The Blue Ridge Mountains may not be as huge and dramatic as the Rocky Mountains, but I still like them more. Maybe it’s because in springtime they’re covered with beautiful emerald foliage and in the autumn they are a fireworks display of red, gold and bronze. And maybe it’s because the mountain ranges are so close to one of my favorite places, Asheville, North Carolina.
There are hundreds of places to hike and bike, picnic and nature watch throughout the Blue Ridge Mountains and along the Blue Ridge Parkway. I’ve chosen three places I’ve visited in the area to showcase here: Chimney Rock, Grandfather Mountain and Mount Mitchell.
Chimney Rock State Park is about 25 miles southeast of Asheville and located near Lake Lure. The centerpiece of the park is, of course, Chimney Rock, the base of which rises to an elevation of 2,280 feet. Climb to the top of Chimney Rock, another 315 feet, and you can see for 75 miles. In spring, summer or fall, it’s a lovely sight.
There are several trails throughout the park, some easy walks, some very challenging. I always opt for the easy-going trail to the base of Hickory Nut Falls, one of the highest waterfalls east of the Mississippi. It may be one of the easiest of the trails, but it’s still a bit of a walk. However, deep into the forest it’s so quiet and relaxing. You really feel like you’ve escaped from the stress of your every day world.
If you’re an experienced hiker, take the challenging Skyline trail to the top of the falls, 404 feet above the base. While on this trail, you can see several unusual rock formations like the Opera Box, Devil’s Head and the Exclamation Point, which is at the very top of the Skyline trail, another 200 feet above Chimney Rock itself. Several scenes from the 1992 movie version of “The Last of the Mohicans” with Daniel Day-Lewis were shot in and around Chimney Rock State Park.
Grandfather Mountain is one of the highest peaks in the Blue Ridge Mountains with an elevation of 5,946 feet. It’s 70 miles from Asheville. The first time I ventured from Asheville to Grandfather Mountain the roads were extremely fogged in. I wasn’t able to make it up there until my next visit to North Carolina the following year.
The highlight of your journey to Grandfather Mountain is the Mile-High Swinging Bridge, which is a mile above sea level and affords 360 degree views, on a clear day, of up to 100 miles. Built in 1952, this 228 foot steel structure is America’s highest suspension footbridge.
Grandfather Mountain State Park has 11 hiking and nature trails. You can take a leisurely stroll through the forest or choose to explore the more rugged terrain through Grandfather Mountain’s backcountry climbing ladders and cables up the cliff faces
The park is home to 73 rare and endangered animals, many of which you can observe in their natural settings in one of the seven environmental habitats. Cougars, white-tailed deer, river otters, black bears and golden eagles are housed here. These habitats are not like ordinary zoo cages. Instead of being artificially created, they were built around the animals’ native habitats. You get a great up-close view of these animals, seeing how they live in the wild. Now, in the wild, black bears don’t normally wave at you for nibbles of food, but these do. They were very entertaining.
Grandfather Mountain has also been featured in a film, Tom Hanks’ 1994 movie “Forest Gump.”
Mount Mitchell is part of the Black Mountains and is the highest point east of the Rockies at 6,684 feet. Just 35 miles northeast of Asheville, Mount Mitchell is reached via an incredible scenic drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Mount Mitchell State Park was the first state park in North Carolina, established in 1915 and named after Elisha Mitchell who was the first one to determine the mountain’s height. At the summit, which is fogged in most days, lies an observation platform and a memorial to Mitchell. In addition to Mount Mitchell, there are several other peaks in the area over 6,000 feet above sea level including Mount Hallback, Mount Craig, Big Tom and Balsam Cone. With 8 miles of hiking trails throughout the park, you can truly get back to nature here.
So if you love the mountains, which I do, and you live on the east coast, which I do, you can have a wonderful mountain adventure without having to travel all the way across the country.
Hike the Blue Ridge Mountains because North Carolina ROCKS!
Dates of Visits: 2001-2006