The Boone Area is a great place to meet the Southern Mountains-but a visit to the High Country is an even better way to meet the diverse and distinctive resident wildlife that populates the dense forests of the Southern Appalachians. In fact, nature study of all kinds-from flora and fauna, to geology and natural history-is easy at nature museums and on easy trails here in Eastern America's highest mountains.
Any nature study experience should start with Grandfather Mountain, a UN-designated International Biosphere Reserve uniquely partitioned for preservation by a North Carolina State Park and a private non-profit stewardship foundation.
One of the most significant single mountains in the East, craggy Grandfather has the distinction of being the namesake of it's own geologic feature: the Grandfather Mountain Window.
The biggest part of the peak is a new North Carolina state park. A smaller part of the mountain is a popular "green" travel attraction. Here you can drive up to 5,300 feet where visitors cross the Mile-High Swinging Bridge. This a great place to watch ravens cavort in the wind.
Half-way up the mountain is a top-notch nature museum that has world-class exhibits-and films-on geology, flora, and fauna. Best of all, there is a tastefully designed and professionally run Environmental Habitat where you can see deer, bears, cougars (which used to roam these mountains), eagles, and otters. This museum and habitats are a wonderful place to pack a lot of wildlife experience into one easy stop.
The mountain also has two nature interpretive trails, one toward the lower part of the road, the other in a loftier high elevation forest.
To really enjoy the ravens and other birding opportunities, take the Granddaddy of Boone Area hikes.
Start at the Grandfather Mountain travel attraction and the trail enters the state park climbing ladders and cables up the cliffs and rocky crags of the mountain's highest peaks. From those summits, the drop-off to the Carolina Piedmont is almost a vertical mile (more akin to elevation changes in the Rocky Mountains). Start your hike at the parking lot just below the top of the road where you'll take the Grandfather Trail Connector (this is where the Black Rock Nature Trail starts).
Turn right at the Grandfather Trail and follow the summit ridge through tiny meadows and among boulders clothed in spruce and fir forests. The summit is a massive boulder perched on the knife-edge ridge-reached by another ladder. Descend into the next gap and go left on the cool, mossy, and rocky Underwood Trail for a 2-mile hike back at your car (it'll feel more like 4 miles).
There are four great North Carolina State Parks very close to Boone. New River State Park offers excellent access to one of the few rivers in the nation designated as both a National Wild and Scenic River and as a National Heritage River. The park has a wonderful nature museum and is known for it's insightful and frequent nature programming and interpretation. The park is home to a rare species of giant salamander called the hellbender, or less attractively nicknamed the "snot-nosed otter."
Interpretive exhibits and guided nature experiences are also offered at Elk Knob State Park, Grandfather Mountain State Park, and Mt Jefferson State Natural Area. Visit the hot-linked Web sites to check the schedule for these activities to plan your visit.
At Blue Ridge Parkway Milepost 330.9, just south of Linville Falls, the Museum of North Carolina Minerals is a nationally significant setting for study of geology, minerals, and gems. (Milepost 330.9)
This large center (renovated in 2006) offers extensive exhibits on Blue Ridge geology, restrooms, a book/gift shop, and a local tourism office for the Spruce Pine/Burnsville area where gem mining is a popular visitor attraction.
The park's exhibit hall tells how the East's highest peak stacks up against other mountains. The 1400-square-foot exhibit hall near the mountain's summit tower, is open from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m., May through October.
Exhibits include an interactive weather station that displays both current conditions and contains a historical weather database, a three-dimensional topographic map of the Black Mountains with interactive buttons, a geology section with a hands-on demonstration of a rock fault and four samples of the different rock types found on the peak (magnifying glasses are available for visitors who want a close look), and four dioramas depict the park's wildlife.
The park also has many free interpretive events.