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The Sphinx – Linville Gorge Wilderness, NC

The Sphinx, a titan of the gorge, draws an undeniable appeal to it that few formations can compare to. This sentient structure looms over the mighty Linville River at a staggering 200+ ft! Often hailed as the tallest free standing rock within the wilderness, the off-trail journey to this iconic and isolated landmark is nothing short of a treacherous scramble across one of the most rugged and unforgiving sections in all of Linville Gorge!

The Sphinx’s south profile, taken from the Icebergs as approached from the Amphitheater Canyon. Featuring friends Jared, Wilton, and Jordyn on the summit.

It generally remains unknown where the name “Sphinx” originated from, but it’s historically known as Mashburn’s Pinnacle – dubbed after Dave Mashburn, an early 1960’s climber and Outward Bound instructor. Rumor has it that he would hike in a chair to the summit and wait for his students to meet him up there. But that’s just hearsay. Currently most maps and people more commonly refer to it as Sphinx.

The Sphinx, as approached from the Lower NC Wall.

There’s something about this rock that has truly captivated me. I can’t quite articulate the energy and connection I’ve felt with it, but I can say it’s fitting that the hike in is filled with complicated challenges. From the majority of vantage points within the gorge, the Sphinx can be seen. It teases you from a distance, calling to all who spot it with the grace of a siren. Naturally, something this beautiful and majestic will make you work for its presence.

Click on the gallery below to zoom in on the Sphinx from various angles around the gorge.

There are several ways to approach this beast. All of them are challenging; which way is the best or easiest simply depends on who you ask. I’ve approached it from three ways – the north, the south, and from the river below. Some may possess a map that shows two trails called “Sphinx North” and “Sphinx South”, but they are more routes than anything else. At points, there are resemblances of small foot paths but it’s essentially non-existent. I think which way I would approach it on any given trip just depends on what else I planned on doing – if I was backpacking or simply hiking for the day, if I’m bringing people who haven’t been yet, how masochistic I am feeling, etc. The way I’m going to describe here was explained to me as the “traditional” loop, and I think that this route offers the most to see/play on.

Before thinking of taking on something like this, I highly encourage everyone to honestly access their physical abilities. To only say this is strenuous would be severely understating how complicated, challenging, and life-threateningly dangerous it could potentially be. To many, the effort isn’t worth it. You’ll have to want this one and be on a constant high alert the entire trip. The approach is exposed – you could literally fall off a shelf at any innocent slip. It’s also weather harsh and often super heats from the direct sunlight. To top it off, there’s no water. The terrain is rugged and precarious. Only lovers of off trail exploration with advanced rock scrambling experience/confidence should take this on. Oh, I should probably mention that an experienced Gorge Rat named Jeremy fell 300-ft on this approach from strong wind gusts. Thankfully he survived the fall and was air lifted out. With perseverance, he has since recovered from the accident. Almost two years to the day, he has even made a successful return trip to the Sphinx – like a true warrior!

With the disclaimers out of the way, the short version of the hike is: TR parking lot, south on MST, pass through The Chimneys, west on a Apricot/Camel social spur trail, south on a social connector spur trail to the NC Wall, then the Mossy Monster and Separation Crack descent, and finally ride south on a Lower NC Wall traverse until reaching the Sphinx. Sounds simple, right?

Here we go! From Table Rock parking lot, head south on the MST. You’ll start off by passing through the popular picnic area and group camp grounds. It’s a great staging campsite area to allow multiple adventures to various spots without having to hike all the unnecessary gear of camping in between. A lot of climbers use this area for that reason and I’ve had some fantastic camp outs there over the years. In just under 0.5 miles, you’ll reach the first major outcropping facing west inside the gorge – Kodachrome Pt! This is basically where the big views and fun begins.

In another 0.1 miles, you’ll pass through the ever popular Chimneys. Few places in the gorge have the full 360 degree panoramic views that the Chimneys offer, while also being tastefully topped off with a rock scramblers’ playground! As per protocol, I always stop for some obligatory photos and climbing!

Friend and actress Eva living it up at The Chimneys!

In about another 0.1 miles, you’ll reach the end of the Chimneys as the MST curves around base of the last rock. On your right you’ll come to a social spur trail that will lead down to the Twin Towers and Catbriar Point. If you have never been, it might be worth it if you have the time and energy to add another quarter mile to your trip.

Twin Towers

A few dozen feet past the first spur trail, you’ll come to a second social spur trail on your right. That’s the one you want to take, as it leads you west for 0.1 miles down to the Camel Overlook and Apricot Buttress. The Camel is another favorite sight of mine in the gorge, and Apricot is a popular spot for the highliners to session. If you happen to see them on your trip, they’re great and friendly people who love striking up conversation!

The Camel during early fall, facing north.
Highliners set up across the gorge between Apricot Buttress.

After soaking in those amazing views, back track the spur trail east towards the MST very briefly for about 100-ft. You’ll be looking for yet another social spur trail that splits off on your right (to the south) where the cliff line starts to meet the forest again. It’ll be faint but fairly easy to spot when walking up trail. It’ll take you south on top of the cliff past the Apricot Buttress South viewpoint and in 0.1 miles you’ll come to a set of defined rock outcroppings.

The second outcropping offers an incredible view of Mossy Monster – staring straight through the Separation Crack and down the Lower NC Wall right to the Sphinx! It’s wild to see the entire rest of the journey right there in front of you.. looks so close but yet it’s so far away. The surrealism of the gorge is something I’ll always struggle to grasp. Enjoy this moment, because everything from here on out will be a miserably continuous, side-hill scramble through unrelenting briar patch after briar patch!

Staring through the Separation Crack and Mossy monster (right) to the Sphinx (background).

Next phase is to split from the spur trail at the gully then descend towards Mossy Monster, which is the last rock structure on your left as you’re going down. It’s going to look impossibly steep; and honestly, it’s really slippery here. I personally find this part to be one of the sketchiest of the whole trip and most will tie off a rope for aid. As you’re going down, you’ll hit a two part 15-ft rock wall that you’ll have to descend with some low flow water coming over it. You’re going to have to get wet a bit and find the path of least resistance for you. I’ve seen people go down either side so whatever works, will work. At the bottom of the small wall, there will be a faint path – and probably some water flowing down it. Continue to head obviously, but carefully, down until you can turn left (south) and enter the Separation Crack.

Friend Jared making his way towards Mossy Monster before reaching the rock wall.

Once inside the fissure, you’ll get a brief relief from the briars! This section always inspires awe in me. It appears as if the structure literally is separating off the main cliff face – which probably explains the name! It’s pretty obvious and straight forward from here until the Sphinx, but it’ll be time consuming and slow going.

After you pass through the crack, it’ll get dense again. You’ll be spit out at the Lower NC Wall – hailed as the tallest sheer vertical cliff in Linville Gorge! That rock wall is impressive, to say the least. Standing under something that towers over you in such a magnitude always leaves with me with goosebumps. The objective route from here-on-out is to hang close to the wall and use that as your guide to keep fighting your way down to the Sphinx.

After Separation Crack, you’ll emerge under the NC Wall.

After passing through a short boulder field, you’ll be back to fighting the briars and cliffs. Just keep working your way south under the NC Wall. In about a quarter mile from Mossy Monster, you’ll come to the infamous “tree climb”. You’ll know you’ve reached this point because the route eventually dead ends at a 10 ft rock wall. This is where Jeremy took his fall. What I do is climb the obvious crack between two boulders at the end of the wall. There are a few pine shrubs on top of the rocks to help make the climb. I find this way much easier and safer. Being between the two rocks will give you some cover from the exposure and provides several sturdy holds. Once you’re on top of the first 8-ft rock, the climbing part is essentially over. After this point, you’re in the home stretch.

Below is a photo highlighting the size of the NC Wall and just how rugged the traverse below it to the Sphinx is. (The Sphinx is near the bottom right corner.)

The NC Wall

I don’t have much more to say between the climb and arriving to the Sphinx. The briars are rough and it’ll be tough. Just keep chipping away at it, and be mindful that the steep terrain can be slippery at moment.

Jared resting at an outcropping just after the climb.

After you reach the Sphinx, approach it from the backside (reference the second in this post to see what it’ll look like). If looking west, towards its summit, you’ll see a 15-20ft wall in front of you. If you can’t just climb right up it, there is an easy section to start the climb on your left as the formation curves to the south. There’s a lone tree next to a small shelf a few feet off the ground, and it’s pretty straight forward how to ascend it. After that, head to the land-bridge that leans against the last wall leading up to the summit. This is the final climb, and from the land-bridge it’s only about 15-ft. Though if you slip off the wrong side here, it’ll be to your death. At the end of the land-bridge, there’s an obvious indentation for you to step into next. Right about chest level will be the most perfect rock jutting out – that’s your hand hold to help you pull up to the next indentation for stepping into. After that part, I reach over into the crack, on my left, where the next rock stack is. Once you make it to the crack, you’re essentially at the top and pass the exposed/dangerous part.

Me climbing the final wall after crossing the land-bridge on top right. I’m making my way towards the left where the wall meets another stack perpendicularly and creates a crack.

The summit of the Sphinx is beyond words for me. It is quite a journey to reach it, but to say it’s worth it is a severe understatement.

The views offer an unique perspective on the gorge that most vantage point can’t provide. For example, most view points that allow you to look inside are on the rims and top of the cliffs. But the Sphinx lies at around 2400′ elevation, which is mid way down the gorge’s depth. The elevation surrounds you with the rim walls, but also puts you in the vast expanse mid section of the gorge. The feeling of standing there is surreal. At times and in certain spots on the summit, it feels like you’re standing in the void of the view. It also give you a very “long” look into Linville Gorge, seeing as far north as Babel and Brushy Ridge – then as far south as Shortoff, Lake James, and the South Mountains!

Me on the summit at the spot where I performed the handstand.
Photo by Jill Cash.
Eva on the summit facing south.

The first time I visited the Sphinx, I was solo and ended up camping on its summit. While time lapsing the sunset, I performed a handstand on the north facing cliff, which is one of my most memorable feats of mental strength to date. It’s also a yearly tradition for me to camp there now.

Handstand on the north facing cliff of the summit.

Below is a gallery of other photos from the summit, including a couple night shots from a full moon camp out. (Click to enlarge)

The bottom of the formation is just as impressive as its summit, and even fewer people have been there. On the north side of the Sphinx, there is a dried up gully that you can bushwhack down and it’ll will swing you under the massive structure. It’s very “roofy” under there and I absolutely love it! Just keep swinging around and under the overhang, then it’ll spit you back out on the south side and you can bushwhack up the (steep) side back to where you start the summit ascent climb. Below is a gallery of the formations under the Sphinx. (Click to enlarge).

The route out is far easier than the route in. Most people approach the Sphinx from the Amphitheater Canyon, but it’ll be the exit on this particular loop. If you looked south while on the summit, then you probably saw three big, fin-like rock formations just a little further away – littered with small boulders crumbling down the mountainside. Those formations are known as the Icebergs. Once off the summit and at the backside of the Sphinx, you’ll want to start bushwhacking towards the them while staying close to the Lower NC Wall again. To pass the Icebergs, you’ll need to go between the first and second formations (so between the most and second most eastern formations).

The Icebergs, as seen from Sphinx’s summit.

Once you pass through, you’ll most likely be able to pick up a consistent footpath onward to a small stream crossing, signaling the opening of the Amphitheater Canyon – the north wall of the mouth is known as The Prow and the south formation at the mouth is The Mummy and Daddy. From here, its only a 700-ft elevation gain in just over 0.10 miles. My advice – take as many breaks as needed!

At the mouth of the canyon, there is the option of continuing the bushwhack further south for another 0.10 miles to the a massive landslide created by Hurricane Florence in 2018. At the slide, there is another free standing cliff that my friend and I were the first to summit – then consequently named Thoth’s Throne for its proximity to the Sphinx and Moonshine Canyon. Directions to that amazing spot from here can be found at this link.

The mouth of the Amphitheater Canyon.

Using the photo above, you’ll want to start your canyon ascent on the river left side of the stream, aiming to get close to the Mummy wall. The initial few parts of the bushwhack will be scrambling over some big boulders but you should be able to pick up a full path once you make it closer to the wall. The Amphitheater has a maze of half unfinished, spur footpaths from climbers trying to find access to the popular formations and climbing routes. But nowadays, I can confidently say there is definitely a defined path that will take you top to bottom, but the most worn parts of it stay close to the south wall of the canyon and The Mummy. Once you reach the Mummy Gully, you’ll be about half way up the canyon. Work your way to the back (most eastern) wall, and then take a left – heading north towards the stream coming down, with the obvious social trail going up it on river right. This is the final steep ascent out of the canyon. It’s usually very muddy and eroded, but defined so take your time. Once on the top, you’ll be connected with the Amphitheater spur social trail. Take a right and go up trail (heading east) until you connect to the MST again. If you take a left, you can catch an amazing view of the Mummy and the canyon just shortly down trail (west).

There are so many great sights and adventures to be had around the Amp, but I’ll have to say that for another blog post!

View of the Mummy and Amphitheater Canyon from The Prow.

Once at the MST, rejoice! The worst is over and all that’s left is a casual stroll – heading north for just over a mile – back through the Chimneys ending at Table Rock parking lot!

Now, be sure to go properly nurse all your “gorge tats” from the unrelenting briar patches!

3 Responses to “The Sphinx – Linville Gorge Wilderness, NC”

  1. Todd D Bolgrin

    I enjoyed that. Great read. My wife and I have spent a lot of time in and around the gorge. I’ve always wanted to venture down to sphinx…do you know anyone that would serve as a guide?

  2. Darren

    Wow! What a great post. I was lead here from the North Carolina Hiking and Waterfalls group on FB. So glad i read this too. Your descriptions and photos are great! I so want to do this hike. For an average speed, Is the traditional route doable within a day?


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