The iconic Linville River has a reputation all its own. It relentlessly winds its way through several boulder choked canyons, creating numerous notable waterfalls. Of the 12 mile stretch that runs through the wilderness area, Cave Falls and the Bob Ross Gorge are among my top favorite sections.
Cave Falls is a multi-tiered, 25-ft drop that passes over impressively large boulders and sculpted rock before emptying into a deep plunge pool. The waterfall has also carved a long chute out on river left that adds quite an unique feature to the overall setting. Just below Cave Falls looms the mini canyon referred to as the Bob Ross Gorge, which is comprised of rising 40 – 50-ft tall cliffs that cup the river as it calmly drifts for 100 yards between the formations. Swimming through this section offers some of the most incredible and unique views of Table Rock that I have ever experienced.
Note that this adventure requires a full body swim and crossing of the Linville River to make it to Cave Falls. Make sure to only attempt this crossing at a safe water level, which is generally considered to be below 100 CFS.
There are several ways to approach this section of the river, but the most direct is a ~2.6 miles out-and-back hike from the Sitting Bear trail head to Jonas Ridge Trail and then onto the Devils Hole Trail – all on the eastern rim of the gorge. Note that parking at this trail head is limited and often fills up quickly.
Begin following the trail to the west, just beyond the Sitting Bear sign at the parking. Almost immediately the trail will shoot off into two directions but they both end up taking you to the Jonas Ridge Trail in about 0.15 miles. If you take the offshoot towards the right, you’ll connect to the trail just after passing through a huge, cleared out pine campsite. If you take the left offshoot, you’ll hit the trail about 0.1 miles south of the pine campsite. Whichever way you end up taking, make sure to turn right (north) onto the Jonas Ridge Trail. In about 100-ft after passing the campsite, you’ll reach the junction for where the Devils Hole Trail begins. Note that the official trail sign hasn’t been there in at least 2 years, but the pole is still standing!
Once on the Devils Hole Trail, follow it straight down to the Linville River. It will feel like it’s going straight down because the trail loses around 1280 feet in about 1 mile. Remember that going down is the easy part, but you’ll have to come back up later. The trail used to be a little spotty in places, but as of 2020 it is pretty defined the entire way. At the bottom of the trail is a huge group campsite. When you reach this point, look for a steep scramble path towards your right to take you the remainder of the way to the river.
Once at the river begin to head south – Cave Falls is only about a quarter mile downstream. This section of the river is heavily boulder choked, so rock hopping and the path of least resistance is the way to go. Initially, you’ll want to make your way down on river left. There will be a couple boulders that will require you to scramble over as the river begins to bend towards the right. In about 0.15 miles (35.91554, -81.90181) from where you started, you’ll want to cross over onto river right before finishing at the brink of Cave Falls.
The current here has a little push to it but you have plenty of space to make the crossing. Once over, continue rock hopping downstream for about another 150-ft until you come up to a high overhang formation. From here, you’ll have to get back into the water and swim around the rock formation and into a channel that shoots off on river right. The current isn’t strong if you hug the rock as you swim around (even at 200 CFS) but the brink of Cave Falls is directly ahead and you don’t want to get too close to that. Friends and myself have climbed the overhanging part before but remember to stay within your limits.
Once through the channel, continue down the giant, smooth rock to the river right base of Cave Falls.
Not only is this waterfall visually fascinating, but its plunge pool makes a killer swimming hole! There are some rocks below the surface for the first few feet over the edge, but if you jump out beyond that point the water is surprisingly deep.
The Bob Ross Gorge is only about 300-ft further downstream from here, but you can glimpse it from the wide open rock on river right of Cave Falls. When looking through the mini canyon, you’ll capture a stunning glimpse of Table Rock looming over the mighty river.
You’ll most likely want to cross the plunge pool at Cave Falls to begin heading downstream on river left. Immediately below Cave Falls is another ~15-ft waterfall that kayakers call Clapper Falls. Once you’ve made it there, the rest of the rock hop should be pretty navigable until you reach the mouth of the canyon.
When you enter the Bob Ross Gorge, the river becomes smooth and calm as it passes through the 100 yard channel. The water is deep and swimming through it is a surreal experience that I can not put into words. It’s just one of those things that you have to experience for yourself.
The Bob Ross Gorge ends at a small slide waterfall the kayakers call Dr. Shoosh. It’makes for a fun slide if you catch it in the right water flow!
Remember that when you backtrack out, cross the river at safe spots and be sure to refill your water before heading up Devils Hole because you’re going to want it!