From easy to expert, hikes on Eastern America's highest peak are a highpoint of any High Country outdoor adventure.
Leave the Blue Ridge Parkway at Milepost 355.3 on NC 128, the state park access road, about 50 miles south of Linville and 30 miles north of Asheville. Go all the way to the Mount Mitchell summit parking area. When you round the last curve into the parking area, the trail to Mount Craig, called the Deep Gap Trail and Black Mountain Crest Trail, goes left between log cabin-style picnic shelters. For the summit tower trail and Balsam Nature Trail, walk past the concession stand, gift shop, and great museum on the paved trail to the summit tower. Go left near the top for the Balsam Nature Trail and stay right to the summit tower.
The above directions, and the great trails below, can be accessible in winter, BUT-only when the when the Parkway is open to Mount Mitchell. That is a rarity in a severe winter. The state park personnel plow the road but the Parkway is a separate jurisdiction and the road must be in great shape before it's a safe drive. In big snow years, the road can be fine with deep snow still on the ground, so it's worth the effort to call ahead to the park office for information (828-675-4611) or check the park's Current Conditions Web page (for road access and a Web cam). Check out this video of a winter ski expedition on the mountain.
This is the East's highest peak, 6,684 feet, and a walk to the summit tower is a must. The new ramp-style, rock-faced, spiraling viewpoint is much more pleasing to the eye-and accessible to the less fit-than the old tower. Plaques point out distant peaks and the deck of the tower features a map of North Carolina with a benchmark placed where the mountain is located.
On the way up you passed the Balsam Nature Trail on the left. Turn right on the way down to take that easy nature trail-it ends back in the summit parking lot. On the way you'll get great insight into the high elevation spruce-fir forest. A variety of fascinating exhibits describe the "Canadian zone" ecosystem-the highest, most Northern climate in the South.
In addition to the evergreen Fraser fir and red spruce, prevalent species above 5,500 feet include many New England plants such as mountain ash, hobblebush mountain wood sorrel, or oxalis, a clover-like ground covering, and yellow birch. There's a view north along the Black Mountain range. Mount Craig is the dominant, near-by peak north of the parking lot (the next hike). The nature trail turns back left where the Mount Mitchell Trail goes straight. In two days during March 1993, the mountain received 50 inches of snow, a NC record. The trail passes a nearby stream that is likely the highest spring in eastern America. The nature trail ends back at the summit parking lot.
The spectacular and strenuous 2-mile round-trip hike to Mount Craig follows the orange-blazed Deep Gap/Black Mountain Crest Trail with views in all directions. A plaque on the summit memorializes Locke Craig, the governor who helped create this first North Carolina state park. Leave the north end of the parking lot past picnic shelters. At the 0.5-mile mark, in the gap between the peaks (about 6,330 feet), the land drops away west to Mitchell Creek and Mitchell Falls (4,400 feet), where the body of Mount Mitchell's namesake, Elisha Mitchell, was found by his guide, Thomas "Big Tom" Wilson. The trail rebounds to the open, rocky summit of Mount Craig (6,647 feet), the East's second-highest summit.
Out-and-back hikes on the Black Mountain Crest Trail are an adventure. The trail reaches Big Tom (6,593 feet) at 1.2 miles (where a plaque memorializes Wilson), then Balsam Cone (6,611 feet, 2.0 miles), Cattail Peak, 6,583 feet, and Potato Hill (6,440 feet) before dipping into Deep Gap at 4.0 miles. Then the trail (now called the Black Mountain Crest Trail) climbs Deer Mountain (6,120 feet, 4.5 miles), and Winter Star Mountain (6,203 feet), to the lower ridge of the northern Blacks. Past Gibbs Mountain and Horse Rock, the trail reaches the loftiest of the northern Black Mountain peaks, Celo Knob (6,327 feet), at 7.5 miles (a very strenuous 15-mile round-trip).
(For more detail on these and other Boone area trails, pick up a trail guide by local outdoor expert Randy Johnson.)
Zoom in close on the map below (use the plus/minus signs and directional arrows at upper left), or repeatedly double click near, but not on, the map symbols. You can literally dive down to see the parking lots and landmarks for Mount Mitchell hikes. Click any map symbol and information balloons pop up. In the trailhead parking map balloon, click "Directions," add your address or location, and step-by-step directions will guide you to the hike from wherever you are!