From alpine peaks to cascading streams, Grandfather Mountain State Park and Grandfather Mountain Nature Park have been two of the crown jewels of North Carolina for generations. As the states newest state park, it is also recognized by the United Nations as an International Biosphere Reserve, thanks to the seventy-plus species of rare, threatened, and endangered plants and animals that call this place home. Packed with stunning scenery, diverse ecological diversity, and some of the most formidable hiking in the region, Grandfather Mountain offers guests an unmatched outdoor experience they won’t soon forget.
Grandfather Mountains various peaks hosts some of the Souths most severe weather, including 100 mph winds, sub-zero temperatures, and lightning storms. Its challenging terrain, summiting three solitary peaks have become a magnet for thrill seekers in recent years. Climbing ladders up cliffs, shuffling along narrow rock chutes, and pulling yourself up slippery slopes along steel wired ropes are all in a days work on many of the hiking trails here.
This state park is a bit of an oddity, in the sense that its an example of a private and public partnership that actually seems to work. In order to enter the park by car and drive up to the various attractions at the top of the mountain containing the visitors center, museum, and zoo, visitors must pay an entrance fee at the gate. Those wishing to skip all of that and just hike or camp the back country trails, can park at one of the few back country parking areas along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and hike into the park for FREE.
To get a lay of the land and experience the gentler side of Grandfather Mountain, we decided to start our day by traversing the most famous attraction here, the legendary Mile High Swinging Bridge. This 228 foot suspension bridge, spans an 80 foot chasm at more than 1 mile (5,280 ft) above sea level. Walking across the bridge from the visitors center leads to one of the three distinct peaks of Grandfather Mountain, Linville Peak.
One of the first images I can remember seeing of the Mile High Swinging Bridge, is that of Johnny Cash walking across it, during his visit for the 1974 “Singing on the Mountain Gospel Festival.” I can remember being so pumped that I would be walking in the same steps as one of country musics famed icons. Despite the bridge being rebuilt in 1999, not much has changed since the early days of tourists flocking to this high country attraction.
There are two ways to reach the bridge. One can opt to park in the hikers parking area and hike the Bridge Trail. This 0.4 mile trail winds through a mixed hardwood forest, switching back and forth in a moderate climb to the bridge. Alternatively, since we plan on hiking in the back country later on, we chose to drive up and park in the Bridge Area. From here, a brisk walk up two flights of steps landed us right on the bridge itself.
Looking up towards the bridge as we approached the staircase, I caught an incredible glimpse of Linville Peak, completely backlit by the sun. The dozens of visitors climbing its peak appeared to be nothing more than cardboard cutouts from a movie set. By the time we reached the bridge, it was completely crowded with visitors. Most people were excited to be walking across Americas highest suspension footbridge, while a few refused to even step foot on it.
At first, walking across the mile high bridge seems like any other bridge out there, until that first gust of wind hits you. We had a hard gust come in, nearly knocking me off my feet, forcing me to instinctively grab on to the railing with both hands. Pumped full of adrenaline from the sudden shock of it all, I looked up to find several other people doing the same thing. We all shared a nervous laugh as we passed one another.
Once I got over the fear of being up so high, I took a moment to enjoy the 360 degree panoramic view that lay out before me. Several birds flew overhead, one of them resembling a falcon. The cliffs surrounding the bridge are off limits as to not disturb the homes of ravens and Peregrine falcons that live on the mountain. According to The Nature Conservancy, the area surrounding Grandfather Mountain provides habitat for more globally rare species than any other mountain east of the Rockies.
If you have the guts to look down, you might catch a glimpse of hikers climbing up along the Bridge Trail right below your very feet. Making it across in one piece, we set out to find a good spot to sit and enjoy the views from atop Linville Peak. During a busy day, this peak can become overcrowded with groups making up the 300,000 annual visitors this state park receives. We continued along a worn path, scrambling over boulders and through small paths in between fir trees until finding an open space to sit.
We sat against a large creviced rock, enjoying an early picnic as we got ourselves ready to hike up into Grandfather Mountains' back country, to summit MacRae Peak. Check out our next article on climbing MacRae’s Peak, one of the most strenuous and dangerous trails in the Southeast!