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  • Writer's pictureTim Murphy

Trail Trials: Mount Mitchell

The Black Mountains of western North Carolina bear some of the tallest peaks in the eastern United States. Mount Mitchell, which measures 6,684 feet above sea level, is the pinnacle of this mountain range and the highest point east of the Mississippi River. The summit renders one of the most spectacular panoramic views in the nation and possesses an illustrious history that makes the scene all the more incredible.

Mount Mitchell Observation Tower

The earliest documented instances of European exploration in the Black Mountains date back to the 1780s, when botanists Andre Michaux and John Fraser scoured the region for plant specimens. Michaux managed to collect over 2,500 different plant species and was the first explorer to ascribe the name “Black Mountains” to the range. Shortly thereafter, Fraser discovered a high-altitude fir tree that grew in abundance along the mountain crests, commonly referred to as the Fraser Fir today. However, the prominence of the Black Mountain peaks and Mount Mitchell’s distinction as the tallest mountain in the eastern U.S. wasn’t ascertained until Elisha Mitchell—the main summit’s namesake—conducted his geological surveys during the first half of the 19th century.

Elisha Mitchell was born in Washington, Connecticut, on August 19, 1793. He discovered a passion for the natural sciences at a young age and graduated from Yale in 1813. In 1818, Mitchell was hired by the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill as a professor of natural philosophy and geology, a position he would hold for 39 years. He performed the North Carolina Geological Survey in 1825 and conducted a scientific expedition to the Black Mountains a decade later.

During his geographical studies, Mitchell determined that the range’s tallest peak (then called Black Mountain) registered an altitude higher than any other point in North Carolina. Using barometric pressure readings and other environmental data gathered from successive trips to the summit, Mitchell calculated Black Mountain’s elevation to be 6,672 feet above sea level, a mere twelve feet off of modern measurements! This was astonishing. His results didn’t just distinguish Black Mountain as the tallest point in North Carolina, but also the tallest point east of the Mississippi, surpassing Mount Washington, New Hampshire—presumed to have the highest elevation in the East—by nearly four hundred feet!

While Mitchell’s findings were received well by the scientific community, one man challenged his position. In 1855, Thomas Clingman, a North Carolina Congressman and former student of Mitchell’s, scaled Black Mountain and calculated an elevation of 6,941 feet above sea level. Clingman, under the assumption that his readings were correct, claimed that Mitchell had measured the wrong peak. This ignited a feud between the two men, who spent the next two years denigrating each other in newspapers and scholarly journals every chance they got. Finally, in 1857, Mitchell organized one final trip to the Black Mountain summit to verify his measurements and settle the dispute once and for all.

Summit Trail to Observation Platform

On June 27, 1857, Mitchell wandered away from his expedition’s camp on the advent of a violent thunderstorm and did not return once it had passed. His body was discovered a few days later at the base of a waterfall. It was determined that Mitchell slipped and fell onto some rocks, knocking himself unconscious before drowning in the creek below.

Elisha Mitchell’s death shocked and angered many North Carolinians. The fallen geographer earned great sympathies in the wake of his “martyrdom” while Clingman was vilified by his political rivals for instigating the fatal expedition. Clingman eventually dropped the disagreement, but not before his public image was soured beyond redemption. In 1858, Black Mountain was renamed Mount Mitchell and Mitchell’s body was reinterred to its summit. The original bronze obelisk that commemorated Mitchell was destroyed on January 1, 1915, initially believed to have been dynamited in an act of vandalism. However, a subsequent investigation revealed that the monument had been the victim of extremely high winds. Mitchell’s grave is now marked by a bronze plaque and stone tomb.

During the latter half of the 19th century, industrialization arrived at Mount Mitchell. Extensive mining, logging, and railroad operations quickly took shape and denuded much of the mountain’s natural resources. In March 1915, Governor Locke Craig made Mount Mitchell North Carolina’s first state park, in an effort to preserve its rare spruce-fir forests and fragile ecosystem. While mining and logging outfits ceased, the Mount Mitchell Railroad persisted as a visitor rail to the park until 1919. The rails were eventually removed all together and replaced with a toll road in 1922.

During the 1930s, Mount Mitchell was the site of Civilian Conservation Corps Camp SP-2, home to companies 413 and 2410. The CCC worked tirelessly to construct hiking and recreational trails, conserve forests, and reverse the environmental damage inflicted upon Mount Mitchell during its industrialized period. Today, the park encompasses nearly 1,900 acres of reforested land and is recognized by UNESCO as an International Biosphere Reserve.

While visitors are able to drive up to Mount Mitchell’s summit via a Blue Ridge Parkway spur, I figured it would be more rewarding to scale this peak myself. I decided to hike the Old Mitchell Trail—a strenuous 4-mile out-and-back path formerly used by 19th century pioneers. The trail, marked by yellow blazes, originates at Stepp’s Gap, current location of the park headquarters. The gap is named after Jesse Stepp, a Black Mountain hunting guide who owned a homestead on the property with his wife, Adeline, and thirteen children during the 1800s.

The trail begins with a fairly steep grade through some mountainous bramble patches before ascending to the Hallback Mountain Spruce-Fir Forest (near the half-mile mark). Once I traversed the crest of the mountain, I descended to a seasonal mountainside café positioned by a stunning valley vista. I took a few minutes to enjoy the view from the restaurant’s back porch then got back on the trail.

North View from the Lookout Point

The trail once again enters a fir forest with a moderate grade, but fluctuates significantly over the next three-quarters of a mile. Rocky outcroppings and steep slopes are scattered across this stretch of trail. Wooden steps and ladders were recently installed to help hikers navigate some of the more challenging parts of the path. These implements certainly came in handy for me, as my hiking conditions were incredibly muddy and icy.

At the 1.5 mile mark, the Old Mitchell Trail junctions with the Mountain-to-Sea Trail (white blazes) and the Camp Alice Trail (blue blazes). The Camp Alice trail is named after a former logging and tourist camp near the summit of Mount Mitchell. The camp featured a recreational hall, dining facilities, and overnight lodging for visitors who traveled on the Mount Mitchell Railroad (a 6.5-hour round trip to the summit and back). Keep left at this intersection and continue on the Old Mitchell Trail for another quarter-mile. At the 1.8 mile mark, you’ll encounter another trail junction between the Mitchell Trail and the Campground Trail (red blazes). Bear right to continue to the summit.

The terminus of the Old Mitchell Trail links up with the Summit Trail—a 0.1-mile brick-laden path that connects the visitor center to the lookout point. The visitor center consists of a museum, gift shop, and concession stand; however, the facilities are only open from May to October. The level surface of the Summit Trail was a great relief to my joints as I finished my hike with a short ascent to the observation platform.

The view was nothing short of phenomenal. Mount Mitchell’s peak offers a 360-degree panoramic view of the Blue Ridge Mountains and their valleys below. On clear days, observers can see up to 85 miles away, well into the interior of North Carolina and periphery of Tennessee! I couldn’t have asked for better visual conditions for my hike: crisp, clean mountain air and barely any cloud coverage. I was endowed with one of the best views I can remember.

The entire four-mile hike took a little over two hours to complete. When they say the trail is strenuous, they’re not kidding. Even for an experienced hiker such as myself, the constantly changing trail grade and rocky terrain definitely challenged my endurance. The icy conditions, 40 mph wind advisory, and wind chill below zero certainly didn’t make things any easier. However, overcoming these conditions to successfully scale Mount Mitchell made the journey even more rewarding. I’d do it all again anytime. Trail Rating: 10/10

Visit the Mount Mitchell State Park website for more information on park services and amenities!

Check out this park map to see the various trails in the park!

Read this Forestry History article for more on Mount Mitchell's environmental past!

Read UNC's biography on Elisha Mitchell and this NC Natural article to learn more about Mitchell's expeditions in the Black Mountains!

Check out these resources on Google Books:

Visit the Western Carolina Online Library for photos and primary sources of Mount Mitchell's industrial period!


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