The highest mountain peak this side of the Mississippi is a quick drive from Asheville. On a fun day-trip the other day the temperature dropped from an unusually steamy 88° in Asheville to a pleasant 66° on the mountaintop. The scenic “slow” route up the Blue Ridge Parkway takes about an hour with spectacular views, woods and scenic overlooks along the way.
Craggy Gardensare definitely worth a stop with scenic trails, picnic areas and a Visitor’s Center. In June and July the rhododendrons are blooming and form a blazing tunnel of flowers along the Craggy Pinnacle trail. The gnarly trees are sweet birch I think- striking in the wintertime.
Mount Mitchellis not that far beyond Craggy Gardens. A left on NC Highway 128 from the Parkway takes you right to the summit. Well not exactly. From the parking lot there is a steep little hike along a paved trail to the observation deck, so you can truly say you “climbed Mount Mitchell”! The views from the observation deck are well worth the little climb. At 6,684 feet above sea level you’re likely to see clouds below you and weather forming miles away. The climate at the peak is more like Canada than North Carolina and the vegetation and even the birds are different than just 35 miles away in Asheville.
A shaded picnic area at the lower summit parking area was a lovely place to have lunch. There were shelters there as well as picnic tables and grills.
Originally it was thought that Grandfather Mountainwas the highest peak in the area, but in 1835 Dr. Elisha Mitchell, a professor at University of North Carolina calculated the elevation using barometric pressure readings and mathematical formulas to prove that the Black Mountains, the range that Mount Mitchell is a part of, were higher.
Of course there was controversy and on a subsequent visit to verify his measurements in 1857 Dr. Mitchell fell from a cliff above a 40 ft waterfall and drowned in the water below. The peak was named in honor of his work in 1858 and he was reburied on top of Mount Mitchell a year after his death.
Until this time the Black Mountain Range was referred to as a single mountain since it’s ridgeline has such an even elevation. Although the elevation of the range is higher, its length is just 15 miles, much smaller than the Blue Ridge Mountains or the Great Smokies. As early as 1787 botanists prized the area for it’s diverse specimens of trees, shrubs and plants. They would bring samples back to Europe to cultivate on royal plantations.
The Fraser Fir is named after one such explorer, Englishman John Fraser. The Fraser fir is the most abundant tree along the mountain crest and unfortunately, it has been hit hard by the Wooly Adelgids. An unwelcome visitor that made the trip to the US from Europe around 1900, this tiny insect has destroyed forests throughout the east as well as the northwest. Mount Mitchell was the first place in the southern Appalachians to be invaded by the pest beginning back in 1957, probably because of the high elevation.
Luckily for us the views are still pristine in spite of the Adelgids and the woods are filled with a great variety of trees and shrubs as well as wildflowers. We returned to Asheville refreshed, full from our picnic and a whole lot cooler.
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