This is a great combo if you’re into contrasts: start out with a sane, scenic hike to the Mile High Swinging Bridge, then move on to the utterly crazy ridge route to Macc Peak.

Mile High Swinging Bridge, from Bridge Trail

There’s a certain sanity to the .6-mile hike up to the bridge from the Black Rock parking area: the climb warms you up for the gale-force winds creating an eerie hum as they pass through the span. The insane part is the bridge itself: it serves no practical purpose beyond offering a shortcut to a rocky knob on the far side of an 80-foot-deep gorge.

Of course the absurdity of an unnecessary bridge makes it an irresistible tourist stop. The first law of tourism: cash mistakenly placed in a tourist’s wallet must be handed over to its rightful owner, the tourist attraction developer. Second law: the tourist must feel good about the hand-over.

This brings us to the real utility of the Mile-High Swinging Bridge: It’s very cool. Cool to walk across, cool to take pictures of your sweetheart walking across, cool to stand under and take even more pictures, cool to listen to that never-ending hum. After a half-hour at the bridge, Grandfather Mountain’s $15 entry fee feels like Deal of the Decade.

The 15-buck fee also encourages hikers — “frugal” is etched in our DNA — to find cheaper ways up the hill. The two free routes (Boy Scout Trail on the Blue Ridge Parkway and Profile Trail on the west side of the mountain) are just warm-ups for the main event: the three-mile obstacle course from the bridge to Callaway Peak, highest point on the mountain.

How gnarly is this route? Last time I hiked to Callaway Peak, I averaged 1.3 mph in three miles with 2,100 feet of elevation gain. Yesterday I averaged 1 mph with 600 feet of ascent. That’s not an atypical pace: I met a park employee at Calloway Peak last month who told me she’d just spent three hours hiking there from the Swinging Bridge. She was not old and slow like me; she was young, thin and athletic, like the hikers who are always passing me like I’m standing still.

What kind of trail slows everybody to a slug’s pace? Let’s let the pictures tell the story. I’ll start with the warm-up hike to the bridge, then move on to the real fun.

Rock overhang on Bridge Trail

Here’s a look at the Bridge Trail, which starts across the road from the Black Rock parking lot. It’s not super steep, just enough to get your heart rate up.

Mile High Swinging Bridge from the Far Side

Here’s the bridge from the far side. Bridge Trail ends at the other end. A new visitors’ center is under construction over there; not sure when it’s supposed to open.

Bolt on the Mile High Swinging Bridge

Sometimes I can’t help noting the contrast between the natural and the mechanical.

People on cliffs on far side of Swinging Bridge

Folks gather on the rocky knob on the far side of the bridge.

Grandfather Trail starts at the top parking lot across from the visitors’ center and goes out to Callaway Peak, but it has a “trail closed” sign. Obedient citizen that I am, I turned around and retraced my steps back down Bridge Trail to the Black Rock parking area.

Bottom of Mile High Swinging Bridge from Bridge Trail

I’m glad I went this way, because I saw this cool view from beneath the bridge. However, I could have done a loop hike back to Black Rock if I had ignored that “trail closed” sign at the top parking lot. I’m guessing the park closed the trail to discourage hikers from parking up there, thus taking spaces away from paying customers of the new visitors center.

Hikers on Grandfather Trail

Here’s a picture from that “closed” section of Grandfather Trail. (Loop route from Black Rock parking area: Bridge Trail to the bridge; cross the parking lot to Grandfather Trail; take it to the Grandfather Trail Extension; turn right and return to Black Rock parking area).

OK, on to MacRae Peak. From Black Rock parking area, you take the Grandfather Trail Extension up to Grandfather Trail and hang a right. Follow the blue blazes all the way to the peak, descend to MacRae Gap, turn left on the yellow-blazed Underwood Trail, turn left at the Grandfather Trail Extension to get back to the Black Rock lot. Typing these instructions is the only easy part of this hike.

MacRae Peak, fogged in

MacRae Peak, from Grandfather Trail.

Clouds, sky at Grandfather Mountain

Obligatory cool-clouds-and-sky pic.

Cable Ascent on Grandfather Trail

The hiking’s pretty basic till you reach the junction with the Underwood Trail. I turned right, staying on the blue-blazed Grandfather Trail. Two women who looked to be of collegiate age started up this trail ahead of me. Note if you’re at the cables: let one person at a time ascend/descend; otherwise two people tugging on the cable will make it hard for both to keep their grip. From here to the top it’s over 460 feet of climb in four-tenths of a mile.

Hikers on ladders at Grandfather Trail

One of many ladders on the way up. These ladders are the most unnerving part — in a few places you see nothing but sky ahead of you; then you cling to a cable as you return to the trail, what there is of it. The cable sections are more physically challenging, but the angles feel a bit more forgiving.

Looking out over the Blue Ridge Mountains

Never let ’em tell you there are no “rockies” in these mountains.

Taking a bearing

Quick GPS check. Not quite to MacRae peak, but very close.

Rock section of Grandfather Trail near MacRae Peak

If you look closely in the lower center of this shot you can see a small blue rectangle. Looks impassable from this distance, but there’s a path through there.

MacRae Peak Summit

When you round a bend and see this huge chunk of rock, you’ve found the MacRae Peak summit.

Ladder to MacRae Peak

This ladder is the last ascent to the peak. Go up and check out the view, then come back down to resume the hike.

Blue Ridge Parkway from MacRae Peak

That’s the Blue Ridge Parkway down there.

From MacRae Peak there’s one more hairy cable descent, then a short walk to MacRae Gap. From here it’s 1.2 miles one way to Callaway Peak, or you can hang a left on the Underwood Trail and retrace your steps back to Black Rock. I had a sneaking suspicion there’d be even more craziness on the way to Callaway, so I took the shortest path back to the trailhead, via the Underwood Trail.

Flowers blooming

Almost forgot to mention there are wildflowers blooming up here. Indian legend has it that each blooming rhododendron represents the blood of warriors who died fighting other tribes for the right to rule these mountains.

More flowers in bloom

Mountain Laurel, I presume. Oops, I’m told this is a wild blackberry bloom.

Blue Ridge Mountains from Grandfather Mountain

One more look at the Blue Ridge from the Grandfather Trail Extension.

Closing thought on this hike: if you’re feeling frisky, leave the bridge for the tourists and head straight for Callaway Peak on Grandfather Trail. Take the Underwood Trail till it rejoins Grandfather, climb up to Calloway and follow the blue blazes all the way back. The descent from MacRae Peak will be, shall we say, exhilarating.

Standard precaution: Weather can get ugly in a hurry in the Western Carolina high country. Always check the weather forecasts for nearby towns to make sure no storm systems are passing through. In summer, 90-plus heat in the valleys creates massive thunderheads that turn into lightning storms in the afternoon. You don’t want to be on this hill when that happens.

Also: I hiked in ultralight trail-runners that really aren’t up to the task of protecting your feet from boulders filling the trail at extreme angles. I’m not convinced you need the deep-lug tread of heavy backpacking boots, but stiff-soled shoes with trail-ready traction and a firm footbox could save you a lot of pain.

Links for this hike:

Google map for this hike:

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