Mount Mitchell State Park, along the Blue Ridge Parkway and 33 miles northeast of Asheville, is the oldest state park in North Carolina – it turns 100 in 2016. Its majestic vistas, hiking trails and camping opportunities draw hundreds of thousands of visitors annually, making it one of the state’s most popular natural attractions. At 6,684 feet, Mount Mitchell is the highest peak east of the Mississippi, a part of the Black Mountains range that extends a mere 15 miles but includes no fewer than six of the 10 highest peaks in the eastern United States.
A low-rise, circular viewing deck at the summit is the fifth version of an observation post at the highest spot in North Carolina, but the first to be handicapped-accessible. Unlike the towers that proceeded it, this platform can’t be seen from the road leading up to the summit. Well above the tree line, the platform offers unobstructed views in every direction, with distances of more than 80 miles on clear days. The 0.75-mile Balsam Trail from the parking lot to the summit is steep but is also comparatively easy and wheelchair accessible.
A small exhibit hall at the summit parking lot is open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily, May through October. It features an interactive weather station, displays on the mountain’s natural and historical aspects and more. A gift shop and snack bar are open daily May through October, and picnic tables are located at the summit parking lot. Tent camping is also available May-October ($20 per night; reservations suggested: 877-722-6762).
For most visitors, enjoying the view is the main attraction. But the park also boasts hiking adventures of various lengths and degrees of difficulty. Old Mitchell Trail, rated moderate to strenuous, runs 2 miles between the park office and the summit parking area. The Commissary Trail, between the park office and summit, is rated easy.
The strenuous Deep Gap Trail is 4.5 miles, one way. It heads north, following the crests of the mountains and crossing Mount Craig (at 6,648 feet, the second-highest peak in the state), Big Tom (6,581 feet), Balsam Cone (6,596 feet) and Cattail Peak (6,584 feet). From there, the trail continues north out of the park.
Near the observation deck, visitors will pass the grave of Elisha Mitchell, for whom Mount Mitchell was named. A UNC Chapel Hill professor of chemistry, geology and mineralogy, Mitchell was the first to determine the peak’s elevation (1838). The professor made repeated trips the mountain and, by use of barometric pressure readings and mathematical formulas, he calculated the height of the peak to be 6,672 feet – only 12 feet shy of what modern calculations have determined. A return to the mountain in 1857, however, proved fatal: Mitchell fell from a cliff above a 40-foot waterfall and drowned.
Admission: free. Details: www.ncparks.gov.
Along the way...
A Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center is at Craggy Gardens – Milepost 364.5 – with two splendid nature trails nearby. The 0.8-mile Craggy Gardens Trail, which has been incorporated into the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, crosses a rhododendron bald and ends at a picnic area and overlook. Less than half-mile north of the visitor center is another parking area for the 0.7-mile Craggy Pinnacle Trail. From mid- to late June, the landscape is blanketed with the pink and purple blooms of Catawba rhododendrons. The official Blue Ridge Parkway travel planner hails it as “the most spectacular floral display along the 469-mile Parkway corridor.”
If you’re hungry/thirsty...
The state park has its own restaurant, open from 10 a.m. until one hour before park closing. Relax at the restaurant or grab some sandwiches at one of the park’s picnic tables. If you’re traveling north on the BRP, consider The Chalet Restaurant at The Switzerland Inn in Little Switzerland. The menu includes steak, poultry, seafood, and its signature dish – braised pot roast. Details: www.switzerlandinn.com (click “Dining”).