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North Carolina's Virgin Forest

Marshall Davey

Over fall break this year I was fortunate enough to go backpacking through the Linville Gorge Wilderness. It is part of the larger Pisgah National Forest, which I had driven through and camped in. I, however, was previously never able to make it out to the gorge. This was especially frustrating since I had planned a trip during spring break of 2013 to the exact same area, but I was thwarted by the flu. I finally seized the opportunity and convinced my friend and coworker, Clement, to take a four-day trip out to the gorge. It has been on my bucket list for North Carolina for a while because of the rave reviews I received from my friends and from family who have hiked in the gorge.

We packed up by 6 AM that Thursday and made it to our destination around 10 AM. It was very foggy, but I was still excited. The trailhead we started on was called the Pinch-In trail. Initially, I was enjoying myself. There were obvious signs of a fire that had cleared out the brush, but our view was still obstructed by low-lying clouds. The fog eventually cleared up and we caught our first glimpse of the gorge. Nature never ceases to amaze me. Even through the clouds, the entire scene looked unreal. The river made a seam that joined two colossal ridges on either side. The picture was further intensified by the powerful reds, greens, and oranges of the trees and their fall foliage. Everything I loved about camping rushed back to me all at once, and I could not contain my excitement for this trip.

As we meandered further along the Pinch-In trail, my excitement was undermined by the absurdity in the trail construction, which required us to descend around 1250 feet in less than a mile of trail (7). There were some choice words involved as we slid down the edge of the gorge, resenting the rain that had soaked our path in the hours before. We managed the descent injury free, but the world had transformed from light to dark as the trees loomed large above our heads near the river. The trail markers also became non-existent, and we spent much of the rest of the trip in uncomfortable confidence about our location within the gorge while making steep descents along sketchy trails into the gorge along with equally steep and exhausting ascents to the ridgelines from the river. This trip was one of the most rewarding and strenuous hikes I have participated in, and I would love to return for a longer period now that I am familiar with the terrain.

The scenery associated with the tops of the gorge and the scenery at the bottom have completely different feelings. On the tops of the ridges the trees are much shorter and the upper canopy is clear to let in sun to fuel the glut of rhododendron and mountain laurel that dominate the understory. While it is not a bald by any means, the ridgeline allows for glimpses of the gorge and for sun to filter through the branches. The rock features along the eastern ridge might help to prevent the growth of the dense greenery that is characteristic of the bottom of the gorge. The foliage at the bottom is dense, to say the least. Wandering off the trail was practically impossible because of the rocky terrain and underbrush, and the trees of the upper canopy diffused most of the light from the sun. The bottom was completely still because the lack of wind to complete the surreal moss covered wilderness. While on the trip, I focused more on the ridges because I am partial to views, which are few and far between in the green corridor of western North Carolina. The bottom of the gorge, however, still struck me as impressive in its own right. 

When I returned to Chapel Hill, I let the gorge fall out of mind until I heard that Table Rock was on fire. I immediately checked the status of the fire and realized it was started at a campsite that I had stayed at during my trip (2). This campsite, in particular, stuck out to me. It was a popular campsite because of the easy access to the views and climbs of table rock, and the park management had built a paved road and parking lot, as well as pit toilets, at the location. The campsites were well established. There were fire pits everywhere, there was no dead underbrush because of the frequency of camping fires, and there were obvious signs of campers attempting to uproot live rhododendron in order to build fires. This is all a direct violation of one of the principles associated with Leave No Trace (LNT) (6). LNT is a program designed to educate the public about limiting our impact on nature by proposing a set of ethics to follow in outdoor activities. These ethics have been outlined by seven principles that form the basis for LNT education. The rest of the gorge I saw was wild in comparison to this spot; our trails rarely had signs and never had blazes.

I decided to do more research about the Linville area, and I found out that Linville was one of the few virgin forests in the U.S. and North Carolina. In fact virgin forests comprise only 0.88% of the entire land area of North Carolina (5)(8). That is embarrassing. Even with all our talks about conservation and our readings, I still cannot imagine the U.S. prior to being clear cut. Linville gorge allowed me to take a glimpse of what this entails. It feels different; the only regulating factors are sun, soil, and water. All was not lost, however, because of the government’s action in setting up protected lands. I realized in my brooding that eventually the protected forests would recover their “virgin” status. Unfortunately, the scope of preservation was more irregular than I realized. The largest distinction was between the label of national forest and national park. The government cannot touch national parks for profit off of the timber. This I had assumed, but national forests, to my surprise, are open to commercial activities that the government allows, including logging and hunting (9). Hence, only Great Smokey Mountains National Park would be guaranteed the protection to regain the “virgin” status in time. By the time Great Smokey Mountains National Park regains, assuming the virgin forests currently in North Carolina remain virgin, the amount of old growth forests will compromise 1.17% of the total surface area of North Carolina (4)(5)(8).

Let us go back to the fire at Linville Gorge. How do we protect the measly 1.17% for the future? At my most cynical, I call for isolation; make the areas hard to access to deter those who are inexperienced with the outdoors. Established campsites are inviting trouble because of the high volume of visitors that are comfortable coming through because of the facilities and roads. Isolation, however, does not always work to preserve natural spaces. I visited the Wind River Range in Wyoming this past summer and saw this area as one of the most inaccessible places that I have been. The roads are all dirt and all the sights and large mountains require an overnight backpacking trip to reach. This did not stop climbers and other campers from leaving enough waste to render Lonesome Lake, a lake in the middle of this range, unfit for human consumption (3). The answer to these problems may lie in education. Teaching principles like LNT and listening to the warnings presented by ecologists could be successful, especially when paired with trips that build a relationship between citizens and their environment. Until we care, we will not act. I do not know the destiny of the green spaces of the U.S., and I think Alexis de Toqueville succinctly described my thoughts on the matter: “you are proud of being a man; and yet you reflect, almost with remorse, on the dominion which Providence allots to you over nature (1).”

Class of 2014


Atlanta, Ga

A note on the statistics:

The statistics were my own generated by the data provided on the websites provided. I converted the acreage into square milage. I summed the areas provided for the virgin forest data by the total area of North Carolina to find the percentage of coverage. For the second percentage, I replaced the area of virgin forest in Great Smokey Mountains National Park with the total area of the park within the initial summation. This was justified by stating that national parks cannot be logged, so they will eventually be considered old-growth again. This also made the assumption that areas that are virgin will remain that way, and that no other forests will be allowed to become virgin in this time period. The percentage was found in the same manner using the area of North Carolina.

The website used to find the conversion rate between acres and sqaure miles is cited below:



1.Tocqueville, Alexis de. “A Fortnight in the Wilderness.” Memoirs, Letters, and Remains of Alexis de Tocqueville. Trans.  the translator of Napoleon’s Correspondence with King Joseph. London: Macamillan, 1861. http://oll.libertyfund.org/?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=2435&chapter=229933&layout=html&Itemid=27.

2."Crews retreat from Table Rock fire over safety concerns." http://www.wcnc.com/news/local/Table-Rock-fire-now-5-contained-231928411.html. Last Updated: 11/17/2013.

3.“Cirque of the Towers.” http://www.summitpost.org/cirque-of-the-towers/151440. Last Updated: 11/26/2013.

4.“Great Smokey Mountains National Park Statistics.” http://www.nps.gov/grsm/parkmgmt/statistics.htm. Last Updated: 11/17/2013.

5."land area sizes of all u.s. states smallest to largest." http://www.worldatlas.com/aatlas/populations/usaareal.htm. Last Updated: 2012.

6."The Leave No Trace Seven Principles." http://lnt.org/learn/7-principles, Last Updated: 2012.

7.National Geographic. Linville Gorge, Mount Mitchell, Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina, USA, 779[map]. 1:65,000. Trails Illustrated. Evergreen, Colorado: National Geographic Society, 2006.

8.“List of old-growth forests.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_old_growth_forests. Last Updated: 12/2/2013.

9.“National Park Versus National Forest?”. http://www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/np-versus-nf.htm. Last Updated: 11/22/2013.