Springs green color climbs up the Nolichucky Gorge.Photograph/JohnnyMolloy
Just above Erwin, the Nolichucky River departs a deep gorge, where it cuts through the main Appalachian mountain chain dividing North Carolina and Tennessee. The gorge is an imposing affair, a true chasm, a place where the river slashes through rock, caroming off boulders and racing westward. These days a railroad line runs along the river, looking oddly out of place in this mountain majesty.
From the state line near Erwin, you can venture into the rim of the Nolichucky River Gorge on the well-named Shinbone Trail, where hikers soak in a spectacular view of the Nolichucky — a whitewater rafting locale — and the ridges rising above it. From there, pass an isolated mountain stream, then work back up to the trailhead. The entire hike is on double track trail, making the footing easy. Elevation changes are not excessive, either and range from 3,590 feet at trailhead to 2,650 feet at low point.
To begin the Shinbone Trail, immediately pass around a pole gate on a doubletrack roadbed. This trail is wide to allow Pisgah National Forest vehicles access and maintain the many grassy wildlife clearings along this route. At first, the route follows the old Ephriam Place Road, a wagon path used to access a former highland homestead. Gently rise until .6 mile, then drift downward. The path roughly parallels the state line ridge, staying on the North Carolina side. Soon meet your first wildlife clearing. These manmade meadows enhance opportunities for wildlife and add another scene to the mountainscape.
The trail then curves around the headwaters of Shinbone Creek, crossing small tributaries by culvert. This is as close as you will get to Shinbone Creek. From here, turn south and reach a second life clearing at 1.2 miles. Stay with the main doubletrack when passing through these clearings. The walking is easy as you cruise around the 3,500-foot level.
Reach the loop portion of this hike at 1.9 miles. Here, your return route leaves right and uphill, passing between a pair of iron gateposts. Stay left, heading downhill among pines and hardwoods, still on doubletrack, making a clockwise circuit. Begin a steady descent. At 2.4 miles, the trail turns easterly and a clear view of Roan Mountain opens ahead. Note its dark evergreen crown. At 2.7 miles, the trail curves around rib ridge. Here, if you stop and listen, the roar of the Nolichucky River can be heard 1,400 feet below. The Shinbone Trail then turns left and crosses a significant but nameless tributary of the Nolichucky at 2.8 miles. Continue the downgrade, making a sharp switchback to the right at 3.3 miles. The path circles the outside of a large wildlife clearing at 3.5 miles. Turn southeast. The sharp slope of Flattop Mountain rises across the Nolichucky gorge.
Reach the rim of the Nolichucky after rounding a knob. Here, the Shinbone Trail turns west, roughly paralleling the river far below. Cross a small stream at 4.2 miles, then open onto a meadow. Pass another branch at 4.7 miles, then turn back to the gorge. Pine and other trees cling to the steep slope falling below. Pass through a wildlife clearing at 5.1 miles.
At 5.2 miles, reach a trail split. Here, a path goes forward to another wildlife clearing, while the main trail turns right and downhill. Stay left here, soon entering the clearing. Stay on the left- hand side of the meadow and at 5.3 miles, look left for a footpath dropping left to soon reach a rock outcrop and view of the Nolichucky Gorge. Here, the chasm falls below and the river and its rapids are easily visible. Across the way rises Flattop Mountain, with its scattered scree slopes, rock outcrops and rich forests. Upstream, the Noli’ has made a bend, leaving Poplar, North Carolina, while downstream, the river curves beyond view to flow by Lost Cove before plowing through the state line ridge, entering Tennessee in a froth of whitewater.
The CSX Railroad line mimics the curves of the river, and if you sit a spell, a train — appearing as diminutive as a toy — will chug by. During the warm season, whitewater rafters will be plying their trade through the cataracts deep inside the constricted defile. What a spot!
From the view, backtrack through the clearing and resume the loop. At 5.9 miles, reach your low point. Turn into a steeply cut raucous stream, alternately tumbling in white noise then stilling in clear pools. Cross the stream by culvert, then push back out to the gorge, curving right, through another wildlife clearing. The Shinbone Trail gently rises, and makes a huge switchback around a piney point at 7.2 miles.
The climbing continues. Then, at 8.2 miles, open onto a wildlife clearing. Here, the steep climb ceases. A small copse of pines at the head of the clearing provides a good resting spot. Congratulations, you just climbed 600 feet in .7 mile. The walking is easy from here. At 8.6 miles, complete the loop portion of the hike. Backtrack 1.9 miles to complete the hike.
To get there from Exit 36, Main Street/Erwin, on I-26 near Erwin, take the access road leading to TN 107/Main Street and a traffic light. From the traffic light, turn right and join TN 107 west/Main Street for .4 mile to TN 395/Rock Creek Road. Turn left on TN 395 east and follow it 6.2 miles to the Tennessee/North Carolina line and Indian Grave Gap. Here, turn right on Forest Road 5583, Ephriam Place Road. Follow it .9 mile to a road split. Here, a primitive private road leads right and uphill, while the gated forest road going left is the Shinbone Trail. Park there.