Driving DirectionsPisgah NF trailhead
The trailhead is off Kistler Memorial Highway (Old NC 105). Drive 0.7 mile south on US 221 from its junction with the Blue Ridge Parkway at Milepost 317.5 and turn left on NC 183. Go 0.6 mile and veer right on the gravel Kistler Memorial Highway. It is 0.1 mile to the parking area, on the left.Blue Ridge Parkway trailhead
You can reach the trailhead from Milepost 316.5 of the Blue Ridge Parkway (1 mile north of the US 221 intersection). A spur road leads 1.4 miles to a large parking area and a small visitor center.
All the trails leading to the various views of Linville Falls are well marked and easily followed, so I’ll just briefly outline them here. From the visitor center, trails go downstream on both sides of the river. The trail on river right leads to the top of the falls and two upper overlooks. The river-left trail leads to one overlook and the base. The trail from the parking area on Kistler Memorial Highway descends 0.31 mile to join the trail from the visitor center on the river-right side. If you’re starting from the visitor center, the total distances and difficulty ratings for each viewpoint are as follows: Upper Falls Overlook, 0.51, 3; Chimney View, 0.75, 5; Erwins View, 0.88, 5; Plunge Basin Overlook, 0.55, 4; Plunge Basin, 0.73, 8.
Linville Falls ranks at or near the top of any list of North Carolina waterfall superlatives. Whether the category is geology, beauty, human history, natural history, photography, or just overall appeal, few waterfalls in the state can compete with Linville.
Until at least 1876, according to one account, the waterfall had two distinct drops, each about 35 feet and open to a frontal view. Supposedly, a chunk of rock broke loose sometime afterward and lodged above the lower drop, hiding the upper drop from view. I’ve read a number of other explanations for why the waterfall once had two sections, all of them having something to do with a rock ledge falling from the upper drop. Besides the fact that the dates in the reports contradict the visual evidence in historical photographs, this explanation makes no sense to me. One account says this happened during the great flood of 1916.
I have copies of two photos by Rufus Morgan, who died in 1880. One, believed to have been shot between 1869 and 1873, shows the waterfall as it is today. The other, believed shot in 1872 or 1873, shows two separate drops. My theory is that Morgan shot the one without the two drops first. At some point afterward, a flood left a large logjam in the chasm above the lower drop. This is the same chasm water flows through today. This passageway is so narrow and twisting that it wouldn’t take much to create a logjam. With the water blocked from entering the chasm, it would have to find another way down, which would be directly over the cliff face, creating two separate drops, as shown in Morgan’s other image.
At some point, the logjam broke loose and the water began flowing through the chasm once more. It’s possible it broke loose during the 1916 flood. This makes sense. If you look closely at the lip where the water once flowed over the upper drop, you’ll see that it has a notch in it where the water flowed. The river would have needed several decades to cut a notch that deep. It would have had at least 43 years if the upper drop lasted until 1916.
I’m not a geologist, and I’m not passing this off as fact. However, I’ve spoken with a geologist, and I’ve climbed down into Linville Falls from above and studied it at length. And I’ve seen some big logjams all across the mountains, some large enough to divert the course of a stream. It’s also plausible that both theories are correct to some extent. Perhaps a chunk of rock did break off and became lodged in the chasm. I don’t think the rock could have totally blocked the river flow, but it would have hindered any debris from flowing through, thereby causing it to build up until the flow was diverted. But this doesn’t account for the reports that say the waterfall had two separate drops until the rock broke off. It’s also possible Morgan shot the photo showing two separate drops before he shot the other one. If that’s the case, any references later than 1873 are in error.
Linville Falls has no doubt captivated humankind since the first Native American laid eyes on it. The Cherokees called it “the Great Falls.” According to one account, it became known as Linville Falls after a tragic event in 1766, when explorer William Linville and his son John camped near the falls and were attacked and killed by Cherokees. The 1859 publication Mountain Scenery: The Scenery of the Mountains of Western North Carolina and Northwestern South Carolina reprinted a quote from an even earlier publication: “The grand sublimity of the scenery which is hereabouts presented to the eye, cannot be surpassed by any in the world. . . . We have seen Niagara in all its artistic splendor, and we have seen what was called grand scenery, but never, never, have we seen anything to equal the scenery of Linville Falls, nor do we ever expect to see the like again until we revisit them.”
Although people have enjoyed the waterfall for centuries, the property was in private ownership and in danger of exploitation until the early 1950s, when John D. Rockefeller Jr. donated $100,000 for its purchase. The public acquisition halted a logging operation, which would have destroyed the magnificent old-growth forest visitors hike through to reach the overlooks. Some of the trail scenes in the movie The Last of the Mohicans were filmed here, including one of the ambush scenes.
Each of the five viewpoints offers a different perspective of the waterfall, and I recommend you hike to every one if you can. At Upper Falls Overlook, you can see the small upper waterfall and the large pool on the upstream side and look downstream to see the river flowing through the chasm at the falls. If you foolishly decide to ignore the warning signs (as some people do) and climb over the wall, at least have the courtesy to notify the rangers so they can prepare a dive team to find your body. Chimney View and Erwins View both provide excellent distant views. Erwins View features a more sweeping view of the falls, gorge, and distant mountains, while Chimney View offers a more intimate experience with the waterfall. On the east side of the river, Plunge Basin Overlook provides superb views of the Chimneys on the west side of the gorge and gives an interesting perspective of the falls. Plunge Basin is where the trail ends at the river near the base of the falls. You can’t see anything from this point. To view the waterfall, scramble upstream along the rocks. If the water level is above normal, this is a difficult trek, but it’s much easier if you get your feet wet. Keep in mind that both swimming and climbing on the rocks are prohibited.