The Mount Mitchell Summit Trail is a 0.4 mile out and back trail that leads visitors 6,684 feet above sea level, to the tallest peak in the Eastern United States. Beginning at the Visitors Center, it travels uphill along an ADA accessible path to the lookout tower atop the summit of Mount Mitchell. Several seating areas throughout this route amid spruce-fir forests and alpine meadows frame scenic mountain vistas in every direction. Although this peak is shrouded in clouds and fog eight out of ten days, on a clear day it’s possible to enjoy spectacular mountain views as far as 85 miles away. Positioned on milepost 355 of the Blue Ridge Parkway, this admission free park is a must see destination on any trip through Western North Carolina.
Summit Trail | 0.4 Miles
Mount Mitchell State Park Location | Google Maps
Located in the Black Mountain Range off the Southern Appalachians, Mount Mitchell State Park was established in 1915 as North Carolinas first state park. In its early days before European settlers arrived to the region, this place was hunted and explored by the Cherokee, who named it “Attakulla” in honor of a famous chief. The arrival of early pioneers in the mid-1700’s, brought with it some of the most influential scholars of the time, for whom many of the areas features owe their present names. From English botanist John Fraser, whom Fraser fir trees are named after, to science professor Dr. Elisha Mitchell, whom would cement this peaks status as the tallest “East of the Mississippi”, many have left their mark on this majestic mountain.
Getting around Mount Mitchell State Park is easy considering there is only one road that runs throughout the whole 4,789 acre property. To reach the Visitors Center, simply turn into the park entrance and drive straight to the end of the road. Along the way you’ll pass up the Park Headquarters, which contains the lower trailhead for the Old Mitchell and Commissary Trails. These are the two paths used by hikers to summit the peak of Mount Mitchell the way it was originally done before a paved road allowed visitors to drive most of the way up. As you reach the lower portion of the final parking area, you’ll also pass up the Deep Gap Trailhead, which traverses six out of ten of the highest peaks in the Eastern United States. Although Mount Mitchell does not have a lodge with modern accommodations, those wishing to spend the night under the stars can reserve a spot in the parks tent campground from May 1 - October 31.
Upon reaching the Visitors center, you’ll also find a Gift Shop and Museum with exhibits detailing the history of Mount Mitchell. For anyone who has visited the lookout tower atop Clingmans Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains, this area will seem very familiar. In fact Thomas Clingman, for whom the peak is named after, was a contemporary of Dr. Elisha Mitchell. In 1835, Mitchell used barometric observations to measure the height of the peaks of the Black Mountains, determining the highest one (the future Mount Mitchell) to be 6,672 feet. Thomas Clingman, a former student of Mitchell’s, insisted the peak overlooking the Great Smoky Mountains was the tallest. What ensued was a decades long quest involving Dr. Mitchell measuring the heights of the Roan, the Grandfather mountains, the Balsam Ranges, and the Great Smoky Mountains to determine which peak was the tallest.
Unfortunately, during a return trip to take even more measurements of Mount Mitchell in 1857, Dr. Elisha Mitchell slipped and fell to his death. Despite falling 60 feet over a waterfall, an autopsy of his remains determined that the fall did not kill him, but in fact he drowned in the shallow pool of water below the falls. The man whom discovered his body, “Big Tom” Wilson would later be honored by having his name given to the third tallest peak in this range, Big Tom. Although Mitchells body was initially buried in the town of Asheville, it was later interred on the summit of Mount Mitchell in order to commemorate his legacy.
Taking the leisurely stroll up the 0.4 mile Summit Trail, it’s impossible not to be reminded of Christmas from the overpowering sweet scent of balsam filling the air. If you’re lucky enough to visit on a clear and sunny day, several of the seating areas along this trail open up to beautifully framed views of the surrounding mountains. Even on a cloudy day, if you wait just long enough, a small window may appear through the fog revealing a glimpse of the mountains beyond. On the way up, I kept passing up sweat drenched and exhausted hikers whom were coming off the Commissary and Old Mitchell Trails on their way to the summit.
This seems to be a “right of passage” for many hikers that travel here to summit this peak the old fashioned way. For the hardcore adventurers, taking those paths up is childs play compared to summiting Mount Mitchell from the Black Mountain Campground in the Pisgah National Forest. The Mount Mitchell Trail is a strenuous 11.9 mile out and back trail beginning in the Black Mountain Campground off of South Toe River Road along the Blue Ridge Parkway. With a gain of over 3,000 feet in elevation, it is a path for more experienced hikers wanting to test their grit.
Those seeking a lighter challenge can opt to take the 0.75 mile Balsam Nature Loop which begins at the Visitors Center parking lot and loops back towards the summit along the Mount Mitchell Trail. This trail explores part of the extensive spruce-fir forest of the Black Mountain Range, an ecosystem that is common in northern climates, but only in a small band of the Appalachian Mountains. Regardless of which route you take to the summit, you’ll be rewarded at the end with one of the best views in the whole region. As I stated earlier, the peak is shrouded in fog and clouds eight of every ten days, but more often than not as they say in the mountains, “If you don’t like the weather, just wait an hour.”
Surely enough, what began as a cloudy morning on our arrival quickly dissipated into a clear and sunny day by the time we walked the 280 yards to the top. Upon reaching the top, you’ll encounter a plaque commemorating the accomplishments of Dr. Elisha Mitchell alongside the Mount Mitchell summit sign. Just behind that is the lookout tower built in 2009 with Dr. Mitchells final resting place right beside it. This is one of the busiest stops along the Blue Ridge Parkway and by the crowd gathering on top of the tower that wouldn’t surprise many people. Four benches atop the lookout tower make great perches to stand up on and get a better look over the crowd to see the surrounding mountains. Despite the new amenities that make this peak accessible to nearly everyone, this summit has been a popular tourist destination for over 100 years.
In the 1910’s, after the logging industry in Western North Carolina had swept through and deforested much of the surrounding mountains, the state legislature began setting aside large swaths of wilderness to be preserved from total destruction. Once logging operations on Mount Mitchell ceased, a logging railroad from the town of Black Mountain was converted into a tourist train bringing guests up the mountain. Years later, after the railroad ceased operations, the rail bed was removed and turned into a motor toll road which would eventually become a part of the future Blue Ridge Parkway.
With a 360 degree view stretching out as far as 85 miles away, it’s impossible not to catch an awe inspiring view here. Looking directly northeast from here, I can make out the unmistakable shape of Table Rock Mountain right across from Hawksbill Mountain in the Linville Gorge Wilderness. Grandfather Mountain, longtime rival as the tallest mountain in the Blue Ridge Range, can also be seen to the left of Table Rock. If you want to avoid the crowds, and experience some solitude enjoying the views its best to come early in the morning or mid week. Even so, chances are you’ll be so awe struck by the beauty of this place that you’ll hardly notice anyone else around.
The far stretching scenery atop Mount Mitchell might be one of the most hyped in this state park, but those in the know will tell you that theres a far better view. This one requires a fee of sweat and toil as you hike along the 3.8 mile Deep Gap Trail. The Black Mountain Range contains six out of ten of the highest peaks east of the Mississippi and this trail traverses over all six of them in a row. It’s a strenuous trail requiring boulder scrambles, rope descents, and a little bit of grit to reach the last peak Potato Hill before descending into Deep Gap. Stay tuned for our hike along the Deep Gap Trail to catch some unmatched vistas and until next time, see y’all on the trails!