Rising to nearly 6,000 feet above sea level, Grandfather Mountain is a distinctive natural landmark in a region that features the highest mountains east of the Mississippi River. In fact, Grandfather Mountain is the highest summit in the Blue Ridge Mountain chain.
Depending on the angle that you view Grandfather Mountain, it can either appear like the most Rocky Mountain-looking of the peaks found in the High Country region when seen from the west, or the face of the old man it is named for appears when you view it from the north.
Privately owned for many years, Grandfather Mountain is now a state park. For an entrance fee, there is much to explore on this unique and ancient precipice. The views from the top of Grandfather Mountain overlook Wilson Creek Gorge and also include many other peaks found nearby, including Mount Mitchell, the tallest mountain east of the Rockies. You can even see the skyline of Charlotte on the horizon 90 miles away on a clear day.
Grandfather Mountain State Park, however, provides much more than just panoramic views as it seeks to sustain a unique eco-system. A trip to the top of the mountain features a wild animal attraction, trails to hike, a gift shop, a restaurant and the famous Mile High Bridge to walk across.
The wildlife habitats on the mountain feature live black bear, mountain lion, bald eagles, otters, elk and more. The park also houses a Nature Museum that offers an opportunity to learn about the diverse and sometimes rare aspects of nature found in the park. The museum displays range from 60-plus examples of gems and crystals found in this mineral-rich region to native plant life displays created by the late artist Paul Marchand. Many wildlife movies have been filmed on Grandfather Mountain and the park’s Nature Museum Theatre plays these productions on a regular basis throughout the day.
As with most aspects of life in recent months, Grandfather Mountain State Park was closed this past spring due to the coronavirus pandemic. But as society slowly opened up, the park adjusted and opened as well.
Frank Ruggiero is the director of Marketing and Communications for the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation.
“In March, we decided to temporarily close Grandfather Mountain to help reduce the spread of COVID-19,” said Ruggiero. “We tried to make the best of the situation by performing maintenance that we otherwise couldn’t have done if guests were in the park. Meanwhile, our animal keepers continued to care for the resident animals who call Grandfather Mountain their home. We reopened on May 15, with mountains of safety measures and procedures in place.”
While some of the changes are listed below, however, be sure to look for updates and park news at grandfather.com or (800) 468-7325.
“Now, rather than purchasing tickets at our entrance gate, visitors must do so online at www.grandfather.com by placing a reservation for a set date and time of entry,” said Ruggiero. “This measure aims to help limit the number of guests in the park at one time, in accordance with the state of North Carolina’s social gathering guidelines. As such, tickets will not be sold or available at the gate as visitors must book online in advance. Here’s a quote from Jesse Pope, our president and executive director; ‘The safety of our guests and staff comes first and foremost. We will continue to follow the situation closely, while implementing a phased reopening plan closely correlated with Gov. Roy Cooper.’”
With each new re-opening phase that is expected to happen within the state of North Carolina, changes are sure to come.
As of early September, “We have enacted operational measures to discourage crowds and encourage social distancing,” said Ruggiero. “High-traffic pedestrian areas such as the Mile High Swinging Bridge and wildlife habitats will implement a one-way directional system to ensure that guests do not come within six feet of each other. The number of guests allowed to visit such areas at one time will be limited, based on state social gathering recommendations, while a time limit will ensure that others can participate in turn. However, guests are welcome revisit such areas during the same trip. Time limits will be not be enforced for the park’s less crowded, lower-traffic areas. We’ve also enhanced our already stringent cleaning procedures and placed additional sanitization stations in key areas, while boosting staff presence to direct traffic flow and encourage safe social distancing.”
In the autumn months, the mountains come alive as the leaves begin to change and a multitude of colors light up the forests. To take advantage of this wonderful time of the year, Grandfather Mountain State Park will offer Fall Color Ramble Guided Walks on Oct. 3-11. These easy, 20-minute hikes taking place at 2 p.m. daily will let visitors take in the best fall foliage with a naturalist as their guide.
“The fall colors in the Southeast are exceptionally spectacular because of the diversity of species that change color,” said Lauren Farrell, interpretation and education programs coordinator for the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation, the nonprofit organization that owns and operates the Linville, N.C., nature preserve. “It’s definitely one of my favorite times on the mountain.”
Even if you miss the guided fall foliage walks, Grandfather Mountain State Park should still be your destination for family adventure.
“All throughout October and possibly beyond, the mountain will offer an ample display of fall color even after the local leaves have peaked,” said Ruggiero. “You’re essentially able to see the entire season unfold before your eyes. Autumn always look spectacular from a mile high up in the sky.”
For the in-shape hikers among us, you can climb to the top of Grandfather Mountain via the famous Profile Trail. The trailhead for the Profile Trail can be found on Rt. 105 in Banner Elk. The hike, however, is considered difficult as it rises 1, 775 feet over 3.6 miles and requires stream crossings and ladder usage. Once on the summit, however, you can explore other peaks or hike to the Mile High Bridge free of charge. Still, preparation is the key on the Profile Trail as inclement weather can happen at any time. Once you have summated, you can continue over the mountain and climb down to the Blue Ridge Parkway where someone can pick you up, be picked up on top of Grandfather Mountain, or climb back the way you came. With all scenarios, proper planning is essential.