Mount Mitchell State Park: A user's guide
This North Carolina park has the highest peak east of the Mississippi, reachable by car or by the daunting Mount Mitchell Trail that climbs 3,600 feet in 5.5 miles.
Wed, Jun 06, 2012 at 10:58 AM
Mount Mitchell State Park, about 35 miles northeast of Asheville, N.C., is a place of superlatives. The namesake peak is the tallest east of the Mississippi River, reaching 6,684 feet into the Carolina blue sky. The state park encompassing the peak is the first in North Carolina.
The views from the summit observation deck can be stunning, 80 miles or more — if you get there on a clear day, that is. The summit is covered in clouds and fog most days. But you’re certain to enjoy a respite from the summer heat. Even in the era of global warming, the average high temperature atop Mount Mitchell is less than 70 degrees. And winter here is C-O-L-D. The mercury dropped to minus 34 degrees Fahrenheit on Jan. 21, 1985.
The 1,385-square-foot exhibit hall near the summit features an interactive weather station that allows visitors to punch in a date from the past, such as a birthday, to find out the weather conditions on Mount Mitchell on that date.
Dr. Elisha Mitchell, a science professor at the University of North Carolina, measured the elevation of the peak during an 1835 trip, establishing it as the highest mountain in the state. Mitchell returned several times to confirm his findings and died there during a trip in 1857 when he fell from a cliff above a waterfall and, knocked unconscious, drowned in the water below. The mountain was named after Mitchell in 1858, and a year later his body was moved from Asheville to a grave atop the mountain.
North Carolina Gov. Locke Craig championed protection of Mount Mitchell, and legislation creating Mount Mitchell State Park and the state park system became law on March 3, 1915.
Things to do:
There is a short, paved path from the summit parking lot to the observation deck. But if you want to earn the view, considering hiking the Mount Mitchell Trail, which climbs 3,600 feet from the Black Mountain Campground. You’ll climb from mixed hardwood forests through spruce and fir to the top. Some folks — we won’t call them lazy — take two cars, leaving one at the campground so they can make a downhill-only trip.
If you want to linger in the cooler elevation, there is a campground for tents. Each of the nine sites is equipped with a grill and picnic table.
Why you’ll want to come back:
Part of what makes Mount Mitchell State Park a great destination is the trip here. Getting to the park requires driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway, a National Scenic Byway that runs through the mountains of North Carolina and Virginia for 469 miles from Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Shenandoah National Park.
Flora and fauna:
You may find yourself humming Christmas carols as you walk among Fraser fir and Norway spruce. You’ll also find hardwoods such as Eastern red maple, fire cherry, yellow birch, mountain ash and mountain maple.
More than 70 different types of birds are seen in the park, including winter wrens, slate-colored juncos, red crossbills and golden-crowned kinglets more typically found in northern climes.
Nearly three dozen different mammals are found in Mount Mitchell State Park, including black bears. Prowling bears prompted the closing of the campground in the summer of 2011. Visitors may also spot a white-tailed deer, red fox, eastern chipmunk, red squirrel or Carolina northern flying squirrel.
- Website: Mount Mitchell State Park
- Park size: 1,946 acres or 3 square miles
- 2011 visitation: 302,797
- Funky fact: Acid rain, a byproduct of air pollution from coal-burning plants to the west, is contributing to the long-term decline of the spruce-fir forest of Mount Mitchell. On some days, the fog that envelops the peak is as acidic as vinegar.