Hike an ultra-scenic three-mile adventure in Linville Gorge, dropping to the large stone spire at Babel Tower and rushing waterfalls on the Linville River.
LOCATION:West rim of Linville Gorge
OFFICIAL MAP: Nat Geo 779 Trails Illustrated Map
Meandering deep through the mountainous landscape of western North Carolina, the Linville River tumbles and carves through the remarkably beautiful, sheer-walled depths of its namesake gorge. Stretching twelve miles in length, Linville Gorge holds an incredible abundance of natural beauty between its walls, framed by soaring mountains like the plateaued peak of Table Rock, the view-packed Shortoff Mountain, and the craggy, angular summit of Hawksbill Mountain. And while the views from these rugged, sun-drenched peaks are not to be missed, the floor of the gorge holds its own spectacular beauty, too. This difficult three-mile adventure follows the Babel Tower Trail from the gorge’s western rim, plunging to a craggy stone spire and a series of chute-like waterfalls on the Linville River.
The trail’s outbound stretch is nearly entirely downhill, catching views of the gorge’s opposite rim and descending through a rocky, lush forest filled with leathery-leafed rhododendron and vibrant green moss. And the river’s rocky banks, tucked between the gorge’s sheer walls, make for an outstanding place for a mid-hike chill. But what goes down must come up, and the return hike is an unrelenting, calf-burning workout back to the rim, climbing over downed trees and a rocky, rooty landscape. And the hike follows largely unmarked trails and navigates through multiple trail intersections in a remote wilderness, so hiking with a paper map, compass, and handheld GPS is extremely important. But with outstanding views and abundant, rugged beauty, the hike’s challenging return and difficult wayfinding are worth the effort.
Babel Tower Trail: the hike
The hike begins at a trailhead on the western rim of Linville Gorge (view maps and driving directions), hiking northeast and beginning the descent to the gorge floor. The trail veers northbound, passing a campsite at just under .1 mile. The hike descends through a forest filled with leafy hardwoods, gnarly-branched rhododendron, and the colorful blooms of wildflowers, and then a stand of young hemlock shading a ground cover of pungent-scented galax. The trail carves through a tight, rocky switchback just before it reaches a clearing at .35 mile, scoring views of the gorge’s distant eastern rim.
The hike arcs eastbound, entering a lush forest filled with abundant mosses and ferns. Descending steadily, the trail meanders northbound, passing a small cave on the trail’s right side at 1 mile. A large rock outcrop at 1.1 miles offers views into the gorge and the nearby spire of Babel Tower to the north. The trail continues its descent, reaching the rocky expanse south of the tower.
The hike turns right at 1.2 miles, following the Linville Gorge Trail southeast. From here, the hike makes a challenging, rocky descent to the river’s banks, scrambling and sliding down large boulders and carefully navigating the unmarked trail. The sound of falling water amplifies through the forest as the hike reaches an unmarked side trail at 1.4 miles, veering right on the side trail to navigate through the rugged forest to the river’s banks.
The forest opens suddenly as the trail meets the gorge floor, with expansive, water-carved rock outcrops extending along the river’s banks. Shallow pools fill depressions in the rock, framed by the towering, nearly-sheer walls of the gorge. And the Linville River churns and falls and pools, cascading in chutes and waterfalls throughout the rocky landscape.
The vast, rocky landscape is a great place to take in the gorge’s ruggedly beautiful views – and the river’s chilly waters make for a great mid-hike swim for our four-footed hiking buddy, Jake. After soaking in the beauty, the hike turns to retrace its steps, navigating back to the Linville Gorge Trail and Babel Tower Trail in reverse. The return hike climbs nearly 1100 feet over 1.5 miles, making for a great workout as it climbs through the gorge’s lush forest landscapes. The hike reaches the trailhead at 3 miles, completing the adventure.
More hiking adventures in North Carolina’s ultra-scenic Linville Gorge
In the area with daylight and energy to burn? Explore more of the Linville River’s exceptional beauty on the Linville Falls Trail, climbing to several towering overlooks with lofty waterfall views. Or hike to the base of Linville Falls on the view-packed Plunge Basin Trail, descending through the rocky gorge to the misty plunge pool at the base of the enormous, thundering waterfall. And for even more adventure inspiration, check out our Linville Gorge hiking, camping and backpacking guide for more routes through this ultra-scenic stretch of western NC.
Note: slippery rocks and fast moving water can be extremely dangerous! Please don’t climb, stand on, swim near, or jump from any waterfall.
Trails and routes may change – so please refer to official trail maps for the latest route.
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35.918567, -81.919583 // N35 55.114 W81 55.175