In North Carolina, deep in the heart of its eponymous state park lays Mount Mitchell, the highest peak on the eastern side of the Mississippi. Starting at the campground near the base of the mountain and climbing all the way to the summit will take hikers up 3,600 feet in elevation in just over five miles, making it a tough hike, perhaps the toughest in North Carolina. Hikers can relish in the challenge of the trail while being treated to the beautiful old growth forests of the region as well as alpine meadows. However, while the hike up sports beautiful scenery, it is the view from the summit that makes a hike up the Mount Mitchell Trail worth the work.
|Trail Length:||11.4 miles||City/State:|| Burnsville,
|Elevation:||3,689 feet gain
Unlike many mountain hikes, you can actually start the hike from the summit by driving up there and hiking down. However, starting at the best part and working down is not nearly as satisfying. Also, unless hikers have a shuttle arranged, they will have to hike back up to the summit anyway. Instead, hikers will want to start at the Black Mountain Campground where the trailhead up sits. Regardless of where you come from in North Carolina, it will be a bit of a drive to get to the trail head. The fastest way is to take the NC 80 Highway to the Blue Ridge Parkway and take the exit for Route 128. This takes hikers most of the way there, but they will need to keep an eye out for signs for Black Mountain Campground. The parking area for day hikers is to the left just before the bridge to the campground. Expect scenic, but winding roads throughout travelling in the area.
The hike begins by crossing the bridge leading into the campground and keeping to the left in the campground loop, following the signs for the trail. Eventually, a gravel road will lead off to the left leading to the trail proper.
The trail formerly starts when the climb does. It wastes no time getting to an incline through hemlocks and hardwoods. Strangely enough, there are quite a few dead trees in this leg of the hike, but no one seems to know the reason. As hikers pass the trees eating into Long Arm Ridge, the trail will bear right through the first of many switchbacks that climb the mountain. The trail climbs up Long Arm Ridge on good solid trail before switching back and climbing further up the mountain. Here, rougher sections of trail will appear mostly due to fierce erosion, but it is still the climb and not the surface that make things difficult. Eventually, the ridge melts way into a steep slope called Little Mountain. This slope is so steep that hiker may need to cut in some footing from the trail and it is made difficult during the frequent wet days in the area. Hikers are just above the 4,000 foot elevation mark now and Little Mountain's difficulties separate the fit from the not.
After climbing up Little Mountain, there is a trail junction in which there is no wrong choice. The left fork leads to Higgins Bald while straight ahead continues up the mountain. Higgins Bald reconnects with the trail later on and the scenery is much more interesting as it leads through a meadow opposed to continuing through forest. It does, however, extend the hike by a fourth of a mile. Taking the Higgins Bald Trail, hikers are in for a fun trek. After a steep climb, hikers come to the upper reaches of Setrock Creek which is thin and easy to hop since it runs downhill and rarely ever floods. Afterwards, hikers emerge from the forest into the Higgins Bald meadow nestled atop Flynn Ridge. At this point, hikers are halfway to the summit. You can take a break here, which is especially nice on a sunny day or frolic through the meadow to the edge of the ridge and look down over the mountainside forest below. The clearing of the meadow also allows for hikers to look up and see what challenges lay ahead which, at this point, is Commissary Ridge looming above the meadow.
On the other side of the meadow, hikers re-enter the forest and after a flat little hike, it rejoins the Mount Mitchell Trail and continues the climb once again. Soon hikers will cross over into the 5,000 foot elevation mark and the forest changes into Red Spruce and fir trees, thinning out with the elevation. Interestingly enough, Red Spruce used to be all over the Black Mountain Range in mass, but due to their value to loggers, this area is some of the last undamaged forests in the area, but they are starting to regrow all over.
This area also hosts a series of switchbacks that are among the steepest on the hike, but once hikes reach and old railroad grade, the hardest climb is over. Just past the railroad is an intersection where hikers will want to turn left. This portion of the trail is shared with the Buncombe Horse Range Trail, so hikers may see a few riders, but dodging horse droppings is worth it for the nice flat trail found here. As hikers approach Commissary Ridge, there is a nice little campsite for backcountry campers that hosts a beautiful view over Higgins Bald. At the campsite, follow the trail right to begin the final 900 foot climb up the ridge and to the summit. The ridge trail is pretty rugged and rocky, but well marked. After the second switchback, hikers will pass a deep fracture cave as well as some peaceful glades.
As hikers crest the ridge, the trees begin getting shorter and you know the summit is getting close. The trail flattens out and has a series of sticks lain across it to keep your feet out of the mud. This is the last landmark before the summit, so once you have reached the sticks, you know you are close. Passing the Balsam Nature Trail intersection, hikers will approach a huge boulder near an interesting little cave. At this point, hikers will be searching for the summit, but you never get a good look at it until you are right at it. It's marked by a park building and a paved path. Hikers will notice that this section of the hike has been vastly different compared to the rest of the hike. It is much more maintained due to the lazier tourists that drive up the mountain.
The summit area is a bit jarring. There is a concession stand, parking lot and just hordes of tourists during nice days. It is so much different compared to the rugged wild lands that hikers just came through. Hikers that don't want to deal with the people at the summit should try and plan this hike during bad weather. It will be much more difficult, but the gate to the summit is closed on bad weather days, so hikers will have the summit to themselves.
Hikers can head up to the deck of the circular stone viewing platform to get the highest view of the area, which is quite the sight in and of itself. Now, all that is left to do is to return down the mountain the same way they came up. Downhill is much easier, but hikers worried about wearing themselves out can park a shuttle car that can drive them back down the summit. It's not recommended walking down the summit road thinking it will be easier. It may be easier, but it is significantly longer. Plus hikers will also have to worry about cars swerving around every corner.