Climbing to the top of Grandfather Mountain is like traveling to another world. Its height (5,964’) and its location at the northern end of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountain range give its rocky top an extreme environment unlike any other place in Southern Appalachia. It has recorded temperatures of -32 degrees and wind gusts exceeding 200 miles per hour. Nevertheless, it is a popular tourist attraction with its Mile High Swinging Bridge, Nature Museum, and Wildlife Habitats. Its conservation efforts have won it United Nations designation as one of only 459 International Biosphere Reserves in the world. And unlike earlier visitors, you can choose to enjoy its treasures either by hiking to its summit or arriving in the comfort of your car.
Over 700 million years ago two gigantic plates within the earth’s crust slammed together. Among the results was the creation of one of the highest peaks in the Blue Ridge Mountain range, Grandfather Mountain. At 5,964 feet, the mountain is one of Appalachia’s most visited attractions and one of its most unique natural wonders.
The earliest reference to Grandfather Mountain is in native folklore, when the Cherokee called it “Tanawha” – meaning a magnificent hawk or eagle. Later European pioneers began referring to it as “Grandfather,” because one of its angles bears the likeness of an old man’s face formed into the granite cliffside. Actually, several vantage points reveal formations that resemble human faces. The most famous and recognizable profile of Grandfather Mountain can be seen from the small community of Foscoe, on NC Hwy 105 between Linville and Boone.
Daniel Boone hunted its forests in the 1760s. French botanist Andre Michaux climbed the mountain in 1794. On an expedition for King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette of France, he wrote in his journal: “Reached the summit of the highest mountain in all of North America, and with my companion and guide, sang the Marseillaise and shouted ‘Long live America and the Republic of France, long live liberty!'”
Regardless of his enthusiasm, Michaux was mistaken about the height of Grandfather Mountain. Though it is the highest point in the Blue Ridge Mountain range (which runs from Pennsylvania to north Georgia), there are many Eastern peaks with higher elevations. Most notable is the highest mountain east of the Mississippi River, Mount Mitchell (elev. 6684’), positioned forty miles to the south. Grandfather Mountain has a sudden abruptness to its ascent that causes it to appear taller than it really is – it virtually towers over its surroundings.
In 1841, Harvard botanist Asa Gray discovered on Grandfather Mountain a rare lily that now bears his name. Gray’s Lily can be seen blooming on the mountain in June and July. Another curious anecdote occurred in 1898 when Sierra Club founder John Muir visited Grandfather Mountain. At the time he was suffering with a bronchial condition. After climbing the mountain he wrote, “the air has healed me. I think I could walk ten miles and not be tired.”
Originally Grandfather Mountain was part of a large land tract owned by William Waighstill Lenoir, the grandson of General William Lenoir, for whom the town of Lenoir, NC in Catawba County is named. In the late 1800s Samuel Kelsey (who founded the resort town of Highlands, NC) purchased 16,000 acres from W.W. Lenoir. The sale included Grandfather Mountain, Sugar Mountain, and Linville Ridge. Kelsey’s development partner, Donald MacRae, eventually assumed full ownership of the property. His son, Hugh MacRae, built a winding roadway from Blowing Rock to Linville which eventually became US Hwy 221. Additionally, the younger MacRae created North Carolina’s first mountain golf resort at Linville.
After World War II, Grandfather Mountain was recognized as one of the premier tourist destinations in the region. A narrow, one-lane road ascended the mountain to an overlook named “Cliffsides.” A wooden platform was constructed and a small toll was charged to those who wished to drive up and see the view.
In 1952, Hugh MacRae Morton inherited Grandfather Mountain. He immediately widened the narrow road to two lanes and extended it to the summit. It was during this decade he also constructed Grandfather Mountain’s most famous attraction: the Mile High Swinging Bridge. The Mile High Swinging Bridge is a 228-foot suspension bridge that spans an 80-foot chasm at an elevation of more than one mile.
Beginning with two black bears in 1968, Grandfather Mountain has since developed a reputation as a wonderful place to see wild animals in their natural habitat. In addition to bear, there are otter, deer, panthers, and eagles. In 1989, Grandfather Mountain began working with the North Carolina chapter of the Nature Conservancy to preserve 4,000 acres of the mountain’s wilderness backcountry. In 1992, the site was selected by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization for recognition as a member of the international network of Biosphere Reserves.
Grandfather Mountain has 11 hiking trails varying in difficulty. They range from a gentle walk to a rigorous trek across rugged peaks. Along the trails hikers enjoy forests similar to those in Canada and other northern climates. Many of the more challenging trails use ladders and cables to navigate sheer cliff faces.
Grandfather Mountain boasts 16 distinct ecological communities. Wind speeds in excess of 200 mph have been recorded on the mountain’s summit, some of the highest on the planet. On a clear day views of up to 100 miles are possible. Occasionally, the skyline of Charlotte, NC is visible in the distance.
On top of Grandfather Mountain, like many mountain peaks above 5000 feet in the Appalachians, grows an “island” of Spruce-Fir. Though largely devastated during the 20th century by the introduction of the non-native Balsam Wooly Adelgid, a remnant of this natural biome still exists here.
For many years one of the nation’s largest Highland Games has been held annually at Grandfather Mountain. Visitors from all over the world come to enjoy traditional Scottish music and games while celebrating their Scottish ancestry.
Grandfather Mountain is located in the Northwest corner of North Carolina, 17 miles south of Boone and Blowing Rock and 70 miles northeast of Asheville. The entrance to the attraction is located on US Highway 221, one mile south of the Blue Ridge Parkway at milepost 305. It opens daily at 8 a.m. For additional information visit Grandfather Mountain’s website, contact its office at 828/733-4337, or email the staff at email@example.com.
- André Michaux: Talk at Grandfather Mountain, Aug. 28, 1994, Charles Kuralt
- Grandfather Mountain: A Profile, Miles Tager, 1999
- Grandfather Mountain: An Outdoor Tourism Experiment, H. Leslie Furr and Wayne E. Williams, 1988
- Grandfather Mountain Highland Games
- *Essay by Timothy N. Osment, (Graduate Assistant in History with Tyler Blethen)
- Videography by Sean Beck (MPTP 250: Basic Production Techniques with Arledge Armenaki)