Hike Location: Mount Mitchell State Park
Geographic Location: northeast of Asheville, NC
Length: 2.9 miles
Difficulty: 9/10 (Difficult)
Last Hiked: July 2018
Overview: A challenging hike to the two highest peaks in the Appalachian Mountains.
Park Information: https://www.ncparks.gov/mount-mitchell-state-park
Google Map: http://www.mappedometer.com/?maproute=700189
Directions to the trailhead: Mount Mitchell State Park is accessible by road only from the Blue Ridge Parkway. Take the Blue Ridge Parkway to SR 128 (milepost #355), and drive SR 128 uphill 4 miles to its end at the summit parking area. The summit parking area is huge, and it was less than ¼ full when I came here on a Tuesday afternoon in mid-July.
The hike: Established in 1916, Mount Mitchell State Park is the oldest state park in North Carolina. The park was established to protect the higher elevations of its namesake mountain, which at 6684 feet is not only the highest point in North Carolina but also the highest point in the Appalachian Mountains and therefore the highest point east of the Mississippi River. The area’s high elevation keeps it cool year-round, and snow has been recorded on Mount Mitchell every month of the year. In fact, Mount Mitchell receives an average of 91 inches of snow per year, which is only 3 inches less than Buffalo, NY.
As recently as the 1850’s the mountain’s status as state high point was in doubt, as Senator Thomas Clingman erroneously claimed based on mathematical calculations that the region’s highest peak had elevation 6941 feet. Clingman’s Dome some 100 miles to the west is named after him, but it is only 6643 feet high. Mount Mitchell is named after Dr. Elisha Mitchell, a science professor at the University of North Carolina. Dr. Mitchell fell to his death on this mountain in 1857 while trying to prove his correct claim that this mountain is the highest point in North Carolina.
The summit experience at Mount Mitchell resembles the ones at Clingman’s Dome or Brasstown Bald, the state high points for Tennessee and Georgia, respectively. The summit area features a huge blacktop parking lot, a steep but paved trail to the summit, and an observation deck on the summit. Mount Mitchell State Park also features a campground and a restaurant, which offers a laid back cafeteria-style dining experience. Yet Mount Mitchell also has a wild side, some of which will be explored on this hike.
The route of this hike is somewhat complicated because it features two independent parts both of which begin and end at the summit parking area. The first part is a 1.8 mile out-and-back that heads north to nearby Mount Craig, the second highest peak in the Appalachian Mountains. The second part is a 1.1 mile semi-loop that features Mount Mitchell’s summit and the high-elevation Balsam Nature Trail. To do the harder part first, this hike describes the two parts in the preceding order, but you can do them in either order you wish. In particular, if bad weather is nearby, you should go directly to Mount Mitchell’s summit to make sure you reach the highest point before the weather hits.
|Deep Gap Trailhead|
Start the first part by heading north on the Deep Gap Trail, which is also called the Black Mountain Crest Trail. The gravel trail leaves from the signed Deep Gap Trailhead and passes through a picnic area before descending steeply on some stone steps. While stone steps like these are often considered strenuous, you will be thankful for them in a few minutes.
|Gap between Mounts Mitchell and Craig|
At 0.35 miles, you reach the bottom of the stone steps and the unnamed gap that lies between Mount Mitchell and Mount Craig. The next few hundred feet are the only flat part of this hike, and they pass through some dead fir trees that were killed by the balsam woolly adelgid. On the bright side, clear views to the west open up on the left, and some nice spruce trees stand ahead and behind.
Soon your ascent up the south face of Mount Craig begins. Well-constructed stone steps are replaced by rugged natural rock ledges that will require you to use both your feet and your hands to scramble up and down. The grade is not too steep: the trail gains 340 vertical feet in 0.4 miles, but the persistent rock scrambling makes for slow going. Also, the high elevation means that you will likely get winded faster than usual.
|Rocky trail to Mount Craig|
At 0.8 miles, the final push to Mount Craig’s summit begins as you pass a sign warning of the fragile alpine environment. Soon you exit the pine forest onto the bare rock of Mount Craig’s summit. With an elevation just 21 feet lower than Mount Mitchell, Mount Craig offers a spectacular 180-degree view to the west, and Mount Mitchell looms to the south. The effort required to get here means that you may have this viewpoint to yourself, at least for a little while. A summit plaque just past the viewpoint tells you that Mount Craig is named for Locke Craig, the Governor of North Carolina from 1913 to 1917 who was instrumental in establishing Mount Mitchell State Park.
|View southwest from Mount Craig|
|View west from Mount Craig|
|Mount Craig summit marker|
|Looking back at Mount Mitchell from Mount Craig|
The Deep Gap Trail continues north past Mount Craig, but the terrain gets more difficult and the views do not get any better. Thus, this hike turns around at Mount Craig and backtracks to Mount Mitchell’s summit parking area to complete the first part of the hike. Walk south across the parking area to reach the signed start of the Summit Trail, which leads to Mount Mitchell’s summit. An interesting museum sits at this trailhead, as do restrooms and a concession stand.
|Start of Summit Trail|
Perhaps after a visit to the museum or the concession stand, head up the Summit Trail, which is a paved trail that connects the parking lot with the observation deck on Mount Mitchell’s summit. Because almost everyone who visits this park walks up to the summit, you will not be alone on this trail. Some benches provide the opportunity to stop and catch your breath if needed. Also, note the signed trailhead for the Balsam Nature Trail to the left where the paved trail curves right.
At 2.1 miles, you reach the curved concrete ramp that leads to the summit observation deck. Being the highest point in the Appalachians, Mount Mitchell’s observation deck offers 360-degree views. Mount Craig is visible immediately to the north, Grandfather Mountain appears in the distance to the northeast, and some lower ridges lie to the east. The park road and restaurant lie down the main ridge to the south. On a clear day Clingman’s Dome can be seen to the west. Take some time up here to see what you can see.
|View east from Mount Mitchell|
|View south from Mount Mitchell|
|A selfie at Mount Mitchell; Mount Craig over my left shoulder|
The only way up to the observation deck is via the paved Summit Trail, so next you need to retrace your steps back down the Summit Trail. To change the scenery, get off of the pavement, and reduce the crowds, when you reach the signed trailhead for the Balsam Nature Trail, turn right to begin the gravel Balsam Nature Trail. The Balsam Nature Trail is a 0.6 mile loop that provides an alternate and slightly longer route back to the summit parking area, and it lets you spend some more time on Mount Mitchell’s natural side.
|Start of Balsam Nature Trail|
Marked by white plastic triangles, the Balsam Nature Trail descends gradually through dense, dark, spruce/fir forest. Numerous interpretive signs tell about the unusual plants, fungi, and algae that live at this high elevation. At 2.4 miles, you pass a rock shelter on the right. The terrain on the Balsam Nature Trail is not flat, and some rocks and roots lie in the treadway. Nevertheless, the going is much easier than on the Deep Gap Trail you handled earlier.
After a steeper descent at 2.6 miles, you reach a signed trail intersection. The option going straight is the Mount Mitchell Trail, and it leads steeply downhill for 5.5 miles to reach a national forest campground at the mountain’s base. The signed Balsam Nature Trail turns left and soon reaches its lowest elevation. A dense understory of ferns carpets the ground in this area.
|Tree growing over a boulder|
The trail climbs gradually over lots of rocks and roots. Soon you pass a tree that has put roots down all around a large boulder. Where a signed spur trail heads straight to reach a spring, turn left to quickly arrive back at the summit parking area and complete the hike. On your drive out, stop at the park restaurant to have a snack and enjoy more Mount Mitchell views to cap off your visit to the roof of the Appalachians.