reasonably easy to follow if you pay attention.

The fun started on the next section: a cut-off trail that tracks over to Spence Trail. This section might best be called “GPS-only” — parts of it are visible for extended stretches, but other parts fade into the hillside, or get obscured by large rock formations.

As long as you stay on track, you eventually intersect with the Spence Trail; from there the hiking is almost comically easy in comparison.

Let’s see some pix:

Trail tags for the Ledge Trail connector

These two trail ribbons mark the turn-off to the Ledge Trail connector, which runs over to the Spence Trail. Ribbons like these mark a few of the key turns. You wish there were more but then you remember, “moron, this is Designated Wilderness; you’re lucky somebody left these.” There’s one point down the trail where a pink marker seems to clearly mark a leftward turn in the trail; perhaps 20 feet down the trail, another tiny red ribbon marks another left turn; took me about 15 minutes to find that turn, even with my GPS.

Large rock formation

These rock overhangs never fail to impress me.

So after scratching and clawing my way over to the Spence Trail, I headed downhill to the Foot Bridge crossing the Linville River. The closer you get, the louder the Linville River roars down the canyon. The bridge crossing is all you need to see why people keep coming back here, crazy trails and all.


Linville River from the foot bridge

The river pools in many places near the Foot Bridge; just hanging out here and soaking up the view would be the perfect way to consume a few hours, but I wanted to head downstream, so I picked up the Linville River Trail just up from the opposite bank.

Stone formation on Linville River Trail

I hiked less than a mile south along the Linville River Trail; felt like I might’ve straggled into a suburb of Bedrock here.

Small waterfall on LInville River

The great temptation of the Linville River Trail is deciding when to scramble down to the water’s edge. I found one opportune ravine and headed down to this small waterfall, had some lunch, and slogged back up the hillside.

Another shot from the footbridge

I headed back the way I came and paused for another shot at the Foot Bridge over the river.

Wildflowers near the Spence Trail

Saw these very interesting wildflowers along the way.

Forest or Jackson Pollack experiment?

Also liked the way this shot came out looking vaguely like something Jackson Pollack might have painted.

Retracing my steps back up the connector trail, I realized something you can never forget in the Gorge: going up an almost invisible trail is an order of magnitude more strenuous than going down it. The connector trail is all uphill and requires navigating around a few huge boulders. By the time I got back to the Ledge Trail, I was just about spent, physically and mentally. This ones one of the rare times I just wanted this hike to be over.

Reading my gripes might seen like reason enough to confine your travels to the officially designated trails, which are ragged enough, but remember there are only 18 official trails in Linville Gorge Wilderness, vs. more than 80 documented by the hardy travelers at You can’t be faulted for wanted to stray beyond the trails the Forest Service approves of.

Just make sure you bring extra batteries, and you actually know how to navigate with a GPS unit. And have a fallback plan for when your gadget falls down a crack (I’ve found that preparing for the worst is the best way to keep it from happening).

Links for this hike:

Google map for this hike:

View Linville Gorge Wilderness, Ledge Trail to Spence Trail in a larger map