I have many fond memories of dozens of trips in the Gorge with my siblings and college buddies in the 1970's, and my recollection is clear that the trails were then easy to follow. Now, in places, the path is truly treacherous. Some stretches skirt cliff faces with vertical up on one side and vertical down on the other. Several places I stepped on what appeared to be solid dirt on the outside edge of the trail and the dirt simply gave way, making me tumble down the steep hillside into various brush and brambles. It appears that the Forest Service stopped maintaining the trails years ago.
Robert and I car pooled together from my house to our parking spot at the intersection of Kistler Memorial Highway and Wiseman's View road. From there we hiked south on Kistler to the Conley Cove trail head. Then we trekked down Conley Cove to the Linville River. Our route was then north on the Linville Gorge Trail to Sandy Flats. The Forest Service limits access to backpacking in the Gorge on summer weekends by a permit system, which must be obtained in advance by phone. Due to the extremely rugged nature of the Gorge, there are astoundingly few camping sites. There are essentially no other good sites for several miles either way on the trail from Sandy Flats, so I expected to find other campers there with some competition for space. Fortunately, when Robert and I arrived in early afternoon, there were no other campers there. Later in the day several small groups of backpackers and a few hikers came through our camp site, but none offered to stay.
For some reason, my body chemistry or physiology seems to be changing as I get older. Saturday, despite hiking downhill or on mostly average flat terrain (thus less work than climbing a mountain), and despite it not raining and me not wearing a rain suit, by the time that I arrived in camp, my clothes were soaking wet. I can only attribute the dampness to the nearly 100% humidity and my body's apparently growing proclivity to sweat.
It was cloudy all day Saturday, but it did not start raining until late afternoon, after we had set up our tents and arranged our gear. We explored around the campsite and pumped water with my filter at the last creek we crossed a few dozen yards back up the trail. I have a strong memory of the spring at the south end of Sandy Flats being on the edge of a half-acre grassy area. Now, the between the camp site and the spring is 50 yards of 20 foot tall trees and head high brush and briars. For supper we shared my stove and pot, making simple dinners with dried mixes and boiling water. After supper we explored the river bank and environs, then hung our food in a bear bag. Due to the threatening weather, we both went to bed before dark. I slept quite well for a campout. On some recent backpacking trips my body has rebelled against the lack of CPAP machine and the limited mattress padding. But this trip, I was lucky to sleep most of the night with little tossing and turning.
The next morning we awoke to nearly constant rain. Just after daylight I cooked an oatmeal breakfast in my tent while Robert ate granola bars and crackers. I found a very convenient log to sit on for my morning business. Breaking camp was a sopping experience.
Rain makes everything more difficult. I can remember for years planning and conducting hikes, canoe trips, bike trips, ski trips and backpacking trips regardless of the weather. I would specifically argue with friends that rain, snow, wind, ice, heat or bright sun are simply normal outdoor elements that should be embraced instead of avoided. The older I get, the more I struggle to handle those difficulties. My several soaked backpacking trips this spring have given me a graduate degree in rain management. Rain makes it hard to see due to the drops in the air; plus the drops get on my glasses, but my chamois cloth is too wet to dry the glasses; plus the high humidity make my glasses fog over. Then the rain makes the bushes wet, so even between bouts of showers, the leaves constantly wipe moisture onto my clothes. Then the rain makes the trail wet, adding treacherous slipperiness to rocks and roots; and it creates mud where there was dirt; and in places the creeks run right down the trail so we are hiking in ankle deep water every step. In camp, rain forces changing clothes and cooking in the tent; so the wet clothes and rain suit wipe moisture onto your sleeping bag and mattress.
When we hit the trail Sunday morning, we continued north on the Linville Gorge Trail, in our rains suits, gong mostly steep uphill on an astoundingly rugged trail. Probably no more than 10% of the path allowed simple walking; the rest was steep, slick rocks both up and down, roots, mud, cliff faces, tree trunks blocking the trail and briar patches. I sweated more that morning than any other time in my life. Each time I lowered my arm (like, every 5 seconds) water that had puddled on the inside of my rain suit would run down my arm and drip off my fingers. After ascending the gorge parallel to the river, we climbed the ridge to the intersection with the eastern end of the Babel Tower Trail. As usual, I was exhausted climbing out of the Gorge with a full backpack. We turned west and ascended the Babel Tower Trail to Kistler Memorial Highway. From there we hiked south on Kistler to our parking spot at Wiseman's View.
Many thanks to Robert for joining me on this trip. This was my first backpacking trip, when I was not in Wyoming or Montana, that I had a partner in about three years. It was fun and worth the hard work. Hopefully some of my readers will be willing to join me on a future trip.