Almost as much fun as the trip itself?
Planning it. (Especially if the planning part involves a stack of maps and a good trail guide and beer, and the trip itself occurs entirely in a cold rain.)
Looking north up Linville Gorge from the top of Shortoff Mountain.
As I may have mentioned, I've embarked on the writing of a backpacking book, the deadline for which is a year and a month from yesterday. That may sound like a long time; If you plan to have 40 to 50 trips in your book, it's not. So I find myself squeezing in a trip whenever I can. Like this coming weekend.
Originally, Alan and I were planning to go to South Mountains State Park. The plan was to leave predawn Saturday, get there when the park opens at 8, hike in, spend a couple of nights, hike out early Monday. We had to adjust that plan, pushing our departure back to around 3 p.m. Saturday. I have no qualms hiking in in the dark. We just can't do it at South Mountains, since it's a state park and the gates, in winter, close at 6 p.m. Back to the war room — with the maps, the guidebook and the beer —I went.
Oddly, it took little time to find a solid alternative: Linville Gorge. Not the gorge itself and the mile-long trails that descend into it from the west rim. Linville Gorge has been described as one of the wildest places on the East Coast. It's exceptionally steep and being a wilderness area, the trail is unimproved and unmarked. Throw some snow and ice into the mix and you have a challenge beyond my skill level.
The east rim of the gorge, at least from Shortoff Mountain at the south end of the gorge north to Tablerock Mountain (about mid-gorge) is a different matter. Much of this stretch is atop the ridgeline, perfect for hauling a 40-pound pack. And the route we plan to take is well-suited to hiking after dark. (Coming up from Lake James on NC 126, take a left on Wolf Pit Road shortly after crossing the Linville River. The road goes about 3.2 miles before petering out. There's a rough parking area; from there, it's less than two miles up to Shortoff Mountain and an abundance of camping spots.)
There's just one hanging thread: How long a trip can we make this? The hike to Tablerock appears fairly doable. About a mile beyond, though, the trail, which is part of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, drops off the ridge and down the mountain. From the map I have — USFS Linville Gorge Wilderness: Pisgah National Forest, last updated in October 1994 — it appears that you can take a dirt road about a mile farther north, to Lettered Rock Ridge. From there, a primitive trail climbs to Hawksbill Mountain, then continues along a ridge over Sitting Bear Mountain and on to Gingercake Mountain on the north edge of the wilderness.
It was the primitiveness of the trail that caused me to email Chris Plummer. Chris is outings leader with the North Carolina chapter of the Sierra Club who has considerable experience in the gorge. "I hiked Gingercake, Sitting Bear, and Hawksbill," he replied, "but it was 35 years ago. "[Dang]", he added. "I'm getting too old now." Further, on a trip last April his group tried to find the old roadbed that supposedly continues past Tablerock and on to Lettered Ridge. "I searched briefly for the south end of the Tablerock Gap Trail but could not find it."
If you've been in this area recently, perhaps you can help. Question one: Does the trail still continue on to Lettered Rock Ridge? And if so, have you hiked on to Gingercake Mountain? Question two: Is it feasible to do this trip (out and back) in two days (and an evening)?
All thoughts appreciated.