Last weekend brought yet another winter storm to the NC mountains. Snow, sleet, freezing rain, and more snow fell from Thursday night through Saturday. Jack, Bob, and I wanted to hike on Sunday, but we faced an increasingly common dilemma: what trailheads would be accessible on Sunday morning? I had another concern as well. My attempt to hike the Tanawha Trail last week ended in frustration due to fallen trees. Where could we go that wouldn’t require crawling through most of the hike?
While I was contemplating our options, it occurred to me that I’d never seen Linville Gorge in the snow. This was startling, as I’ve been hiking there in all seasons for nearly 20 years. The problem is that the gorge is difficult to get to without driving dirt roads, which were bound to be in poor condition.
I was overlooking the obvious. The southern end of the gorge is easily accessible from highway 126 out of Morganton. Initially I thought we might hike the MST Connector to the Mountains to Sea Trail, which we’d follow to Shortoff. That’s a fairly long hike though. If the trail was littered with fallen trees, we’d never make it. After discussing our options with Jack and Bob, we decided to try to reach the trailhead at the end of Wolfpit Road. That would require driving 3 miles of dirt road, but we thought it might be doable with 4WD. If not, we’d try the MST Connector as a backup plan.
Bob and I picked up Jack in Morganton. From there, we drove through intermittent sunshine and fog. Near Lake James we caught our first glimpse of Shortoff. The lower slopes were coated in rime ice, while the summit was lost in the clouds. Hopefully we’d get up there after the fog cleared, but before the ice melted.
Wolfpit Road was in decent shape. It was snow-covered, and there were some icy spots. However, it had seen enough traffic that there were tracks in the snow. The biggest problem, particularly on our return, was mud. The road was messy, but we didn’t have any trouble in Bob’s truck.
The parking area was nearly deserted when we arrived at 9:30. The lone exception was a large chocolate lab that had followed us from one of the houses farther down the road. Boone was delighted to have a hiking companion of his own for the day.
We hit the trail under suddenly blue skies. The path was covered with a couple of inches of crusty snow. It seems like the lower elevations got a couple of inches of snow initially, followed by a considerable amount of freezing rain. We crunched our way up the trail, taking care to avoid the icy spots. Fortunately the sun was making progress with those places. If anything though, the rapid melting caused more problems than it solved. Before long we found ourselves in a badly eroded gully. We were walking up a substantial stream of snowmelt, and before long our boots were soaked. At a couple of spots along the way I did some spontaneous trail maintenance. I dug out a couple of runoff channels that were clogged with debris. This at least served to channel some of the runoff away from the trail. I was hoping that my efforts would mean that we didn’t have to swim back to the truck that afternoon.
Eventually we reached the switchbacks. From here, the trail was a little less eroded. We hiked up through burned over forest, as this area caught the brunt of the 2007 fires. Views of Lake James began to open up, although fog persisted over the water. Somewhere along here I realized that I had fallen well behind Jack, Bob, and the dogs. No doubt they were hurrying to reach the summit before the rime ice melted. Hurrying wasn’t much of an option for me. My legs were dead, thanks to a demanding bike workout I’d done the previous evening. I splashed along in their wake, figuring I’d catch up to them at the first spectacular overlook.
Before long I reached the first icy trees. Rime ice was clinging to every surface, glittering in the sun. At times it felt like I was walking through a forest of crystals. Most unusual though was the extreme contrast between the blue sky, the white snow, the silver ice, and the blackened trees scattered along the mountainside.
I joined the Mountains to Sea Trail at a junction, and continued to climb through the sparkling forest. The upper part of the mountain was still completely snow-covered, which made for more pleasant walking than the mud and water we had slogged through initially.
I stopped to take some photos, and another dayhiker with a dog passed by, heading up the mountain. We saw him heading back down less than an hour later. Surprisingly, he was the only other person we saw all day.
As expected, I caught up with Jack and Bob at a dramatic overlook. I met them on an icy cliff guarded by a lone dead tree encased in ice. From here we had a fantastic view of the lower end of the gorge as well as Lake James and the South Mountains in the distance. I put on my Yaktrax ice cleats before venturing out onto the cliff, as a slip here would certainly be fatal.
From there, we followed the Mountains to Sea Trail along the cliffs of Shortoff. This area is exceptionally scenic at any time, but it was particularly breathtaking because of the snow and ice. Fresh powder dusted the cliff faces, and ice covered every tree and shrub.
We crested a small rise and more views opened up. The sheer cliffs ahead were staggering, and I actually started laughing at our fantastic luck. We couldn’t have picked a better day to hike up here. At this point, I told Jack and Bob that the best part was still to come. I don’t think they believed me.
We passed some more fine views before hiking deeper into the forest. This stretch of trail might normally be considered the “boring” part of Shortoff, but not today. The rime ice we’d seen earlier had been impressive, but here it was truly mind-blowing. Hiking through that forest was an auditory experience as well. Every few seconds, a chunk of ice would fall from a tree with a tinkling crash. The falling ice was musical, but it was also hazardous. At one point, a fist-sized chunk hit me in the head. By the time I got home, I had several bruises on my arms from the frozen missiles.
We reached the pond on Shortoff a few minutes later. The pond has always been one of my favorite features there. The last time I had visited, I’d been disappointed to find it littered with fallen trees. Today though it was mostly clear. It was partially frozen, but that didn’t stop Boone from wading around in it and having a drink. At one point he lifted his head to display long strands of green algae dangling from his snout. I’m really sorry I didn’t have my camera ready for that photo opportunity.
We left the pond, and tried to find the Watertree Spring. I’m pretty sure we started out on the right trail, but we quickly lost it among the snow and fallen trees.
We followed the MST north and reached the side trail to my favorite spot on Shortoff a couple of minutes later. We followed this path out to an overlook with a fantastic view to the north. This is probably my favorite view of the wilderness, as the entire gorge was spread out before us. The frosty cliffs of Table Rock, Hawksbill, and the Chimneys towered high above the river. If anything, the west rim of the gorge appeared to be even snowier. The only disappointment was that the high peaks of the Black Mountains and the Roan Highlands were still lost in the clouds. It was a beautiful, warm, sunny day on Shortoff, but it was probably still snowing up at the highest elevations.
We reached the overlook at noon, and I enjoyed warm soup for lunch. Afterwards we explored the cliffs and took more photos. At some point I became concerned with how many photos I’d taken. Jack confessed to taking over 300, and I figured I wasn’t far behind. In fact, the final damage was 272 shots, meaning I would end up spending most of Monday going through them.
Originally I thought we’d continue the hike farther north, but we all succumbed to wet, cold feet. Instead we returned the same way, dodging falling ice as we hurried down the mountain. We returned to the truck unusually early, as we’d only hiked 5 miles or so. I was satisfied though. Hiking in the snow is tiring. I was worn out, even though we only encountered a few fallen trees. In fact, I was so whipped, I managed to fall asleep during the 4th quarter of a pretty exciting Super Bowl that night!
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