Grandfather Mountain is the highest peak in the Blue Ridge Range, towering prominently over the highlands of North Carolina at 5,946 feet above sea level. The mountain derives its name from a crag on its rugged precipice called Profile Rock, which bears the resemblance of a bearded old man. Grandfather’s high-altitude ecosystem is home to 73 rare and endangered species living in sixteen distinct ecological communities and has been designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve since 1992. The natural majesty and grandiosity of Grandfather Mountain makes it one of North Carolina’s marquis tourist destinations.
The mountain and its surrounding wilderness were home to the Cherokee Indians long before the arrival of European frontiersmen in the mid-18th century. They called the mountain “Tanawha”—meaning ‘fabulous hawk or eagle’—as a testament to the peak’s prominence and reverence in Native American culture. These sentiments of awe and wonder were shared by white settlers who colonized the land during the 1760s. Famed American pioneer Daniel Boone was one of the first explorers to scale the mountain’s mighty peaks.
In 1794, French botanist Andre Michaux conquered Grandfather’s summit and, at the time, believed he had climbed the highest peak on the continent. He jubilantly wrote in his journal, “Reached the summit of the highest mountain in all of North America, and with my companion and guide, sang the Marseillaise and shouted ‘Long live America and the Republic of France, long live liberty!’” Unfortunately, Michaux was erroneous in his claim. Grandfather Mountain is far from the tallest peak in the United States, let alone the state of North Carolina—that distinction belongs to Mount Mitchell, located forty miles southwest of Grandfather.
In 1841, Asa Gray (another famous botanist) visited Grandfather Mountain during his expedition to find Shortia galacifolia, otherwise known as Northern Oconee Bells—a rare Diapensiaceae endemic to the high-altitude mountains of western North Carolina. While Gray was unable to find the plant during this specific trip, he did discover a rare mountain lily that blooms in early summer and bears his name today. Influential natural conservationist John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club and “Father of the National Parks,” climbed Grandfather in September 1898 while suffering from a lower respiratory infection. Of his invigorating hike Muir wrote, “[t]he air has healed me. I think I could walk for ten miles and not be tired.”
For years, Grandfather Mountain was owned by the descendants of William Lenoir—a Major General in the Continental Army and founding member of UNC Chapel Hill. In the late 1800s, the property was acquired by Donald MacRae of the Linville Improvement Company, who sought to develop the communities surrounding the mountain and increase regional tourism. The company operated a toll road on the mountain during the first half of the 20th century. When the company dissolved in 1952, MacRae’s great-grandson, Hugh MacRae Morton, assumed ownership of Grandfather. The mountain remained a private park until 2008 when the Morton family agreed to sell the property to the state of North Carolina for $12 million.
Today, Grandfather Mountain State Park encompasses 2,456 acres and draws over 250,000 visitors each year. The park entrance fee is $22 per person, which may seem hefty at first, but with its numerous natural and man-made attractions, the experience is well-worth the price.
Upon entry, visitors embark on an audio-guided driving tour of the mountain with a CD obtained at the admissions gate. Stops 1 and 2 include an overlook of Grandfather Mountain and access to picnic areas and nature trails. At Stop 3, visitors can climb Sphinx and Split Rocks—two gigantic boulder formations that have withstood the tests of time and erosion.
Stop 4 features a variety of attractions including animal habitats, a Nature Museum, fudge shop, and restaurant. Tourists can observe cougars, black bears, eagles, river otters, and elk in their natural environments as they were all once native to Grandfather Mountain’s ecosystem. At the Nature Museum, visitors can learn more about the geological and ecological histories of the mountain and see its extensive collection of North Carolina gems and minerals, including Tar Heel gold specimens and the largest amethyst crystal ever found in North America! Other exhibits showcase Native American artifacts, written accounts from early explorers, and information about the mountain’s diverse wildlife. Up the road at Stop 5 are the Cliffside Picnic Area and Forrest Gump Curve—a hairpin turn featured in Forrest Gump (1994) during his run across America.
Access to Grandfather’s hiking trails are located at Stop 6, just a quarter-mile from the summit. There are eleven backcountry hiking trails to choose from across the park, ranging from easy to rigorous. Some of these trailheads can be found along NC Route 105 and Mile Marker 300 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. There is no fee for entry if you take these public access trails; however, it will take a full day to hike to the main attractions and back.
I began my hike from the Trails Parking Area on the Grandfather Mountain Extension Trail—a 0.6-mile connector marked by red diamond blazes. This trail is fairly steep at times and rated as moderate. At the Extension Trail’s terminus I took a left onto the Grandfather Trail (marked by blue blazes) and hiked another 0.3 miles to the summit. I chose this route because I like a challenging hike, but there is an alternate, easier route to the top called the Bridge Trail—a 0.4-mile path that originates on the opposite end of the parking area.
At the summit stands Grandfather’s most famous attraction: the Mile-High Swinging Bridge. This 228-foot suspension bridge (originally made of wood) was designed by Hugh MacRae Morton and dedicated by North Carolina Governor William B. Umstead on September 2, 1952, after taking three weeks and $15,000 to complete. It was reconstructed with galvanized steel in 1999 and is currently recognized as America’s highest footbridge, standing exactly 5,280 feet above sea level (hence the name).
Grandfather’s summit is absolutely breathtaking. I could see at least fifty miles out into the valleys below. On exceptionally clear days, you can see the skyline of Charlotte, North Carolina, located about eighty miles southeast. In addition to its vistas, the summit is famous (or infamous) for its extreme weather. Electrical storms are quick to arrive at Grandfather’s high altitude and wind speeds have been registered at over 200 mph! Fortunately for me, the weather was nothing short of perfect. The air was clean and crisp with a steady breeze and the temperature stayed between 55 and 65 degrees, outstanding conditions for summer hiking!
After touring the Swinging Bridge, overlook, and Top Shop, I got back on the Grandfather Trail and headed northeast. This route takes you out of the attraction area and into the wilderness of the state park. At the half-mile mark, I reached Grandfather Gap and veered right at the junction of the Grandfather and Underwood Trails. This is where the Grandfather Trail becomes vigorous. Some areas of the trail become so steep that they require cables and ladders to navigate! It is recommended that only experienced hikers or folks in good physical condition take this route. All others can travel the less-strenuous Underwood Trail, which only necessitates the use of one ladder to traverse.
I reached MacRae Peak just shy of the one-mile mark. The peak itself is only accessible by ladder, but offers a spectacular view of Attic Window Peak and the ridgeline of Grandfather Mountain. You can also see Calloway Peak about a mile off in the distance. Calloway is the park’s highest point and the site of a plane crash that took place in 1978. The wreckage remains on the mountain and can be found along the Daniel Boone Trail.
I finished my hike at Attic Window Peak and returned to the parking area 1.2 miles away. In total, I covered roughly five miles in 3.5 hours. This was an incredibly stimulating hike filled with adventurous trails, sensational exhibits, and stunning views. As mentioned before, the $22 admission fee may seem like a lot, but you can easily spend an entire day at Grandfather Mountain with its wide variety of events and attractions. I would suggest arriving as early as possible since the park fills up quickly and becomes extremely crowded around midday. The popularity of the mountain is its greatest asset and biggest liability. The dense foot and automobile traffic overwhelm and congest the main attractions which detracts from the openness and tranquility of the mountain. However, the revenues generated by the high number of visitors allows park administrators to maintain the mountain’s environmental integrity and the crowds tend to disperse along the backcountry trails. There is no shortage of fun and excitement at Grandfather Mountain and the experience is nothing short of magical. Trail Rating: 9.5/10
Check out this clip of Forrest Gump's Run Across America (skip ahead to 3:58 to see Grandfather Mountain)!
Read this resource on Google Books: Arthur, John Preston. Western North Carolina: A history (from 1730 to 1913). Edwards & Broughton Printing Company, 1914.