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 nearby Mt. Mitchell, it offers more rugged terrain and better vistas from its rocky summit. Grandfather Mountain is also a globally-recognized nature preserve.
You can drive almost to the top, where you will find a gift shop and the famous Mile High Swinging Bridge. Several lofty alpine hiking trails begin from this parking area. Just down the mountain a bit are environmental habitats for native wildlife including bears, cougars, otters and deer.
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 their own vehicles through the park, stopping along the way to enjoy a variety of activities.
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. Take hiking shoes or other shoes that have a good grip since you will be walking on rocky surfaces. And don't forget the camera!
Wildlife Habitats & Nature Museum
Grandfather has seven environmental habitats for black bears, river otters, cougars and white-tailed deer. Environmental habitats are large enclosures that allow visitors to see animals in natural settings. Viewing areas give visitors an up-close perspective of the animals as they live in the wild. Separated from the animals by moats or elevated above the habitats on large retaining walls, these viewing areas allow you to stand only a few feet away from animals you probably won't see in your everyday life. A special aquarium-like viewing area allows you to enjoy watching 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 are included in the price of 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 is equipped with a water fountain and restrooms. Guests are welcome to bring their own picnic. Those who have not planned ahead can purchase fried chicken, sandwiches, salads, etc. to go from the Museum restaurant, Mildred’s Grill. For something sweet, check out the Fudge Shop!
Hiking the Summit Trails
More than 12 miles of regularly maintained trails ranging 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. For a longer hike, 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 jumbled-up, rocky features of this trail are so massive and distinct they appear to have cropped up by mistake-then decided to hang around for another millennia or two. 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). Famed naturalist John Muir was inspired to describe the sight as "the face of all Heaven come to earth." The pace is often deliberate. There are chutes where progress is hand-over-hand and some extra steep sections where hikers 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, 0.7-mile north of the intersection with N.C. 184. There is no charge for accessing the State Park from the trailheads here. This challenging hike is about 7 miles round-trip, gaining 2,100 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 (5,964 ft.) with breathtaking views. Start the hike by filling out a free permit at the little shelter at the downhill end of the parking area. Foscoe View makes a good rest stop since it's about halfway up, before the most strenuous part.
Places to Stay & Nearby Restaurants
The Top Shop (located next to the Swinging Bridge) has three floors and houses merchandise space and a snack bar. An elevator gives visitors in wheelchairs access to the Mile High Swinging Bridge via an elevated walkway.
UN Biosphere Reserve
In 1971, the United Nations began a worldwide program designed to help land managers share scientific knowledge and practical experiences. In March 2007, the Man & Biosphere Program encompassed 507 biosphere reserves in 102 countries. In 1992, Grandfather Mountain became the first and still the only privately owned property to be accepted into the international network of biosphere reserves. Criteria for selection as a Biosphere Reserve are that the property must be: a sample of a unique ecological community permanently protected from uncontrolled development with a history of scientific research and monitoring that provides for training of resource management professionals and is dedicated to consciousness-raising with respect to current ecological issues. 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.
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).
The most scenic route is taking the Blue Ridge Parkway north from Asheville (about 90 miles from downtown, allow 2.5 hours) to Grandfather Mountain. Leave early for great morning views and little traffic. For an easy 1.5 mile (round-trip) hike to a beautiful waterfall, stop at the Linville Falls visitors center, about 15 miles before Grandfather. From Linville Falls, continue north on the Blue Ridge Parkway to the Linn Cove Viaduct, a curvy bridge that seems to float in the air. After you cross the Viaduct, turn around, cross the viaduct again, and take the US 221 Highway/Linville exit. You will quickly come to Grandfather Mountain.
Grandfather Mountain is open daily, except when snow and ice close the summit. Admission for adults (ages 13-59) is $20, seniors $18 and children (ages 4-12) $9 each. Children under the age of four are always free.