Grandfather Mountain, one of the highest peaks in the Blue Ridge Mountain range (elevation 5,946 ft.), is 70 miles from Asheville, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway. While it is not as tall as Mt. Mitchell, it offers more rugged terrain and dramatic vistas from its rocky summit. Grandfather Mountain is a globally-recognized nature preserve and home to the famous Mile-High Swinging Bridge. Located near the fun small town of Banner Elk, the longtime attraction has many things to do and see.
Here's the fall view of Grandfather Mountain from the Blue Ridge Parkway. A short drive from the Parkway on US 221 South is the park entrance. Drive to the ridgetop with a gift shop and the Swinging Bridge. Several lofty alpine hiking trails begin from this parking area. The Top Shop has three floors with gift shop and snack bar. An elevator gives visitors in wheelchairs access to the Bridge. Just down the mountain a bit are environmental habitats and nature museum.
The mountain attractions are operated by a non-profit foundation and one ticket price includes everything. The backcountry of Grandfather is now a North Carolina State Park. Guests purchase tickets at the foot of the mountain and drive up the crooked drive.
Arrive by 11 AM if you plan to get in some hiking, so you will have plenty of time to enjoy the amazing views. Also, take warmer clothing since it is often 20 degrees cooler on the summit than in Asheville. Quite often, fog and clouds cover the summit. The summit is known for extreme weather year-round including high winds (they set a record of 121 MPH in February 2019). Take hiking shoes with a good grip since you will be walking on rocky surfaces. And don't forget the camera!
Wildlife Habitats & Nature Museum
Grandfather has environmental habitats for black bears, river otters, cougars, eagles and elk. Viewing areas give you an up-close perspective of the animals. A aquarium-like area allows you to watch the playful otters above or below the water. Special activities and programs with the Mountain's naturalists are presented daily during the summer months and included in the admission. Guided tours and guided hikes with the Mountain's naturalists are available for an additional fee. Phone 828-733-4326 for reservations.
More than 100 picnic tables and grills are scattered throughout the park. The Woods Walk picnic area located on the right about 1/3 of a mile up the summit road has a water fountain and restrooms. Bring your own picnic, or purchase hamburgers, sandwiches, salads, chicken tenders and more to go from Mildred's Grill restaurant at the Nature Museum. For something sweet, check out the Fudge Shop!
Hiking the Summit Trails
More than 12 miles of regularly maintained trails range in difficulty from easy nature walks to strenuous backcountry challenges. Our favorite hike is going out along Grandfather Trail and returning along Underwood Trail. To go to MacRae Peak, it's a butt-kicking two-mile round-trip hike. Allow two hours for this short hike packed with amazing scenery. To reach Grandfather's highest peak, continue to Calloway Peak for a five-mile round-trip trek. If you are hiking at the top, park at the Black Rock parking area near the summit.
An upper mountain ridge trail of astonishing variety, running in and out of wind-dwarfed spruce and fir, across or around rock walls and pinnacles, and into open spaces with views of mountains unfurling in every direction. The route follows the crest of Grandfather Mountain from the Hiker's Parking Area near the summit, about 2.4 miles to Calloway Peak (or do a shorter hike to MacRae Peak). There are chutes where progress is hand-over-hand and some extra steep sections where you use in-place cables and ladders. An alternative to taking the ladders up MacRae Peak (5,845 feet) is to opt for the more sheltered Underwood Trail. Or you can take the ladders to MacRae Peak and take the Underwood Trail back (it's easier to go up the ladders than go down!). When you reach MacRae Peak, climb a short ladder to get atop the rock for 360-degree views. It's a great spot for a picnic! After climbing down from MacRae Peak, continue on the Grandfather Trail about 1/4 of a mile to the Underwood Trail. Follow the Underwood Trail back to the Swinging Bridge. Or continue for 1.5 miles to reach Calloway Peak, the highest point of Grandfather.
Splitting off the Grandfather Trail near the half mile marker, the Underwood Trail bypasses ladder climbs on MacRae Peak, rejoining the Grandfather Trail at MacRae Gap, about a mile out. The trail makes a steep, rocky loop under the crest line around Raven Rock Cliffs. Read above for using this trail as an alternate return from MacRae Peak.
This popular trail to the top of Grandfather Mountain begins from N.C. Highway 105, near the intersection with N.C. 184 in Banner Elk. There is no charge for accessing the State Park from the trailheads here. This challenging hike is about 6.2 miles round-trip, gaining 1,800 ft. in elevation. It begins as an easy stroll across the Watauga River and through the woods. The top section is very strenuous and rocky as you reach Calloway Peak (5,946 ft.) with breathtaking views. Location: Across from the Peddlin' Pig restaurant - GPS address is 4198 NC Highway 105 N, Banner Elk
The fastest route (70 miles) from Asheville is taking I-40 East to Marion, NC. Take Exit #85. Turn left at the bottom of the ramp and go one mile to a stoplight. At the stoplight turn left and follow US 221 North to the entrance of Grandfather Mountain (about 30 miles). Park Entrance Street GPS Address: 2050 Blowing Rock Highway, Linville, NC 28646.
The most scenic route is taking the Blue Ridge Parkway north from Asheville (about 90 miles from downtown, allow 2.5 hours) to Milepost 305 - take the US 221 Highway/Linville exit just before the Linn Cove Viaduct.
For more things to do in the area and places to stay, go to our Banner Elk Guide.
Grandfather Mountain is open daily, weather permitting, except Thanksgiving & Christmas Day. Admission for adults (ages 13-59) is $22, seniors $18 and children (ages 4-12) $9 each. Children under the age of four are always free. Purchase tickets at the gate.
UN Biosphere Reserve
In 1971, the United Nations began a worldwide program designed to help land managers share scientific knowledge and practical experiences. In 1992, Grandfather Mountain was accepted into the international network of biosphere reserves. Grandfather Mountain supports sixteen distinct ecological communities, each supporting its own unique web of life. It is Grandfather's abrupt rise above the valley floor that causes the change in elevation and climate conditions that supports such a diversity of life.
Don't miss the annual Grandfather Mountain Highland Games.