Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Linville Gorge and the Blue Ridge Parkway, NC (United States)

North Carolina offers a multitude of options for connecting with the great outdoors, and many a weekend of our previous lives here saw us tramping, as the Kiwis call it, the length and breadth it. As we've been back in the States over a year now (!), it seems high time we revisit some of our favorite spots.

The old mountain chain that runs down along the east coast of the U.S. are the Appalachians (pronounced "a-puh-LATCH-uhns" for the yankees or foreigners out there), and the western part of North Carolina is in the section aptly named the Blue Ridge Mountains. People from around the country visit, making the 400+ mile stretch of scenic highway known as the Blue Ridge Parkway the most visited unit of the entire National Parks System annually. Highway is a bit of misnomer in the usual sense. The speed limit is often around 35 miles per hour and even that will slow to a crawl with traffic during the fall foliage season. The many overlooks do offer gorgeous misty blue views, and the winding road makes it very popular with motorcyclists as well. 

Just off the parkway, the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area lies inside the Pisgah National Forest. The Linville River winds through old growth forest before plunging as a series of waterfalls: an upper twin set flowing into a curving small gorge, then dropping again another 45 feet to the pool below. The trails around and overlooking the plunge basin are relatively easygoing, and recent heavy rains only further improved the whitewater effect. The river continues on with much more technical hikes along the upper ridge of the Linville Gorge proper and steeply descending the 1400 feet to the river below. Topographical maps and compass - and the ability to use them - are highly recommended as not much may be marked beyond the trailheads in this dense forest. There also be bears. Black bears, to be specific. We didn't see any, which was probably a good thing, as Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods has given me a few too many wayward thoughts along those lines... and we didn't have the recommended bells on. There was a colorful array of mushrooms in the undergrowth of this hardwood and pine forest. Unfortunately, the wet conditions that produce such fungi and the gushing falls had a downside. The low-lying rain clouds obscured views across the gorge and even sometimes a few feet in front of our faces. Hours of hiking on slick trails also made for a little unpleasantness, particularly when I succumbed to the inevitable belly flop in the mud in my typical bumbling style. The good news was we discovered our new rain jackets passed the downpour test!