t the Burke County Visitors Center in Morganton, Ed Phillips, who oversees tourism in this area, will ask you what kind of car you’re in.
You want to get to that landmark you saw from the highway, Table Rock, overlooking Linville Gorge. You want to drive, or hike, to the summit of Hawksbill, to Wiseman’s View, to Sitting Bear Mountain. There are roads, Ed will assure you, but some are unpaved and rough enough that you need a high-clearance vehicle. There are trails, Ed will say, but some are rocky and strenuous. Are you wearing good hiking shoes? Can you make the steep climb? We don’t want you getting lost or, worse, hurt. Ed will say that to you, too.
To say that Linville Gorge is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful places in this state is an understatement. It’s jaw-droppingly beautiful, in part because of its wildness, a primordial landscape that, in many places, looks untouched for eons. It’s vast and rugged, and, yes, with those conditions also comes potential for danger, which is why Ed is careful to ask the right questions.
It was deemed a wilderness area in 1951 and received its official recognition in 1964, when President Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law. Because of that designation, which was intended to minimize human interference, trails aren’t marked clearly; roads aren’t allowed; you can’t even bring a chainsaw in to cut fallen trees — local volunteer crews work with hand tools to keep trails as accessible as possible. This is an area, the Wilderness Act asserts, “where earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
But that doesn’t mean visitors aren’t welcome, and on my first trip to the gorge, I stopped in to ask Ed a few questions, threw on a backpack — do you have water? Ed will ask you that, too — and set off to hike four miles up Shortoff Mountain.
A half-mile into the climb, Lake James comes into view. Trek higher and you’ll start watching for peregrine falcons and hawks that might soar overhead; you’ll find yourself stopping at every rock overlook to peer gingerly over the edge.
What is it about the view from such an elevation that makes you look down?
Keep climbing and you’ll see the scrubby Table Mountain pines that seed during wildfires; flip over rocks and you might find salamanders, fishing spiders, delicate jack-in-the-pulpits. Higher still, and a crop of British soldiers — tiny lichen plants with brilliant red caps — come into view, their color a miniature blaze of drama amid a landscape already overwhelming in its beauty; everywhere the terrain an awe-inspiring spectacle.
At the top, where wisps of clouds cloak the rounded shoulders of these mountains, where the canyon walls rise high above the sliver of the Linville River below, you stop to rest.
What is it about the view from such an elevation that makes you look up?
And here, in the silence, another question comes: What do you think of it all? What do you think of this glorious landscape, of this geologic wonder? What do you think of this most magnificent creation, preserved and protected? And you hear your whispered answer: Wow.
And thank you.
Editor in Chief