The Linville Gorge Wilderness Area – “Grand Canyon of the East” and arguably home to the most rugged terrain of the Southern Appalachians! Among the many prominent peaks found here, few stack up against the internationally iconic Shortoff Mountain.
If you love cliffs, then look no further. The Shortoff Cliff Base boosts a 0.6 mile long and 300-ft tall rock wall that attracts climbers, scramblers, and rock enthusiasts from all over the world to its unique and distinguished features. Despite the cliff line currently being so widely exposed, it was not always this way. Much of the western side of Shortoff Mountain was covered in vegetation until an intense storm washed most of it away in 1916 (I think it might be the same storm that broke the Toxaway Dam, but I can’t confirm that). As you can see from the historical photo below, the mountain appeared to be much gentler and a good portion of the cliff was hidden behind the growth.
The following trip report is comprised from multiple outings. Before undertaking this journey you must be prepared for intense off trail navigation. There isn’t a consistent trail once you reach the cliff base, save for a couple moments of a somewhat faint climbers’ path that will quickly fade out. The terrain is unforgiving and you will be fighting cat briers the whole way. Many moments involve technical scrambling and leaves no room for error. I HIGHLY recommend downloading the Avenza App for your phone with the Linville Gorge Wilderness map layer – it will show unofficial and social trails used in this loop, as well as your live positioning to help keep you on track.
With the disclaimers out of the way, this 4 – 4.5 mile loop begins at the Wolf Pit Trailhead gravel parking lot. Keep in mind that although the parking area is USFS land, the road is not for most of the way. It is critical you respect the residents of the road by not speeding through there or parking on private property (i.e. parking in front of a house). Over the years, the road has been mistreated by poor stewards and if this continues, access could be removed.
Begin by heading up the trail, which starts behind the sign at the end of the road. In about 900-ft you will need to make a right at the first intersection to continue north on the Wolf Pit Trail and head up towards the summit of Shortoff. The infamous Shortoff Sign will be there to point you in the right direction.
For the next ~0.9 miles, you’ll begin a 700-ft elevation ascent towards Shortoff’s summit. In about 0.5 miles, just before the series of switchbacks begins, you’ll pass the junction for Rick’s Crossover – which I use to finish and connect the loop back to Wolf Pit. On the way up, you’ll see several breathtaking views looking southeast towards Lake James and the South Mountains.
In another 0.4 miles, or ~1.1 miles from Wolf Pit, you’ll intersect the old Jeep Trail/MST and the Olsen Trail is only 70-ft further beyond that point. Now you can spin the approach to the cliff base a few different ways, depending on how much time and effort you’re willing to put forth. With destinations like the Crack of Doom, Serpentine Crack, Balcony, and Raven Rocks, to name a few, one could spend days and days exploring Shortoff. As far as streamlining the “side stop” in a non complicated way as you head towards the cliff base, I’d suggest either continuing straight through to the top or take the Olsen Trail – which leads under and around a series of cliffs to a fissure called John’s Kitchen before meeting back up to the Wolf Pit Trail. With the Olsen Trail only being 0.1 miles longer, you can’t go wrong either way and both are worth doing. You’ll just have to see which way the winds take you.
If you choose the Olsen route, pay attention for the spur shooting off towards the left about 70-ft beyond the junction. The path is well worn and easily distinguishable. Follow the social trail as it wraps towards the north around the west side of Shortoff – reveling amazing views of the cliff base like the photo above. In ~850-ft, you’ll start to emerge under a series of rock walls and overhangs.
Follow the base of the impressive rock wall north for another 0.2 miles to reach John’s Kitchen. The overhang created from the fissure break at John’s Kitchen is really neat. It reminds me of a smaller version of The Balcony from the L.O.S.T. trail, over on the west side of the gorge. If you’ve never been to John’s Kitchen, you won’t be disappointed. In another 0.1 miles north, the Olsen Trail connects back to the Wolf Pit Trail/MST at an impressive overlook.
After reconnecting with the Wolf Pit Trail/MST, head north. In 425-ft you’ll pass the Gully Pipe, where spring water drains from a white pipe. This is also the Climbers’ Gully Descent. You could take this route about 325-ft down through some precarious places and be spit out at the cliff base, around the halfway point. This route is steep, wet, and slippery. I recommend bringing a couple ropes to have in place if you decide to undertake that descent.
In 0.25 miles north of the Gully Pipe, you’ll reach the newly established Piano North Trail – a social trail that snakes down the cliff side to reach the base and Piano Rock. As you approach the Piano North Trail, you’ll pass several great views and established campsites. About 450-ft before the spur begins, there will be a campsite right before the trail curves towards the east.
The Piano North Trail itself is brilliantly designed. It expertly meanders around a massive cliff line while yielding some pretty fantastic views on the way down.
The trail is easily followed if you pay attention. In just under 0.2 miles, the trail will begin to make its way under and around some very impressive formations and roughly 0.25 miles in, you will pass the cliff base as the trail continues down to Piano Rock. Again, you can spin this a couple different ways. If you continue the ~450-ft down to Piano Rock, then you’ll have to come back up the mountainside to continue south along the cliff base.
Piano Rock is a huge, fragmented boulder about 30-ft tall and is shaped like, you guessed it, a piano! Aside from the unique shape, it carries a notorious legacy behind it. The real “challenge” of Piano Rock is to somehow find a way to summit its vertical and smooth walls. Over the years, there have been several creative approaches to this problem including climbing a dead tree near it, building ladders with sketchy wood slabs on trees that are no longer standing, throwing a rope over the entire structure and climbing it, and even hauling a single piece, homemade ladder all the way down there! As for me, I have free climbed it and rappelled off with friends. If you have the extra time, it’s worth checking out.
Return to the cliff base by backtracking on the Piano North Trail for about 450-ft. I’ll be honest here, there are no real secrets on how to proceed. The goal is to head south, and it is best done by staying as close to the wall as you can while taking the path of least resistance. There will be some moments where you’ll pick up a faint climbers’ path, but they quickly fade out and you won’t find any south of the climbers’ gully. What worked for me may not be the same perceived path of least resistance for you. Just remember to stay under and near the wall while following it until you can curve the southern end, then head east until you reach the MST.
In ~100-ft heading south on the cliff base, you’ll come to Sleeping Beauty Cave. From the outside it looks like a triangle with two entrances, as it appears a boulder has fallen from the roof resulting in the “separated” look of the entrance. Oh, and the entrance is also covered in a patch of briers. The cave itself goes back maybe 30-ft and features some more fallen boulders.
Continue to head south, following the path of least resistance. You’ll pass under formation after formation after formation during this stretch of the cliff base. Very shortly after Sleeping Beauty Cave, you’ll come to a significantly large overhang. You can tell that a chunk of the cliff had broken off creating the super smooth and flat structure. I think this particular break is where Piano Rock originated. It has the same shape, it’s right above where the rock is now, and even the same smooth rock is exposed on the overhang.
Shortly beyond passing the formation pictured above, you’ll reach my favorite part of the SOCB. This section is where three iconic features of Shortoff come together. You’ll begin by coming up on a massive separation from the cliff wall – that is none other than the legendary Knight Fantastic. It is a monolithic, imposing structure that towers above you and forms a separation crack that you’ll need to scramble through to continue.
The Knight Fantastic is my favorite feature on Shortoff. The structure is wildly formed and the way it revels itself to you on the approach is sure to leave you feeling humbled.
Continue to head south, following the path of least resistance. In ~100-ft you’ll begin to scramble up beside a “knob” like feature on the cliff wall. This formation also separates from the cliff wall, about 100′ above you. That is known as the Serpentine Crack, with The Balcony resting upon it. If you were approaching from the top, you could access it by entering the Crack of Doom, scrambling along a thin ledge above the Floorless Cave, then stemming down two ledges about 8-10ft to where the Serpentine Crack is and squeezing through that to reach The Balcony – but I’ll save all that for another trip report!
Head south and begin to “curve” around the base of this feature towards the east. As you do that, you should start to see a tall back wall emerge, with a another massive fissure separation on the northern end of it. That’s the base of the Crack of Doom. To enter, you’ll need to scramble up towards it over a pile of chipped/fallen rock debris. Be careful, these rocks are not stable and will slide out from under you/ tumble back as you push off them. I recommend going up this part with ample space between you and the person in front/behind you to avoid kicking rocks at each other.
The Crack of Doom is massive, coming in around 300′ tall and only 8′ wide at points. You unfortunately cannot see through the entire thing by looking up or down into it – it’s just THAT big! In the back of the crack, smaller boulder debris piles up haphazardly spanning the entire height of the fissure!
Once done at the Crack of Doom, scramble down the boulder debris and continue heading south – still following the path of least resistance. In ~100 yards, you’ll begin to reach the Boulder Garden. This area is a dense boulder field with car sized (and honestly bigger) rocks that have fragmented off the main cliff wall. It also has caves, both large and small hidden in the labyrinth of debris. In here, one can also find the Rock that Blots out the Sun.
Navigating this stretch can be a bit tricky. You will need to find your way through the boulder field because if you stay directly against the wall at this section, you’ll reach a dead end and “cliff” out. I think every time I’ve passed through this area, I’ve done it differently each time.
After making your way through the Boulder Garden, you’ll be less than 1/10 of a mile from where the Climbers’ Descent Gully meets the cliff base. One could use this as an exit by scrambling up through the gully until they reach the upper trail on Shortoff, and then hike that back down to Wolf Pit.
By and large the next 0.4 miles is just fighting your way along the cliff wall, passing many features. I find the southern half to be less productive as the northern half, but it’s all worth seeing. There aren’t many “problems” from here on out, so remain on your path of least resistance.
In about 0.4 miles, you’ll begin to make your way around the southern flank of the cliff base. Whenever you see an opportunity to start heading east, go for it.
As you make your way east, the MST runs up the spine of Shortoff back up to the summit. No matter how you approach it, you’ll hit the trail at some point. I generally tend to land on it right about the 2250′ elevation mark.
To complete the loop back to Wolf Pit, head north on the MST. If you landed on it around the 2200′ mark, then you’ll want to proceed for ~325-ft and take a right onto the Rick’s Crossover social trail, which begins just before the 2300′ elevation mark. This trail runs for about 0.2 miles and connects directly back to the Wolf Pit Trail, saving 300′ worth of an elevation climb just to come right back down. Once you’re back on the Wolf Pit Trail, follow it back down to the parking – about 0.5 miles from the junction.
Unfortunately, I recently lost all my GPS data from the Linville Gorge and can not provide a track until I revisit this adventure.