Mount Mitchell State Park: Up, Up & Away

You begin to wonder whether you’ll ever make it to the top.

The drive up Mount Mitchell—the highest peak east of the Mississippi River at 6,684 feet—is a slow string of twists and curves that gradually climb up, up, up.

Established in 1916, Mount Mitchell is the oldest state park in North Carolina. Its main entrance lies at mile marker 355 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, about 35 miles northeast of Asheville.

Up, up, and away to Mount Mitchell State Park, North Carolina. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Up, up, and away to Mount Mitchell State Park, North Carolina. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When you reach the visitor center, two more miles will take you to the summit parking lot. A quarter-mile paved walkway leads to the summit observation platform. Up there, your shoulders drop. Tension and stress disappear in the vast 360-degree views. The landscape stretching far and wide—the mountains in folds beneath your feet, dark with spruce-fir forests.

It feels as if you can see all of North Carolina. Of course, you can only see 100 miles or so on the most clear of days, but the view is dramatic in any case. Familiar reference points, such as Grandfather Mountain to the northeast, can help you find your bearings.

Add to that nearly 40 miles of hiking trails, entry to the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, and four other peaks above 6,300 feet inside the park and you come up with a lofty park, challenging hikes, and a must-see summit.

The weather can be dramatic and unpredictable. Ever-changing, you can be completely fogged in, and 15 minutes later, it’s clear.

Mount Mitchell’s dramatic summit is the highest point east of the Mississippi at 6,684 feet and was inspiration for one of the nation’s first state parks. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount Mitchell’s dramatic summit is the highest point east of the Mississippi at 6,684 feet and was inspiration for one of the nation’s first state parks. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This past January, Mount Mitchell received a record-setting 66 inches of snow in a single storm. Then an unseasonably warm spring led to picturesque days as early as mid-March. Because of the unpredictable weather, visitors should always pack a sweater or jacket, even in July and August, as temperatures can be surprisingly low. (Interestingly, the park has had snow fall during all 12 months of the year.)

Mount Mitchell’s elevation and climate lead to an interesting blend of flora and fauna1 that is more similar to Canada than the surrounding Southeast.

The spruce-fir forests and surrounding Black Mountains have been altered by human intervention and natural causes, but they remain home to some of the most diverse flora in the southern Appalachians. Visitors can pick up plant and animal checklists at the park office and hunt for red spruce, mountain ash, and oxeye daisies. Birdwatchers have also noted more than 90 species in the park.

A museum explains the mountain’s cultural and natural history, and its trail network allows visitors to explore up close, offering short hikes near the summit and challenging treks leading to adjacent wilderness areas.

Mount Mitchell is part of the Black Mountain Crest which includes six other peaks above 6300 feet nearby. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount Mitchell is part of the Black Mountain Crest which includes six other peaks above 6300 feet nearby. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can hike to the top of Mount Craig, standing at 6,648 feet, and Big Tom, a peak standing 6,581 feet, if you take the Deep Gap Trail. The Deep Gap Trail is 4.3 miles point-to-point (8.6 miles round trip) and follows the crests of the Black Mountains. Like all trails in the park, it’s strenuous thanks to some difficult ascents and descents along the way.

No matter when you hike or what trail you take, be aware that due to the elevation at Mount Mitchell State Park, the temperatures are on the cool side even in summer. Weather can be difficult to predict, with fog and rain and snowstorms popping up suddenly. If you’re planning on an extended hike, be sure you have the appropriate gear to cover potential weather conditions.

A nine-site tent campground is open in warm-weather months, and backpacking opportunities abound, including entry onto the Mountains-to-Sea State Trail. A concession area and a full-service restaurant serve visitors from May to October.

One of those places that stand apart from the ordinary, what you will find atop Mount Mitchell is perspective. You feel even farther away than the miles it took to get up here. And you realize making it to the top was worth every curve.

Rest awhile and soak in the vast 360-degree views. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rest awhile and soak in the vast 360-degree views. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.

Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.

The winds will flow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.

—John Muir

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