Daffodil Flats Hike in Linville Gorge: An epic wildflower hike in NC

Spring in the Carolina mountains brings wildflowers galore. The earliest poppies bloom in Green River Gamelands in early March. In April, you start seeing mountain laurels at low elevations. And by June dramatic pink rhododendron blooms envelope the 6,000-foot peaks. There are hundreds of wildflower hikes in the area around Asheville, but the Daffodil Flats hike in Linville Gorge tops the list.

Linville Gorge is in the Blue Ridge Mountains foothills, near Nebo, NC. Its low elevation means spring comes early. At the bottom of the gorge, a huge wild daffodil field blooms around the first or second week of March.

The Daffodil Flats hike is popular — but it is not for the faint of heart. In fact, this perhaps the most difficult short hike in Western North Carolina. But you’ll be rewarded with epic views of the gorge, an atmospheric stroll along a rushing river, and a drive along one of the most scenic “highways” in the country. And that’s all before you even get to the flowers!

In this post, I’ll walk you through everything you need to prepare for your Linville Gorge hikes to the daffodils. I’ll include all my local tips to help you determine if you should attempt this hike at all — and how to stay safe if you do.

Note: This post may contain affiliate links. If you decide to purchase through these links, I receive a percentage of the sale at no additional cost to you.

Should you attempt the Daffodil Flats hike?

The Daffodil Flats hike is one of the hardest short trails in WNC.
Don’t even think about heading out on a Daffodil Flats hike without a Linville Gorge trail map.

If you’re planning to hike to Daffodil Flats, the first thing to ask yourself is whether you should attempt this hike at all.

Linville Gorge is one of the most challenging, rugged, remote hiking areas east of the Mississippi. Not only is it considered the “Grand Canyon of the East” — it’s also a federal wilderness area, meaning none of the trails are marked or maintained.

The daffodils are at the bottom of the gorge. Any hike to see them involves dropping about 2,500 feet on your way in, and climbing that distance in under two miles on your way out. The comparison to the Grand Canyon is apt, but the trails in the Gorge are actually steeper and more difficult. One way to think about it is a mile in the Gorge feels like two miles anywhere else in the Carolina mountains in terms of exertion and speed. The shortest, easiest route to Daffodil Flats is 5 miles round-trip, but it’ll feel like 10 miles.

On top of that, the “not marked or maintained” aspect needs serious consideration. There is one fairly easy-to-follow trail to the daffodils. But there are alternative routes that are completely unmarked and extremely eroded. If you attempt these routes, you’ll encounter blow-downs (trees crossing the trail), heavy erosion, impossibly steep sections that require hands-and-knees climbing and butt-sliding descents, and you will almost certainly get lost.

There are no comprehensive paper or online maps of the Gorge. You need extremely good navigation skills to do this hike.

I don’t normally spend this much space in hiking posts discouraging people from hiking, but Linville Gorge really is dangerous unless you’re a very experienced and fit hiker. Rescues in the Gorge skyrocket during daffodil season. If you do end up needing a rescue, you’ll likely end up stranded overnight — when temperatures drop into the 20’s Fahrenheit in March — before the team can get to you. And remember that rescues put the volunteer Burke County SAR team at risk too.

If Daffodil Flats isn’t for you, that’s okay! There are tons of other amazing and much safer places to see wildflowers on many easy hikes near Asheville.

Can your car handle Linville Gorge?

Linville Gorge hiking isn't even the hardest part -- the road is in horrible shape.
The daffodils are beautiful, but before you consider a Linville Gorge hiking adventure, think about whether you want to drive 5 miles down steep, unmaintained gravel.

In addition to the rugged trails, we can’t talk about Linville without talking about Old NC 105 — often marked as Kistler Memorial Highway on road maps. But a highway this is not. The only road to access most of the trailheads to the daffodils is a steep, muddy, pot-holed, bumpy, eroded dirt-and-gravel road.

If you are not an experienced backcountry driver, it is not safe to attempt this road in a low-clearance car. And even if you are an experienced backcountry driver with a 4wd, high-clearance vehicle, steer clear after rains. There is no cell service along the road so if you get stuck, you’ll be really stuck.

In a low-clearance car, your best bet is to come up via Lake James. You’ll hop on Old NC 105 at the south end, where it’s 3 miles to the Mountains-to-Sea trailhead or 5 miles to the Pinchin trailhead. The first three miles are pretty ok in dry weather for a low-clearance car. There are two very steep sections and the whole thing is quite bumpy, but you won’t bottom out if you go 15 mph and swerve around the potholes, and you won’t get stuck on the climbs.

The two miles between the MTS trailhead and Pinchin are rougher. They aren’t overly steep, but they’re much bumpier. You’ll need to exercise extreme caution in a small car. Even some of my friends who did this stretch in a Wrangler worried about beating up their cars a bit.

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The alternative route to the trailheads is via Linville Falls, but this requires an 8- to 10-mile drive on the roughest stretch of Kistler Memorial Highway. I made it — barely — in my low-clearance car after it hadn’t rained for 10 days. There are 4 sections where you have to climb up bumpy stretches that will scrape the bottom of your car, and where you can’t see over the crest of the hill and immediately drop into big holes. The views of the Gorge are unbelievable, but I can’t recommend this drive for anyone who doesn’t regularly drive gravel on steep mountain roads. Under absolutely no circumstances should you attempt it with 2wd and less than 8 inches of clearance if there’s even the slightest risk of mud or ice.

There is one way to avoid the Kistler Memorial Highway altogether on the Daffodil Flats hike — but it requires a much more difficult trail. You can park at the Wolf Pit trailhead on the east side of the Gorge (below Shortoff Mountain). This still requires a 3-mile drive on gravel, but it’s a state-maintained, residential road so it’s in much better shape. The problem is you’re in for a long (at least 12 mile) round-trip hike to the flowers, with two chest-deep river crossings in fast-moving water.

The Pinchin Trail: The best and easiest route to hike to Daffodil Flats

The Pinchin Trail is the easiest route to the daffodils.
Views of Hawksbill, Table Rock and the Chimneys from Pinchin.

The vast majority of hikers visiting Daffodil Flats use the Pinchin Trail. This is the shortest, easiest-to-follow, and generally easiest route.

To be clear, this trail is by no means easy. In fact, it’s one of the steepest hikes on the East Coast of the U.S. But it’s doable by moderately experienced hikers with good knees, trekking poles, plenty of water, and good boots.

This hike starts from the Pinchin trailhead, 5 miles north of the southern terminus of Old NC 105. The parking area has space for about a dozen cars. If it’s full, you can park along the road as long as you leave space for cars to pass.

The trailhead is clearly marked with several signs. You’ll start with a steep, gravelly descent with incredible views of the Gorge. If you have a dog with you, be really careful in this section, since a dog pulling on the leash would be quite dangerous.

The drop down to the Gorge is about 1,200 feet in the first 3/4 of a mile. In a few places you may need to butt-slide if it’s muddy. It levels out a bit for the final 800 feet to the bottom.

Once you reach the river, you’ll take a right on the unmarked but clearly visible Linville River Trail. From here it’s a mostly-flat 2 miles to Daffodil Flats. The turnoff is very obvious, and the daffodils are visible from the trail.

The reason this hike is so brutal is because of the return trip, which retraces your steps back to the parking area. You’ll need to climb over 1,000 feet in less than a mile on the way back up Pinchin. The only advice I can offer here is take it slow and bring a lot of water.

The good news about Pinchin is you know exactly what you’re in for on the way down. If you start to think you won’t be able to make it back up, you can always turn around. Yes, it’s disappointing to not see the flowers, but safety comes first.

Hike Details:

  • Length: 5 miles
  • Elevation Gain: About 2,200 feet
  • Time (without long breaks): Five hours
  • Difficulty: Difficult — this will feel like a push for most fit hikers
  • Navigation: Both Pinchin and the Linville River Trail are easy to follow. This is the only hike in the Gorge that’s safe to take on without advanced navigation skills.
  • Other tips: You’ll be completely exposed in the sun the whole time. Start early or late and pack sunscreen.

Mountains-to-Sea to Leadmine to Linville River Trail

The Pinnacle Trail in Linville Gorge has 360-degree views.
The first landmark you’ll pass on the MTS route is Pinnacle, a rock outcropping with panoramic views.

If you want a longer, more challenging, but less crowded Daffodil Flats hike, or if your car isn’t suited for gravel roads, this 6-mile route is a good option. You need good navigation skills and Alltrails or Avenza for this one.

The hike starts from a small parking area on Old NC 105, three miles from where the road turns to gravel. This is the easiest drive on Kistler Memorial Highway, and low-clearance cars should make it in dry weather. The parking area has space for about 5 cars. It’s labeled “Pinnacle” on most maps. If you’re searching Google Maps, be aware that there are many Pinnacles in WNC, so verify that you’ve got the one in Linville.

The Mountains to Sea Trail heads up to Pinnacle, a 360-degree overlook with views of Lake James and Table Rock. Then in drops steeply for about a mile. The trail is white-blazed.

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Look very closely for a tree at about the 1.3-mile mark with two white dots on it — the sign of a MTS intersection. The Mountains to Sea Trail continues to your right. Two unmarked, unmaintained manways are on your left. The first, easier-to-spot one looks like it heads up slightly — don’t take this. The second one is harder to see but it’s a hard-left turn through the green tunnel. That’s the Leadmine Trail.

Leadmine is a completely unmaintained trail. I wouldn’t recommend this route for anyone without advanced navigation skills and comfort bushwhacking. The route runs about a mile, but it drops into and out of five drainages along the way. So you’ll have to deal with five extremely steep drops followed by extremely steep climbs. Meanwhile you can virtually never tell exactly where the trail is. I counted 14 blowdowns — some of which were in dangerous sections to climb over — and a whole quarter-mile section was so eroded that I had to pack away my trekking poles to grip the roots on the hillside next to me to avoid sliding all the way down into a ditch. It likely would be impassable after rain. In total you’ll lose about 1,000 feet of elevation, with a laughably steep final quarter mile, and you’ll encounter three confusing and unmarked intersections.

Eventually Leadmine drops out onto the Linville River Trail at a couple of campsites. The intersection is not marked but it’s fairly obvious. Take a left and walk a flat mile to the daffodils.

This is another hike where the way out is rough — except unlike Pinchin, it’s hard to gauge just how tough on the way down. The climb back up Leadmine is much harder than it looked when you were coming down. There are several confusing intersections that you can’t see on the way in, so even if you think it’ll be easy to retrace your steps, you have a decent chance of getting turned around.

Hike Details:

  • Length: 6 miles
  • Elevation Gain: About 2,300 feet
  • Time (without long breaks): Six-seven hours
  • Difficulty: Extremely difficult. Only very experienced hikers should attempt this route.
  • Navigation: MTS is white-blazed and the Linville River Trail is easy to follow, but Leadmine is a navigation challenge.
  • Other tips: Good news — this hike will be much easier next year! Local volunteer groups are building out a more official Leadmine Trail.
  • Update July 2021: The New Leadmine is now open! And it’s on Avenza! So there’s good news and bad news. The good news: the new trail allows you to avoid the brutal climb up from the riverbed. (Yay, no more climbing 500 feet of straight vertical up only to slide and tumble halfway back down in the mud!) The bad news: It does not reroute from the absurdly eroded drainage crossings. (So, ok, maybe you just tumble down in the mud at a different spot instead.) I’d still bring weight-bearing rope for this route in case you need to anchor yourself at one of the particularly nasty drainages. (I’m looking at you, massive, twiggy blowdown blocking the only viable path on the vertical slope 1,000 feet above the Gorge.)

Unnamed to Linville River Trail

Unnamed Trail is not a good option unless you know Linville really well.
Unnamed is the shortest route to the daffodils – but it’s one of the hardest.

In between the Mountains to Sea Trailhead and Pinchin Trailhead on Old NC 105, there’s a route down to the Gorge on an unmaintained manway. Locals call this “Unnamed.” It makes for a shorter alternative to the Mountains-to-Sea route for experienced off-trail navigators.

If you want to attempt this route, you’ll need to use the Avenza map to figure out where the trailhead is and how to get down to the Gorge. (It’s 0.6 miles past MTS but not at an obvious parking area.) It’s one of those “only know about it by word-of-mouth” things, so I can’t even link you to a map. If you’re interested in taking this route, you’ll need to do some research in the Linville Gorge Facebook group.

Unnamed is easier than Leadmine/MTS but harder than Pinchin. This trail isn’t on Alltrails — not as a searchable trail, and not as a marked trail on the local map. I seriously cannot emphasize enough how important it is to have good navigation skills if you’re even considering this route. You have virtually no chance of finding it if you haven’t done research in advance.

If you want to try Unnamed, your best bet is to descend from Old NC 105, go to the Daffodil Flats, then go up either Pinchin or MTS and road-walk or hitch a ride back to your car. The climb up Unnamed is ridiculous — steeper than Pinchin or MTS/Leadmine but more eroded and unmaintained.

In short, if you’re a casual visitor to WNC, don’t take Unnamed.

Hike Details:

  • Length: 5 miles
  • Elevation Gain: About 2,000 feet
  • Time (without long breaks): Six-seven hours
  • Difficulty: Extremely difficult. Only very experienced hikers should attempt this route.
  • Navigation: This trail is only known through word-of-mouth. You won’t find it on maps and identifying the trailhead is nearly impossible. It’s unmaintained and unmarked. Only attempt if you’re comfortable with the likelihood of getting lost.
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Wolf Pit to Mountains to Sea to Leadmine to Linville River

Sunrise over Lake James from Shortoff Mountain in Linville Gorge
Starting from Wolf Pit, you’ll get epic views of Lake James on the way up Shortoff Mountain.

This is the Big Daffodil Flats Hike. The one that extreme hikers looking for an all-day or overnight challenge will want to take on. It covers the best of Linville Gorge in an epic 12+-mile adventure.

The trail starts from the Wolf Pit Parking Area. The parking lot has very little space, so arrive early. You’ll start by climbing the Wolf Pit Trail — it’s not marked but it’s the only visible trail. After about 0.5 mile you’ll come to an intersection with the Mountains to Sea, which goes to your left down into the Gorge. Take that turnoff.

After another mile, you’ll come to the most formidable challenge of hiking in Linville Gorge Wilderness: A wide, swift, deep river crossing. This crossing should not be attempted after heavy rains — even in relatively dry conditions, it can be chest-deep. There is no bridge or cable so make sure you have a dry pack for your camera/phone.

Once you cross the river, you’ll have to climb about half a mile to the intersection with Leadmine. Then, follow the directions under that trail description. (Leadmine will be a right turn in this direction and it’s hard to spot — the intersection isn’t marked coming from the river.)

On your way back, after crossing the river and reaching the intersection with Wolf Pit, it’s worth climbing Shortoff Mountain. Take a left at the signed intersection and follow it up a steep and exposed two miles. Once you reach the top of the Gorge, you can continue along this flat section for up to four miles — it’s one of the best backpacking trips in WNC. (You need a free permit on weekends from May-October.)

The biggest advantages of this route are that you get to explore both sides of the Gorge, and navigation is easier. But it’s a long, steep, exposed trail and the river crossings are not suitable for beginners. If you can’t hike 20+ miles elsewhere in the Carolina mountains, and if you’ve never done a chest-deep river crossing, I wouldn’t recommend attempting this route.

Hike Details:

  • Length: 12+ miles, depending on how far you go up Shortoff Mountain
  • Elevation Gain: About 3,000 feet
  • Time (without long breaks): This would be better as an overnight, but plan for a 12+-hour day if day-hiking it.
  • Difficulty: Extremely difficult. Only very experienced hikers who are comfortable with big river crossings should attempt this route.
  • Navigation: Mountains-to-Sea is clearly marked the whole way. See the Leadmine route for a description of those navigation challenges.

A few final thoughts about the Daffodil Flats hike in Linville Gorge

Linville Falls is a great stop on your way back from Daffodil Flats.
Don’t miss Linville Falls while you’re hiking in the Gorge.
  • Daffodil Flats gets insanely crowded on weekends. Go on a weekday and arrive at the trailhead by 7 am or after 3 pm if you want the flowers to yourself.
  • The flowers start to bloom in late February after warm winters, or early March in rougher years. March 8-10 is typically the peak.
  • I saw people doing the Pinchin trail with their dogs, but I’d be nervous about taking pets on any of these trails. All it takes is a dog pulling a little too hard on a leash for you to get hurt out here. And your dog has to be a pretty good hiker to handle that climb out of the Gorge. (I saw hounds and huskies struggling with it.)
  • None of the Daffodil Flats hiking routes are suitable for children below teenage years.
  • Bring lots of snacks and a headlamp.
  • If you’re feeling really crazy, and you know you can handle the distance, try my route: I went down MTS-Leadmine, up Pinchin, and then turned around and did the whole thing again. It was more elevation and distance than hiking into and out of the Grand Canyon in a day.
  • Another long hike option is to go down Pinchin, over to the flats, backtrack along Linville River, and up Jock Rock. You’ll have to road-walk a dusty mile back to your car, and the total distance is about 15 miles.
  • After you visit the daffodils, stop by Linville Falls — one of the best waterfall hikes near Asheville. Don’t worry, the trails are much easier than in the Gorge.
  • The Gorge has loads of additional hiking adventures for intrepid travelers. One of my favorite hikes in the world is Shortoff to Table Rock – a 16-mile round-trip journey that covers most of the east rim of the Gorge. It is not easy — it’s one of the hardest hikes I’ve ever done — but WOW are the views good.

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One of the best wildflower hikes in North Carolina is Daffodil Flats in Linville Gorge. This difficult hike near Asheville and Boone, NC takes you to a river on steep trails with great views. It's not a family-friendly hiking trip, but intrepid adventure seekers will love it.

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Jamie Sharpe
1 year ago

So cool! I always end up spending too much time in Raleigh Durham so this is a great reminder to get out there!

Josy A
1 year ago

This looks incredible, but woooza! That is a lot of elevation gain for the way home when you are already a bit tired! At least it is short, so you know you can manage it, even when you’re legs get tired!

p.s. Calling this both the Grand Canyon of the East and “flats” seems mad! The Daffodil flats name could be quite misleading! 😀

Krista
1 year ago

This looks like such a pretty place to go on a hike in the springtime with all of the flowers in full bloom!

Ashlee Fechino
1 year ago

Someone was just telling me about this hike! So glad to see your post today. Thanks for the great share.

Maggie
1 year ago

This really does sound epic, between the falls and the terrible roads and those beautiful daffodils! I’d love to check this out next time I’m down that way!

Elena Pappalardo
1 year ago

Oh, how pretty! Would love to hike here and see these beautiful flowers. Thanks for the inspiration.

Aireona
Aireona
1 year ago

I never really envisioned NC as being so wild (I’m from the Southwest myself), but I am delighted to see how much wilderness there is there. Looks like such an amazing hike and those are some of my favorite flowers! We have a similar species here.

Rachel - Rays of Adventure

Such beautiful photos! This looks like such a lovely hike, I love seeing daffodils and the views look amazing. Thanks for sharing!

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