By Jesse Wood
The Linville Gorge Wilderness area has become so popular that rangers gave out parking tickets for the first time “in a long time” this past year, according to Grandfather District Ranger Nicholas Larson.
While exact visitation numbers aren’t available, Larson said he’s noticed a clear uptick in visitation from all sorts of folks enjoying the Linville Gorge, from backpackers and climbers to hunters and anglers to tourists and leaflookers, over the past couple years.
“It’s been huge. We’ve seen obvious marked increases in visitation in the past two years, and the hard part, one of the challenges we have, is providing parking and access for the number of people coming, especially during peak leaf season,” Larson said.
Both of the access roads into the Linville Gorge are two-lane roads. While spillover parking isn’t usually a big deal, Larson said the situation becomes a safety hazard whenever an emergency vehicle or a full-size pickup truck can’t navigate the area.
“We’ve put up ‘No Parking’ signs along some of the areas,” Larson said. “Giving a citation is the last resort.”
Larson said that the hope is to expand parking at the Linville Falls area in the future. But the Table Rock area is a “tough one because you can’t make the mountain any bigger,” Larson said.
“We are hoping in the next year to figure out some creative ways to better accommodate folks,” Larson said. “But in the interim we can’t block traffic and we can’t limit access.”
Larson said that folks can park along the road where there are wide spots and pull offs without hindering traffic. He also suggested folks plan ahead, knowing that with the popularity of the gorge, the area will be packed on, say, a sunny Saturday.
“Maybe find a little less beaten path to explore,” Larson said, whether that’s a less-travelled trail in the Linville Gorge or another national forest area in the region, such as Wilson Creek, Big Lost Cove, Catawba Falls and more.
Lynn Willis, an outdoor enthusiast and photographer, visits the Linville Gorge frequently. Willis noted that this past year, he’s “never seen so many people on either side of the gorge in my life.”
“The parking area for Hawksbill has overflowed so far down in both directions on the side of the road that I couldn’t believe it. And this past fall during peak leaves, I saw the biggest cluster jam I’ve ever seen around the West side parking lot for the Linville Falls,” Willis noted in an email. “I even heard of people parking at Famous Louisa’s restaurant and walking to the falls from there.”
This past fall, Willis said he also saw dozens and dozens of trucks, just from bear hunters alone, along Kistler Road.
In the end, Larson said it’s better to be popular than not.
“We certainly don’t want to exclude people from the national forest, and we’re trying to get this cleaned up, ” Larson said. “…We’ll certainly take them. The thing I worry about is making sure people are having a good experience out there and if somebody breaks a leg and an ambulance can’t get to them, [that’s not good].”
According to the U.S. Forest Service page on the Linville Gorge Wilderness area, the following are parking areas for the eastern and western rims of the gorge:
- The first parking area is for Devil’s Hole Trail (Sitting Bear), two miles from Gingercake Acres.
- The second parking area is for Hawkbill (parking area on left and trail on right) one mile from Devil’s Hole.
- The third parking area is for Spence Ridge and North Table Rock trails, one mile from Hawkbill.
- Parking lots accessing the western section of the gorge lead off Kistler Memorial Highway.
Replacing Wooden Barriers with Boulders
Visitors to the gorge recently might have noticed some boulders taking up parking spaces. This is only temporary, as these boulders will replace aging wooden parking barriers in the near future.
Towards the end of January, heavy equipment will be used for the work and the parking areas for Hawskbill and Spence Ridge trailheads will be closed for two days during the construction activity.
Cathy Dowd, a spokesperson for the National Forests of North Carolina, said that an alert will be sent out once the specific days are scheduled for the work. Once finished, the routine maintenance will open up a few additional spots that weren’t available previously.