Linville Gorge -- Leadmine/Pinch In Loop to Daffodil Flats
At some point in the not too distant past a hardy family decided to make a go of farming a small plot of land along the Linville River in the shadow of Shortoff Mountain deep within Linville Gorge. At some point one of these folks decided to plant some daffodils around the homestead to brighten things up. These early-blooming flowers flourished over the years and, though the old homestead has long disappeared, have spread to cover over an acre of the land once occupied by the farm. This remote spot, known now as ‘Daffodil Flats’, has become a somewhat iconic destination over past decades for adventurous hikers willing to make the trek deep into the Gorge to find them. From late-February through the month of March this small patch of flat land hidden deep within the gorge lights up in a brilliant blanket of yellow. An increasing number of hikers in recent years’ time their trips within this time to experience the unique sight. It’s a bit disappointing to some, who value the Gorge as a wilderness to find solitude in, but it’s hard to blame folks for wanting to go as it is such an amazing place. Two main trailheads, both located along the bumpy Kistler Highway on the gorge’s east rim, offer the primary access routes to the Flats. The shorter and easier route (if you can call any route to the base of the Gorge easy) is from the south via the Mountains-to-Sea, Leadmine, and Linville Gorge Trails. This way in involves about 5-miles of hiking and a return climb involving 1,600-feet of elevation gain. The slightly longer, more scenic, and unquestionably more strenuous route is via the vaunted Pinch In Trail from the north. It’s 5.5-miles round-trip from this direction with nearly 2,000-feet of elevation gain…99% of which is climbed over the 1.5-mile length of the Pinch In. It’s arguably one of the steepest and most rugged trails in the Southern Mountains. If you’re like me though you like loops more than out-and-back hikes so, in this album, I’m offering a third option for a trek to Daffodil Flats. It involves combining the two above routes with a road-walk along the Kistler Highway to create a magnificent and incredibly scenic loop of around eight miles. It’s not a trek for everyone, which is true of any hike involving a descent into Linville Gorge, but it is incredibly rewarding in its remarkable variation in scenery and the stunning vistas enjoyed along the way. All that said, let’s get to the hike, shall we?
I would begin from the northern MST Trailhead along the Kistler Highway, located at a point about 5-miles north of NC-126 or 10.6-miles south of NC-183. This would leave the road-walk portion of the loop for the end, which I usually prefer. From the trailhead the MST ascends gently along a narrow ridge top populated by low shrubs and pine. Barely a quarter mile in, it arrives at a rocky promontory known simply as the Pinnacle. Short and fairly easy scramble paths lead to the summit ledges where the first stunning panoramas of the hike can be enjoyed. Moving around the summit one can enjoy vistas towards all points on the compass. After the Pinnacle the MST begins its steep drop into the gorge. Over the next ¾-mile, between here and the Leadmine Trail, over 1,000 feet of elevation will be lost. There’s no switchbacks to ease the descent either, the path simply heads straight down the spine of the pine-covered ridge. The MST meets the upper end of the Leadmine Trail at a shallow gap atop the ridge. Here the MST makes a right turn while the Leadmine is begun by going straight ahead a few feet then cutting back to the left through the rhododendron, dropping off the north side of the ridge. You’ll know you’re on the right path when, within a few dozen feet, you pass a wooden sign hung high in a nearby tree which provides rough distances to landmarks ahead. Make a mental note here, as this will be the last trail marker you will see for quite a while. The Leadmine Trail follows a much more gradual descent as it winds in and out of a handful of narrow drainages on its way along the side of the ridge heading north. This isn’t to say it’s an easy trail however, this is the Linville Gorge after all. Along its ¾-mile length the Leadmine descends another 500-feet but it does it in fits and starts…descending into one narrow ravine, climbing out from it, and then soon dropping into another. You’ll know you’re just about at the river when the trail makes one last steep plunge down a rocky slope.
At the bottom of the Leadmine the terrain ahead is suddenly and oddly almost completely flat. A shocking change for your legs to be sure. Here the Leadmine Trail ends and the Linville Gorge Trail begins. The first bit of the LGT is a bit tricky to follow as the route heads across the damp wooded floodplain in the general direction of the Linville River, which you’ll hear through the trees ahead. Soon you’ll arrive at a large campsite at which point the trail heading north along the river becomes more apparent. At this spot Daffodil Flats still lies about 0.8-miles ahead. Heading north from the campsite the trail stays fairly close to the Linville River with many nice spots to enjoy a stop to watch the wild stream rush by. In about a third of a mile the trail seems to turn away from the river and begins to follow what, during normal water levels, appears to be a long river of boulders cutting through the forest. It took me a minute upon first arriving to figure out what I was seeing…this is a massive overflow channel through which the Linville River cuts during flood conditions. It’s an incredible display of what forces are at play whenever the Linville River decides to rise. After the rock channel the trail once again pulls up near the river itself and begins tunneling through the rhododendron along its banks. At a half-mile from the Leadmine, the trail passes the unmarked lower end of the so-called Unnamed Trail…an unofficial footpath which, if reports are correct, rivals even the Pinch In Trail in steepness. Not far beyond this junction, at ¾-miles from the Leadmine, the trail enters an extensive forested plain…Daffodil Flats.
If you arrive in March during the bloom you’ll first be greeted by a wide scattering of individual flowers. Not long after, though, a blaze of yellow will appear to the left through the trees about a hundred yards off the main trail. Even though I had seen dozens of pictures of Daffodil Flats it was still incredible to actually be standing amongst it. Nearly an acre of yellow blooms forms an almost solid blanket across the landscape. A few widely scattered trees rise from the flower beds and rising above the massive western face of Shortoff Mountain overlooks it all. It is a scene of both beautiful delicacy and rugged wildness and therein lies its magic. This is definitely a place you’ll want to sit and simply soak up your surroundings…there’s certainly no other place quite like it in Linville Gorge. After Daffodil Flats the Linville Gorge Trail continues north, staying a bit farther away from the river than it has thus far. It continues to be a fairly easy walk, first through dense rhododendron groves and then, as the trail begins a gradual climb, into more open mixed pine forest where blackened stumps tell of recent wildfires. After a bit over a mile of walking north from Daffodil Flats the trail once again emerges onto a broad, flat, forested plain before arriving at the river’s edge once again at another large backcountry campsite. Take a break along the river here. Trust me you’ll want to rest up for what’s to come. Sitting along the rocky shore the view both upstream and down is of rugged, wild beauty. You’re nearing the heart of Linville Gorge here…2,000-foot cliffs rise in both directions as the Linville River rushes by through a series of rapids and around large boulders. The sense of wilderness here is palpable.
Now the “fun” begins. At a point just over 1.5-miles north of Daffodil Flats the Linville Gorge Trail reaches a signed intersection with the lower end of the Pinch In Trail. The Pinch In Trail needs no introduction among local hiking circles. Regarded by many as one of the steepest and most difficult maintained trails in the North Carolina Mountains, the Pinch In is a beast…and one that I personally had been looking forward to tackling for quite some time. Only 1.5-miles in length, the Pinch In boasts an elevation difference of nearly 1,800-feet between its upper and lower ends. In fact a majority of this elevation change, over 1,000 feet, occurs in just the middle half-mile of the trail! Ridiculous as it may seem to hike there are some benefits to hiking the Pinch In, not the least of which are the bragging rights. The most fantastic part of this trail is the astounding scenery which it serves up along much of its length. That insanely steep middle section, in particular, ascends the narrow spine of the ridge through a landscape frequently devoid of tall trees and with numerous ledges offering awe-inspiring and awesome views of the Gorge. The views to the north, in particular, are simply jaw-dropping as the massively rugged N.C. Wall, Table Rock Mountain, and Hawksbill Mountain can be seen towering nearly a vertical half-mile above the river hidden among the trees below. You’ll get a good sense along the Pinch In of why Linville Gorge is known as the “Grand Canyon of the East” by many. The frequent views serve as great excuses to stop and catch your breath as well. I don’t care how in shape you are, this trail will have you sucking wind. A mile up from the river the Pinch In crests the lip of the east rim and re-enters the woods. The climb isn’t quite over yet though, there’s another 500-feet to gain yet over this last 4/10 of a mile. As suddenly as it begins its crazy climb, the Pinch In ends at a small parking area where the first flat piece of ground in a mile-and-a-half can be enjoyed. Pull up a piece of grass here and let your quivering muscles have a rest before the final 2.5-mile road-walk back to the car…they’ve earned it.
The walk along the Kistler Highway back to the car is fairly enjoyable as far as road-walks go. If anything having a wide, level walking surface underfoot will please the legs and the lungs. Heading south the road descends to an intersection with Forest Road 106 on the right in about 1.5-miles and, about a half-mile after that, you should be able to spot the upper end of the Unnamed Trail departing the left side of the road headed out to its own drop into the gorge. To break up the road-walk a bit I decided to take a short stroll out to the edge of the rim on the Unnamed, hoping for one last bit of Linville scenic grandeur to cap off my day. I wasn’t disappointed. Reaching open ledges after a relatively level distance of perhaps a few hundred yards, I was treated to a spectacular grandstand view looking across the Gorge towards Shortoff Mountain with the Linville River sparkling in the sunshine as it cuts through the forest 1,500-feet below. To the south Lake James also glittered in the late day sun. It’s a perfect spot to absorb one last bit of Linville beauty on this trek. After this brief foray on the Unnamed Trail I returned to the road and continued south for a final half-mile of walking, soon arriving back at the Mountains-to-Sea Trailhead where this incredible hike had begun.
There’s not much else to say. This is a spectacular day hike for those suited to the trail conditions they’ll face. Time it during the daffodil bloom and it’ll be all the more special. Regardless of the season though, it’s a hike at Linville Gorge. If you can’t find beauty at Linville I don’t know what to tell you. All I can say before setting out on this trek is BE PREPARED. This is wilderness, and about the most rugged wilderness you can find in the Eastern U.S. Don’t expect trail signs or blazes to mark routes or junctions. Get a good map, equip some sturdy footwear, and don’t skimp on water. It’ll ensure a safe and enjoyable visit to this incredible area. So, without further ado, I present to you a loop hike to Daffodil Flats via the MST, Leadmine, Linville Gorge, and Pinch In Trails. This is a good one…as always, I hope you ENJOY!!
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 35.822281, -81.930407
Route Type: Loop Difficulty: EXTREME
Hike Length: 8.6 miles Hike Duration: 5:00
Trailhead Temp: 50'F Trail Traffic: 5-10 people
Min. Elevation: 1,300' Max. Elevation: 3,250'
Total Vertical Gain: 2,100' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 244'
Trails Used (blaze color): Leadmine (unblazed), Linville Gorge (unblazed), Mountains-to-Sea (white), Pinch In (unblazed), Unnamed (unblazed)