Somebody has gotten it into their heads there ought to be winter in the Southern Appalachians. I was not consulted. I was thinking I should have had my head examined when I showed up in autumn apparel at a deep-valley trailhead on the west side of Grandfather Mountain and stepped out of the car into a wake-you-up-like-strong-coffee chill. It couldn’t have been that cold — low-30s maybe — but all those years of perfect Bay Area climate have made me a to-the-marrow weather wimp.
Things had nowhere to go but up after I slipped and stepped into the creek about 20 yards from the trailhead. My left foot never dried till I got back home. Hard to believe that on Nov. 16 I hiked at Mount Mitchell — tallest peak in the East — on a mid-70s day with skies so clear you could see Africa if it weren’t for that inconvenient curvature of the Earth.
In three weeks the weather went from impossibly good to simply impossible. Snowy weather all day Saturday coated Grandfather Mountain with a mere three inches of moist powder — just enough to make the challenging rocky trails at the summit break-a-leg slippery. Grandfather Mountain’s famous Mile-High Hanging Bridge was coated with ice and closed to the public, and the road to the top wasn’t opened till around 1 p.m.
I arrived at the main entrance to Grandfather Mountain about at 10:30, eager to pay my $15 and drive to to summit-area visitors center. A young woman in the front gate office told me the road to the top might be cleared and deiced by sometime after noon. I didn’t want to wait that long, so I asked her for a map and headed for the Profile Trail on the mountain’s west face.
Some background on Grandfather Mountain before I hit the trail: The highest point is at 5,946 feet. The peak is the centerpiece of a huge privately owned nature preserve; though the state of North Carolina has established Grandfather Mountain State Park, the main features of the peak (the hanging bridge, museum, animal habitats, summit-area trails) are privately managed and a $15 entrance fee pays for upkeep of the attraction.
Hikers can get enter the park free from a few backcountry trailheads — but the shortest route to the top (Daniel Boone Scout Trail) is three miles one-way with 2,000 feet of elevation gain, and the only way to it is via the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is typically closed when the weather gets snowy.
My hike started out on the other side of the hill, on the Profile Trail, accessible from State Highway 105 about 12 miles south of Boone, NC. This road might have a better chance of staying open during snowy weather, but be warned: the trailhead is at the bottom of a steep entrance lane that will be a bear to get out of if it’s coated in snow and/or ice.
Once you’re at the trailhead, you self-register (the form must be filled out in duplicate; you keep one copy and put the other in an iron ranger) and hike on. It’s 3.5 miles to the summit with 2,000 feet of elevation gain. The first couple miles are fairly tame but the last one to the top is pretty wicked, I’m told. I didn’t see much of it because I had my heart set on checking out the summit when the road opened. I hiked a little over a mile in and turned back.
Might as well start looking at some pictures.
This creek is the headwaters of the Watauga River. I managed to step into it barely five minutes in to my hike. After an hour or so I had hiked my wet sock dry, then slipped and got it all soaked once more.
These leaves full of snow conveniently cool your neck as you pass, whether you want the cooling or not.
Snow hiking reminded me of the adage to “start cold” — and this doubly true if you start out going uphill. I lit out with three layers (windbreaker, light insulating jacket, light base layer top), plus fleece gloves and a ski cap and was overheating within a half-hour. I didn’t really need anything more than my windbreaker and baselayer as long as I was heading uphill.
Speaking of wind: the Grandfather summit has recorded gusts over 100 mph; don’t forget to look for prevailing winds when you’re checking the weather forecast.
Slipping and sliding for two miles should’ve clued me in that the craggy trails at the top of Grandfather would be, shall we say, interesting with a coating of snow, but this idea didn’t enter my head till I had already driven up the road to the top and started wandering around. I did see two guys coming down from the highest points, but they looked to be young, strong and bold, three characteristics that fled my corpus long before the century turned.
I did take a few pictures, though.
Looking out toward the mountains.
A buck in the park’s animal habitat, which has deer, bears, raptors and…
Yes, mountain lions!
The Mile-High Swinging Bridge (great fun in those hundred-mile gusts).
Guess what: Even more mountains.
We have excellent crags in these hills.
The two highest peaks at Grandfather.
I admit this is a rather scant introduction to Grandfather Mountain, one of the top hiking locales along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Hiking alone on snowy, unfamiliar terrain had my Inner Coward practically hollering “It’s too damn cold and slick to be hiking at all, moron,” so I ended up playing it safe. It’s rather embarrassing to have an Inner Coward, but listening to it has kept me alive to date.
This is going to be one of my favorite places to hike someday — it’s only a two-hour drive (vs. three to four for some locales) and the views should be excellent when the peak isn’t fogged in.
Grandfather Mountain links:
- Grandfather.com — main web site for the attraction.
- Travelbygps.com guide to Grandfather Mountain.
- North Carolina State Parks map (PDF download).
Google map of Grandfather Mountain trailheads.
View Grandfather Mountain in a larger map