Summit post“It ain’t Mount Tam,” the guy tells me in his distinct Carolina brogue. Seems he’d lived in Sacramento awhile and had dirtied his boots on a few Bay Area trails.

I had just clambered through the gnarliest mile in recent memory (dating to last week at Linville Gorge, holder of my previous gnarliest-mile record). Two sections had fixed ropes to help keep hikers upright; it’s all above 6500 feet, just to keep the heart muscles occupied. I averaged precisely 1 mile per hour over four miles.

By the time I paused to gab with Former Sacramento Guy (at least 10 years my senior and happily hiking 12 miles on this bad-ass route), I’d concluded most Bay Area trails are polite pathways for Marin County mocha sippers — bunny slopes compared to the double-black-diamond runs of the Carolinas.

One of the first oddities I noticed in North Carolina: “Strenuous” ratings on two-mile hikes. Seems implausible, but I always finish these two-milers feeling like I’ve hiked five.

“Strenuous” in the Bay Area means trudging up old ranch roads. “Strenuous” here means gingerly selecting step-down points on sharp-angled boulders because you know a single slip will break bones. It means lots of grabbing trees to help pull yourself up and ease your way down. And enough roots to fill a library of Alex Haley novels.

So anyway, about Mount Mitchell: It’s named after Elisha Mitchell, a 19th-century scholar who believed he had found the highest point in the East atop a ridge in the Black Mountains north of Asheville. He died in 1857 on a hike intended to bolster his claim. His body is entombed at the summit of what came to be called Mount Mitchell, elevation 6,648.

Mount Mitchell is typically fogged in; even on clear days, fierce winds often blast the peak. Then there was yesterday: Sunny and 68 degrees, gentle breezes, views stretching for dozens of miles. So much for kissing perfect hiking weather goodbye when I moved east.

Let’s see some pix:

Viewing platform atop Mount Mitchell

Here’s the viewing platform at the summit. This is all new, completed in the last year.

Elisha Mitchell's grave

Elisha Mitchell is buried here — the tomb has been renovated too. Here’s what it looked like three year’s ago.

My hike was pretty basic: an out-and-back on the Deep Gap Trail, which tracks a ridge north of the summit for just under five miles. The nearest peak is Mount Craig, just a mile from the summit parking lot. (If you’re going, look for the picnic area and find the sign board for Deep Gap Trail.)

Wonderful views

The trail is mostly tree-tunnel at first, then excellent views start to open up as you near Mount Craig.

Mount Craig

At Mount Craig, wooden rails try to keep hikers on the path and away from the nearby cliffs.

Plant life

Local flora.

Old tree in closeup

Got some cool blur effects here.

Next knob after Mount Craig

Big Tom is the next knob over. The trail gets very interesting after this.

Ropes on the Deep Gap Trail

The first of two sets of fixed ropes.

Hills beyond the trees

Peeking through the trees near my turn-back point. There’s a trail junction and a nice glade nearby to rest up for the walk back.

The other rope course

The other ropes course on the way back.

It's like this about one day a year up here

Another for my “hills, trees and sky” album.

Deep Gap Trail tracks this ridge

Deep Gap Trail tracks this ridge. Doesn’t look so tough from a distance, but like most ridge trails it’s full of up-and-downs without much zigzagging. Definite leg-burner.

Near the trailhead

Near the trailhead, the sun hit these trees at an angle that made them look at least a little like young redwoods.

Picnic shelter

Picnic shelter near the trailhead. You’d want shelter up here most days.

So that’s a first look at Mount Mitchell State Park, which has a restaurant (closed for the season right now) and a few walk-in campsites near the summit. I would never come up here without first checking the forecast for the Asheville area. Cloudy to partly cloudy days would be better spent elsewhere, I suspect. The spectacular vistas are the main attraction; minus the views it’s just a bunch of rugged miles through the forest.

It’s counterintuitive, but the weeks right after the leaves have fallen might just be the best time to visit (depending on the weather) because the views are so much better. Peak leaf season attracts mobs of gawkers (on weekends anyway); winter will be too cold; early spring too gray; summer too hot.

Mount Mitchell links:

Google map to get you there.

View Mount Mitchell State Park in a larger map