Rising more than a mile high, the summit of Mount Mitchell, at an elevation of 6,684 feet, is the highest point east of the Mississippi River. The breathtaking 360 degree panoramic views of the cascading Blue Ridge Mountains are absolutely sublime. As we ascended the mountain, driving north from Asheville on the Blue Ridge Parkway, we noticed the gradual changes in plant life. We decided to hike the Craggy Gardens trail first, on our way up, and then drive all the way up to the Mt. Mitchell summit.
The drive to Craggy Gardens is only 24 miles from downtown Asheville, up the Blue Ridge Parkway. There is a sign for the Craggy Picnic Area on the left, which you pass and then continue for a short drive up the Parkway a few more miles, to the Craggy Gardens Visitor Center and trail head. This trail is rated easy to moderate, and is 1.4 round trip, with a slight incline (252 foot gain), that took us about 15 minutes each way. I was glad a friend had thought to remind me that it is typically a good 10 to 20 degrees cooler at that elevation than it is in town, so, this time of year, a light sweatshirt is a good idea. We were greeted by loads of sunshine, but they say if you find a layer of fog settled on the mountain, just wait, as the weather can change rapidly.
This weekend the rhododendrons buds were just about to blossom, so I expect they’ll be in full bloom in the next week or two. (We’ll definitely be heading back up for that beautiful sight!) What we did see were the stunning vistas of the mountains stretching far into Tennessee to the west and toward central North Carolina to the east.
If you’re planning to visit, watch for mile marker 364. The trail head is just a little over half a mile past this mile marker. There is no admission fee for either Craggy Gardens or the Mount Mitchell summit.
Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, we headed on up to the Mount Mitchell State Park summit, just past mile marker 355. The parking lot goes all the way up to about 1/4 of a mile from the actual summit, to which there is a paved walkway/trail that leads up to the observation deck at the top of the summit. This walkway is wheelchair and stroller accessible, but it is uphill. It was brilliantly sunny when we were there this past weekend, but I understand that the summit is often covered in fog and clouds.
There is a small gift shop and concession stand at the top of the parking lot (Mt. Mitchell) which is open May through October as well as a very nice picnic area at the north end of the summit parking lot with 40 picnic tables, stone grills and drinking water. The two rustic and charming picnic shelters with fireplaces are perfect for groups.
During the winter months call the park office (828-675-4611) for information on which roads are open. An average of 100 + inches of snow falls here every winter.
While the only wildlife we observed while we were there were peregrine falcons spiraling and soaring overhead and below the summit, the area is reported to be home to white-tailed deer, black bear the northern flying squirrel, and 91 species of birds, many of which are usually found in New England and Canada.
Both of these trails/summits are stunningly beautiful must-sees if you are visiting the Asheville area between May and October.