Way back during college, law school and for a few years thereafter, I hiked, backpacked and fished dozens of times in Linville Gorge and knew all about it. My buddies and I kept in mind all the trails, the water holes and camping spots. My strong memory is that there was no shortage of any of those commodities. I recall large flat camping areas with springs at the bottom of Conley Cove and Sandy Flats trails, and a small camping area with a spring on the north side of the bottom of Babel Tower trial. I seem to recall numerous other camping spots scattered throughout the Gorge.
Well, no more. After years of absence, I took a few hikes in the Gorge last summer while training for my trip to the Wind River Range. The trails were all more grown over with brush and briars, rockier and less traceable. My memory is we had no trouble following the trails. They were well stomped out and open. But last year I lost the trail several times where it seemed to peter out into rocks, roots and moss. I could not find a spring at the bottom of Conley Cove trail, nor a flat camping area at the bottom of Babel Tower trail, nor could I find any semblance of Sandy Flats.
I am baffled. I know that things change over time, and the trails could be getting less use and have become more over grown. Tress can grow up in meadows. But where did the springs go? Where did the flat land go? Where did the half-acre Sandy Flats go? When I hike certain trails on Grandfather Mountain after a several year absence, the details are a little fuzzy to me. But my memory comes back and I recognize where I am. Not Linville Gorge. Last year, I had no memory of what any of the trails looked like, except for the bottom of Babel Towers.
So, today I tried again. The results were the same as last year. I had no memory of any of the features. The trails occasionally petered out and I was lost for a few minutes, at least a half a dozen times. I saw no springs. There were almost no camping spots except at the big, obvious area at the bottom of Conley Cove trail.
A semi-mystery is that I found what I believe is Sandy Flats. There was an unofficial, hand lettered sign that pointed to the old Sandy Flats primitive trail up the mountain (where I got lost the day before my college graduation - see another Blue Ridge Outing story?). But it looked totally different. The flat area was about one tenth as big as I remembered. And it was on a knoll way above the river, so getting water would be more of a chore than I recalled.
What is going on? What could have changed the basic lay of the land? Were there some earthquakes or landslides in Linville Gorge in the last four decades?