The Mt. Mitchell Trail has been beckoning me for years, and I had always wanted to hike it during the winter to get the full mountain experience. The weather was supposed to be sunny but bitterly cold and windy on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, which sounded perfect to me because visibility would be outstanding. I woke up extremely early on Saturday and drove to the Black Mountain Campground in Pisgah National Forest to begin my ascent. The Mt. Mitchell Trail is one of few trails in the mountains of North Carolina that boasts many similarities to a summit trail out West or in the Northeast. It starts deep in the South Toe River Valley far below the Black Mountain range and climbs unrelentingly for 5.5 miles to the summit. As you climb you’ll experience a multitude of ecosystems as the forest changes from Appalachian and northern hardwood forests to dense rhododendron and mountain laurel to tall pines and eventually the rare southern Appalachian spruce-fir forest near the summit. Mt. Mitchell, standing at 6,684 feet, is the highest peak in the Appalachian Mountains and the eastern United States. You can drive to the summit, mill around the visitor’s center and stroll a few hundred yards to the observation platform before leaving. Or you can conquer this peak the old-fashioned way by hiking the Mt. Mitchell Trail.
Unless you are coming from the Asheville vicinity you get to experience one of the more tedious drives in western North Carolina, NC-80. From Marion NC-80 climbs for 12.2 miles up the Buck Creek watershed via countless switchbacks. This highway is full of tight turns and rarely will you exceed 25 mph on this section. Don’t be fooled by the relative straightness displayed on Google Maps. When you reach Buck Creek Gap, the highway passes below the Blue Ridge Parkway and descends to the South Toe River Valley. Drive 2.2 miles from the junction with the Blue Ridge Parkway and turn left on S. Toe River Rd. The road soon turns to gravel, follow the forest road for 2.8 miles to the Black Mountain Campground entrance. At the entrance the hiker’s parking lot is on the left in front of a trail information board.
Max elevation: 6690 ft
Min elevation: 2963 ft
Total Time: 06:28:59
Cross the gated bridge over the South Toe River and follow the main road heading left of the campsites. The bridge is open to vehicles Spring through Fall but hiker’s are not supposed to park in the campgrounds closer to the trail. The road soon comes to a fork, continuing right up a hill while the Briar Bottom Bike Trail goes left following the river. Either direction will take you to the destination, I chose to stay with the road because it is more direct. Soon you will see a sign for the Mt. Mitchell Trail on the right. The Mt. Mitchell Trail (and the Mountains-to-Sea Trail) climbs from the South Toe River through dense forest for 3,000+ feet to Mt. Mitchell, the highest mountain in the Black Mountains, the Appalachian Mountains, and the Eastern United States. First you have to get there though, and it is a long climb.
The trail (Mt. Mitchell-blue and MST-white blazes) climbs moderately through a very sparse Appalachian hardwood forest that was probably logged heavily in the past due to its proximity to the river. There were some impressive trees here, and huge deadfall. After a few long switchbacks the trail narrows through a tunnel of rhododendron and mountain laurel as proceeds upwards on a moderate grade. This will be the theme for most of the hike, there is rarely a steep section but the climb is moderate and unrelenting. At mile 1.9 there is an obvious side trail on the right. Originally I guessed this is another unmaintained, abandoned trail along Long Arm Ridge descending to the river. Judging from a few photo galleries I’ve seen I think it leads to a viewpoint of the South Toe River Valley, so it might be worth checking out.
Only a few hundred feet beyond this spur trail, there is a fork with the Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MST) going straight following the Higgins Bald Trail (yellow blaze). Although not completely obvious, the Mt. Mitchell Trail turns right heading uphill. There are no signs indicating this turn, nor blue blazes within initial view. The forest gets a little bit darker as the hardwoods gradually shift to pines.The trail is also a bit steeper and has experienced more erosion due to the dampness of the understory. At one point I passed through a power line clearance area which offered views east, and I could spy some cliffs high above. After this clearance the trail crosses Setrock Creek at mile 2.9, the creek is tiny here. On the other side of the creek the MST and Higgins Bald Trail rejoin on the left side and the Mt. Mitchell Trail continues its upward climb through a pine forest. On my way up, I completely missed the significance of this section because I had my head down and was powering through the climb. Sometimes I purposely avoid out-and-back hikes but they have their advantages – you will notice things you didn’t see the first time. A couple of guide books mention a large swath of microburst damage. For the next half mile starting at a large campsite, you will see an entanglement of downed trees on both sides of the trail. The damage is quite remarkable.
After you have passed the microburst damage you will begin to see sheets of ice on the trail if hiking during the winter. This is one of the reasons I wanted to hike the trail in January, to get a winter hiking traverse on snow and ice that is uncommon in the Southeast. I also had a pair of Yaktrax Run I had received to use and review, and honestly I don’t know many other mountains in the area that would guarantee some ice. The trail turns right heading back through the power line clearance and begins tightly switchbacking between the outer borders of the clearance. As the ice became more frequent I sat down and put on the Yaktrax Run for the first time. Even though it was odd the trail kept switchbacking up the clearance it at least afforded opportunities for views. Some of the ice along this section looked really cool, and my grip was great. I walked almost normally up the trail.
The hike flattens out briefly after 4 miles as the Mt. Mitchell Trail joins the Buncombe Horse Range Trail heading southwest towards Commissary Hill. At the large campsites in a field at Commissary Hill the Mt. Mitchell Trail turns right leaving the horse trail and enters the Mt. Mitchell State Park boundary. There’s a nice map at this intersection with all of the state park trails and additional information. If you wanted to make a loop you could continue down the horse trail and take the Camp Alice Trail to the summit, or try that on the return. As the Mt. Mitchell Trail climbs away from Commissary Hill you notice a stark changes in the trail and the forest. As you near 6,000 feet in elevation you enter the southern Appalachian spruce-fir forest that is unique to the southeast. This forest bears resemblance to boreal forests of Canada, but is unique because of the predominance of red spruce and Fraser firs. Fraser firs are not found outside of southern Appalachia. Mt. Mitchell and the Black Mountains have the 2nd largest southern spruce-fir stand, the largest is in the Great Smoky Mountains.
The other change you’ll easily recognize is the condition of the trail, which is much worse. It might be just a coincidence that the trail is in much better condition in the national forest than in the state park. Since it is the highest elevations, it receives the worst weather and the spruce-fir forest is incredibly damp. The erosion might be a much bigger problem for the 1.6 miles the trail passes through the state park. No matter what the explanation, this is a very rocky and rooty trail with huge, eroded steps throughout. The boulders become more frequent, the ice sheets were longer and more spectacular. There were many rocks covered in icicles. I passed a number of backpackers struggling to maneuver around the ice, don’t forget your microspikes!
With all of the erosion, hiking is considerably harder even through the grade does not noticeably change. The footing is difficult throughout this section. Fortunately once you attain Commissary Ridge around mile 5.2 the grade lessens and you are now walking through a narrow tunnel of trees. This final stretch before the summit was beautiful. There was a light dusting of snow around 6,500 feet that barely covered the trail, but it made everything look spectacular. I was quite fond of some of the large, snow-covered boulders. Near the summit the Balsam Nature Trail forks right, you can use this for a tiny loop.
Nearly 6 miles after I started, I emerged from the dense forest onto the paved pathway for the observation tower. The tower was originally constructed in 1926, a 25-foot stone structure resembling a castle turret. In 1960 it was replaced by a large 35-foot high concrete observation deck and then demolished in 2006. The tower that sits there today was completed in 2008 and is a shorter, simpler observation tower. The grave of Dr. Elisha Mitchell sits just below the tower. When you reach the top of the tower you’ll notice there are a lot of helpful markers, plus concrete benches for taking a break. The floor has all four cardinal directions marked and there are four interpretive maps on the railings for each direction. These maps point out all the mountains you can see with the incredible 360º panorama you get from the summit. It is one of my favorite views in North Carolina.
Immediately north Mt. Craig and the northern Black Mountains dominate the skyline. Farther north you can see the tall, gently sloped mountains of the Roan Highlands. In the northeast Grandfather Mountain sticks out as the tallest peak in its immediate area. Table Rock Mountain and Hawksbill Mountain are clearly visible in the east but seem tiny compared to where you’re standing. Mt. Mitchell is 2,600 feet taller than the mountains in Linville Gorge. Due south you can spot Highway 128 curving along the southern Black Mountains, with the radio towers of Clingmans Peak rising beside Mt. Gibbes. Pinnacle, one of my favorite summits, is the conical peak to the left of Clingmans Peak. Graybeard Mountain is in between Pinnacle and Clingmans Peak but smaller and more rounded. The Black Mountains are shaped like a J and this is never more apparent than atop Mt. Mitchell. The southwestern Black Mountains curve around the Cane River Valley. Immediately to the west Point Misery, Little Butt, and Big Butt are the closest peaks. Towards the southwest Blackstock Knob is the closest peak with a small, rounded summit. Immediately behind that to the left is the distinctive summit of Craggy Dome, the tallest peak in the Great Craggy Mountains. Most of the Great Craggy Mountains are obscured from view by the Black Mountains. If you summit on a clear day, you will be able to see tall ridgelines of the Great Balsam Mountains and Great Smoky Mountains running southwest to west.
It was frigid on the summit. Even though it was sunny the temperatures were in the mid 20s and the wind was steadily blasting 10-30 mph. I was prepared for wind chills around 10ºF and it certainly felt that cold. I had the summit all by myself and took my time admiring the views, and eating my lunch while bundled up in all my clothing. After about 30 min enjoying the summit by myself I heard some hoots and hollers and figured it was one of the groups I passed on the way up. It was not. There were 2 guys in trail running gear, including running shorts, coming up the tower. They were extremely friendly and said they just ran/hiked the Black Mountain Crest Trail, which is 11+ miles and 5,000+ feet elevation gain. I was impressed. They shared some celebratory whiskey with me out of a flask, and got on their way because they did a car shuttle and had to descend the Mt. Mitchell Trail. What a whopper of a day, I’d really love to do that 17 mile shuttle hike sometime soon.
On my way back down I passed a few groups of hikers and two groups of backpackers. I was surprised to see that I had passed all of them on the way up, meaning I had at least beaten them by 1-2 hours to the summit. I know it’s not a race, but it’s nice to have that minor victory knowing I can still burn some miles quickly. The microspikes definitely helped, I did not see any other person wearing spikes and it slows you down considerably navigating around 10-foot long ice sheets. As I stated earlier, I did not actually recognize the microburst damage until my return trip. I went slow through this section marveling at the trees that were snapped like twigs. It is a scary thing to imagine hiking or camping out in those conditions.
I chose to take the Higgins Bald + Mountains-to-Sea Trail route down which roughly parallels the Mt. Mitchell Trail but adds 0.4 extra miles. Even though the MST follows Higgins Bald, the trail is narrower and does not seem to be used frequently. A couple of my guide books mentioned a waterfall on Setrock Creek at the Higgins Bald Trail crossing, my primary reason for going this route. As the trail leveled out in a large camping area I assumed this must be Higgins Bald. Or what remains of it. There is not a grassy bald or heath bald along this trail. Just beyond these campsites the trail crosses Setrock Creek but there was no waterfall. Upstream the brush was dense and it looked like a gentle slop. To me it seemed like the creek dropped steeply to the right, but I could not hear the distinctive sound of falling water and there were no obvious side paths. I gave up easily because I wanted to check out Roaring Fork Falls on my ride out, so I’d love to know more information about this waterfall on Setrock Creek.
Although some books may describe the Mt. Mitchell Trail as one of the toughest trails in North Carolina, this is far from true. It is long, in poor condition in some sections, and tiresome, but I think it is doable for people from many walks of life who have the desire to summit the tallest mountain in the East. Be prepared if you are hiking in Fall, Winter, or Spring. The temperatures and wind can change drastically in the high elevations, you can start out at 60°F in the valley and be subject to freezing temperatures and gale force winds at the summit. In the winter I highly recommend microspikes in case the ice sheets on the trail are extensive. No matter what time of year you decide to hike Mt. Mitchell, get out and do it. And don’t drive to the top, take the Mt. Mitchell Trail.