Quite often, I travel to a general region where there might be a variety of parks to visit and trails to hike. In this particular case, I planned my entire fall trip to Western North Carolina, just for THIS hike. Scrolling through pictures of hikers climbing up the numerous wooden ladders along this trail, with nothing but sky surrounding them on three sides, gave me a deep sense of dread and excitement. Having a fear of heights didn’t deter me from wanting to experience the rush of summiting this peak and having a truly unique outdoor adventure.
The Grandfather Trail runs the length of the summit ridge from Grandfather Mountain Nature Park, where the Mile High Swinging Bridge is located, into the State Park until reaching Calloway Peak at 5,496 feet above sea level. With an elevation gain and loss of 1,872 feet over a 2.4 mile distance, this trail will slow down even the most experienced hikers. MacRaes Peak, at an elevation of 5,845 feet, is located roughly halfway between the two points. Despite all of the preparations I had made for this hike, both mentally and physically, nothing could have prepared me for how much fun I was about to have.
We began our hike from the Grandfather Trail trailhead located in the Grandfather Mountain Nature Park in the Bridge Parking Area. Alternatively, you could begin from the Trails Parking Area and reach Grandfather Trail via the 0.3 mile Grandfathers Trail Extension. Right away as you make your way onto the trails rugged cliffs, you’ll encounter warning signs everywhere, “Warning, this trail is for experienced hikers only…. not recommended for children, pets, or inexperienced hikers.” These warnings should not be taken lightly as people have died on this trail in the past due to exposure, lightning, heart attacks, and some have simply just fallen from the cliffs.
From here MacRaes Peak is a deceptively long 0.9 miles. The initial climb is steep and slow going for the first quarter mile. If you love the smell of fresh cut christmas trees, then you’re in for a treat. This trail traverses through a dense grove of balsam firs, which perfume the entire area with its intensely, sweet scent.
We found a lot of hikers pausing to rest at a popular rock shelter just after that first initial push uphill. Within these massive boulders lies a chute that people commonly use to practice their scrambling skills. Those wishing to continue their trip onto Calloway Peak will need to brush up on their scrambling abilities in order to make it past The Chute and Attic Window Peak.
After taking a short pause to shed some layers and gulp down some water we continued, shuffling along the various rock outcroppings to make it onto The Patio. This small clearing, complete with several wooden benches, offers us our first close up view of the area just below MacRaes Peak. If you fixate your gaze onto the craggy cliffs near the mountain top, you’ll even be able to make out hikers braving the first set of ladders. Watching them move slowly up the cliffs, like ants one after the other, tied my stomach into knots.
Spending some time in The Patio, we ran into several groups coming down off the mountain and their advice was almost all the same. "If you’re uncomfortable with heights, the front ladders are a NO go.” The angle at which the ladders are positioned, completely exposed to strong winds and a straight fall off the mountain, made the path uncomfortable for a lot of people in more ways than one. Looking for alternatives to reach MacRaes Peak, we decided to veer off onto the Underwood Trail in order to make our ascent.
Leaving the patio, we pushed forward towards Grandfather Gap. At this point the trails' profile matches that of a series of camel humps, with uphill climbs followed directly by downhill descents. Along the way we got our first shot at climbing down a near vertical hillside with the aid of a steel wired rope. Although I initially thought the ropes were unnecessary, I was quickly corrected when I slipped and caught myself on the rope just before hitting the ground.
Several incredible vistas of the surrounding landscape later, we arrive at the Grandfather Trail Extension. From here, we crossed a wooden bridge over a small bog and exited the forest into an alpine meadow surrounding Grandfather Gap. This is one of the 16 distinct ecological areas making up Grandfather Mountain. Meandering the trail through the gap, you’ll encounter towering pinnacles of every shape and size. A lot of the plants here, including the wind-dwarfed spruce and fir, have adapted to live in the incredibly harsh conditions up here.
Certain areas are purposefully roped off to protect some of the rare and endangered species that reside here including; Spruce Fir Moss Spiders, Appalachian Woodrats, High Mountain Supercoil Snails, and Eastern Small-footed Bats. Passing through the gap, we reached the Grandfather / Underwood Trail junction and veered left. The Underwood Trail is essentially a 0.5 mile bypass trail that curves around the back of MacRaes Peak through a dense forest.
What we could not have imagined, when we chose this slightly longer route to avoid the front ladders, was how physical taxing it would be. Up until this point, our hike had not been particularly difficult, heck we even found it to be a lot of fun. There were portions of Underwood where we were on all fours trying to make our way up the mountainside.
We had to take things slow by climbing in 10 foot stretches and stopping for a minute to catch our breath in order to preserve our energy. Do take note to follow the yellow blazes marked on boulders along this trail. There were a few moments when after an arduous climb, we seemed to have completely lost sight of the path we were on and had to resort to finding the blazes to keep us on track.
After what seemed like an eternity, we finally reached our first ladder. I spent several minutes examining the ladders competency. It seemed really well built. Sturdy 4x4’s made up the frame with the ladder rungs firmly held in place by large steel bolts. I gave the ladder a slight nudge to see if there was any sway, there was none. The ladder itself is bolted onto the mountainside and as a safety precaution, also held down by steel ropes. After a thorough inspection and a few hail marys, I began to climb up.
The climb up is actually quite a lot of fun. There was no funny business on the part of the ladder, except for the last five steps that require you to crawl in order to step off. From up here, the views of Sugar Mountain and the smaller peaks of the Blue Ridge are wide open. About a hundred yards past this point is MacRaes Gap. This area is commonly used as a way station between hikers making their initial ascent onto the mountain and those heading back down. Again, we chose to rest here and make small talk with other hikers, sharing our common experiences and getting some helpful advice.
Feeling reenergized after a well earned rest, we moved onto the last leg of our summit. From the Gap, we began to head south on Grandfather Trail for a few short minutes, when we reached the next ladder. This time the ladder was short, maybe 1/3 of the height of the Underwood ladder. Once we climbed the ladder, we were met with a near vertical climb up a rocky slope, that was only possible with the use of a steel wired rope. The entire surface of the slope was slick with runoff coming down the mountain from an earlier rain shower.
As we waited for our turn to climb up, a hiker coming down slipped and fell face down on the slope, crushing his stomach on a boulder, before catching himself just a mere few feet from a terrible fall. After several of us attended to his injuries and made sure he was fine enough to continue on his own, we made our journey up. It was difficult, but we made it without injury.
Continuing up this final ridge, we found ourselves hiking through pockets of snow and ice, hidden from the suns warmth in deep trenches. The final path to MacRaes Peak lay at the top of one final ladder, to the pinnacle above the summit. Making that last climb, I was overwhelmed by a deep sense of accomplishment. I couldn’t help, but have a wide grin on my face. I did it!
The scenery from up there is unlike anything else I’ve witnessed, outside of hiking the Rockies out west. Our heads were literally above the clouds. Below us lay a carpet of mountains that appear to roll like ripples on a lake, into the horizon. It was beautiful beyond what common words I could use to describe it. Heading off the peak, I climbed the ridge just below it and found a spot to sit, eat a snack, and contemplate on my overall experience.
It is commonly said that one gains strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. When you do things that scare you, later on you tend to then approach difficult tasks as challenges to be mastered rather than threats to be avoided. Now that I have pushed myself and succeeded, I know that I am capable of so much more physically and mentally. Even though this marks the end of my hiking in Grandfather Mountain, its an experience that I won’t soon forget!