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A hike in North Carolina's Linville Gorge Wilderness offers sweeping views, solitude

 Linville Gorge is sometimes called the Grand Canyon of the East.  It sprawls over 12,000 rugged acres on U.S. Forest Service land in western Tennessee, but ssome trails are accessible enough for a quick day hike.
Brian Mann
Linville Gorge is sometimes called the Grand Canyon of the East. It sprawls over 12,000 rugged acres on U.S. Forest Service land in western Tennessee, but ssome trails are accessible enough for a quick day hike.

I set off mid-afternoon into the Linville Gorge Wilderness near Morganton, North Carolina. Right from the trailhead I found dense groves of mountain laurel with bouquets of delicate pink flowers, as if the path were decorated for a wedding.

The sun was hot, the trail dusty and steep in places. Birds cartwheeled around me, flitting from trees to undergrowth, sometimes close enough to touch.

 Mountain laurel grows along the trail in the Linville Gorge Wilderness.
Brian Mann /
Mountain laurel grows along the trail in the Linville Gorge Wilderness.

I love escaping like this on a work day. When I travel on assignment, I'm always looking for a bit of wildness that can be reached without a lot of hassle or planning. Sometimes it’s as simple as a city park or a public garden.

One minute I'm at my desk on the job, tense and caffeinated. The next minute I'm breathing a little easier, smelling summer, feeling the touch of spiderwebs on my face as I walk.

 In the Linville Gorge, wildness is found in big sweeping vistas and in tiny details, buzzing bees, stands of flowers, and lots of stillness.
Brian Mann /
In the Linville Gorge, wildness is found in big sweeping vistas and in tiny details, buzzing bees, stands of flowers, and lots of stillness.

At first blush, places like the Linville Gorge can seem a little intimidating. The area is vast and rugged, sprawling over roughly 12,000 acres of U.S. Forest Preserve land.

On this day I hiked one of the easiest routes, with only a few steep stretches. It took me quickly into a high forest perched at the edge of the gorge that felt completely solitary.

From balconies of rock, I couldn't see any human structures. Horizon to horizon there was only wildness and sky and curtains of cliff that look like old castle walls.

 The Linville Gorge is framed by formations of rock that look in places like old castle walls.  In season, peregrine falcons next here.  The area offers some of the most popular hiking trails in the eastern U.S.
Brian Mann /
The Linville Gorge is framed by formations of rock that look like old castle walls. In season, peregrine falcons nest here. The area offers some of the most popular hiking trails in the eastern U.S.

There were little details too, close enough to touch. A trickle of bright cold water in a mountain stream, a black snake coiled in the sun, a Luna moth peeling itself from a cocoon.

When I stopped to catch my breath, I realized there were bees everywhere, foraging eagerly in the mountain laurel.

 A Luna moth emerges from its cocoon on an early summer day in North Carolina.
Brian Mann /
A Luna moth emerges from its cocoon on an early summer day in North Carolina.

It was getting on toward evening when I turned back. The light was golden. As I trekked down, it was silent enough that I could hear the wind in the trees and the cheerful ruckus of Carolina chickadees flocking over the mountain.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Some of the best hikes are the ones that take you to overlooks like this, in Burke County, North Carolina, without lots of effort or time.
Brian Mann /
Some of the best hikes are the ones that take you to overlooks like this, in Burke County, North Carolina, without lots of effort or time.

Corrected: June 15, 2024 at 11:17 AM EDT
A previous caption in this story said Linville Gorge is in western Tennessee. It is in western North Carolina.
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.