Mount Mitchell: The Highest Point East of the Mississippi
The Blue Ridge Parkway, “America’s Favorite Drive,” is loaded with scenic vistas of the most dramatic mountain range in the East. The misty fog passing over the mountains creates a surreal picture-perfect setting. Asheville is the perfect place to start your adventure as many of the drive’s most memorable stops are located within an easy daytrip range. Most notably, Mt. Mitchell State Park lies just an hour outside of the city limits. The drive over is gorgeous with endless picturesque viewpoints along the way. If you are seeking a wonderful half day nature adventure, hop on the Blue Ridge Parkway and cruise over to Mt. Mitchell.
Early morning views along the Parkway
History of Mount Mitchell
The summit of Mt. Mitchell reaches an elevation of 6684 feet, which makes it the tallest point east of the Mississippi. The stunning mountain is located within the Black Mountain range of the Blue Ridge. These mountains are said to be over a billion years old. The Cherokee who once occupied the area named the mountain Attakulla. Because the mountain resembled a dome, early European settlers (during the mid 1700’s) originally referred to it as “Black Dome.” In 1858, the name was eventually changed to Mt. Mitchell in honor of UNC Professor Elisha Mitchell who fell to his death exploring the area. He determined that the peak was higher than Mt Washington in NH (6288 ft). His grave was eventually relocated to the park.
You can read more about the history of Mt Mitchell on the park website.
Climate, Flora, & Fauna
Mount Mitchell sees a humid continental climate, perhaps leaning towards sub alpine. The summers are much cooler here in comparison to surrounding lower altitude areas, while the winters are much colder and snowier. The coldest temperate recorded in the state took place on January 21, 1985 when Mt. Mitchell recorded a temp of -34 degrees! The weather here more closely resembles that of Northern New England rather than the Southeast. This means a day at Mt. Mitchell is a wonderful escape from the Southern summertime heat. Beautiful red spruce, yellow birch, and Fraser fir can be found at such a high altitude, as well as plentiful wildlife and birds more typically found in colder places like Maine and Canada.
Take a look at some of the diverse plants and wildlife you may encounter during your visit.
Mount Mitchell State Park
As this beautiful free parks lies just 30 miles northeast of Asheville (Milepost 355 along the Blue Ridge Parkway), it’s definitely worth checking out while you are in the vicinity. Not only are the views gorgeous throughout the park, but the drive over is equally stunning with many overlooks to enjoy along the route. The drive will take roughly an hour, perhaps a bit longer depending on how many stops you make.
The prime attraction at Mt. Mitchell is an observing area which looks out upon the mountains. The views are truly gorgeous in every direction. If you visit during the slow spring season, you may be lucky enough to have the panoramic view all to yourself. If you visit during the fall, views are equally stunning with the dazzling foliage taking center stage. While no hiking is required, there is a steep 10 minute walk up a paved road. Don’t worry – it’s worth the temporary pain. Also, there’s a nice little sign where you can take your pic to document your trip to the highest point east of the Mississippi. A cool little photo souvenir to take home with you!
Activities include hiking, picnicking, and various events including guided hikes.
Trails range from an easy nature walk to a strenuous summit climb. Keep in mind that this area is high altitude, and thus, even a simple nature trail may require much more effort than you are accustomed to. The Balsam Nature trail is a fantastic introductory trail which is not too long (just under a mile), lined with dense greenery on each side, and features the highest spring in the East. As you make your way along the trail the fresh scent of Christmas is in the air due to the presence of many Fraser Firs. This makes the hiking experience here much different than most of the state. In addition to the scenery, the air feels fresher, cleaner, more like a high altitude trail in Colorado.
The setting is much more natural and wildlife sightings are possible. Bobcats, black bear, and many birds not typically seen in NC (like winter wrens and red crossbills ) are occasionally sighted. The rare New England cottontail and northern flying squirrel also inhabit the area.
For the extreme fitness enthusiasts, there is an option to hike 6 miles to the summit (extremely strenuous) and also the 4.3 mile long Deep Creek Trail, another difficult trek which features stunning mountain vistas. Be aware than the climate is much cooler at 6000+ feet, and thus, you should dress in layers, even during the summer season. Hiking shoes and appropriate workout wear, along with plenty of water and light snacks, are recommended for any hikes. Keep your distance from any wildlife and if possible read up on bear safety tips before you venture out.
Best time to visit
Summer is the premier time to visit as the temps (upper 70’s-low 80’s) are perfect for hiking and picnicking. The scenery is also at its’ most gorgeous with lush greenery as far as the eye can see. The fall scenery is also enchanting, although this is the park’s busiest season. Do try to get out early in the morning to avoid the tourist crowds. The park is open year round, however, portions of the Parkway are often closed due to snow/ice. You may want to check the Parkway Conditions page for closures. Overall, late spring/early summer is your best bet for comfortable weather, as well as low traffic.
Location, Pricing, and Hours
Mt. Mitchell is located at Milepost 355 along the Blue Ridge Parkway. The park is open year-round from 7am-10pm. Admission and parking are free.
Craggy Gardens is a popular Parkway destination which lies on Milepost 364, a convenient 10 mile drive from Mt Mitchell. Because it is located directly on your route from Asheville, it’s an easy add on activity. Asides from the most breathtaking mountain vistas, the area is a popular sunrise and sunset destination. The misty views of the mountains are unparalleled in this area. Other activities at this stop include picnicking and hiking trails.
Where to eat
It’s wise to get breakfast in Asheville before hitting the road. Research shows that eating carbs may help in preventing altitude sickness. Unfortunately, many of the cafes and coffeehouses in this region open quite late. A few decent early riser options include:
- Green Sage Cafe – Healthy organic fare, opens at 7am
- Moose Cafe – Southern style farm-to-table comfort food, all-you-cat eat, homemade biscuits, opens at 7am
- City Bakery – Local bakery serving great coffee and pastries, Amazing croissants, opens at 7:30am
Also be sure to bring a picnic to enjoy post hike. The picnic area is located next to the parking lot. There are 40 tables, plus grills, and also shelters with fireplaces. It’s super shady, and thus, can be enjoyed even on the sunniest of days.