Grandfather's rocky ridge rises almost a vertical mile above valleys to the East making for impressive views of dramatic drops. Calloway Peak is the highest summit at 5,946 feet. Many spots on the Grandfather Trail and Daniel Boone Scout Trail have ladders that climb rocky spots and even cliff faces. A permit is required and easily gained by completing a form at unmanned trailhead permit kiosks where paper maps are available.
There are up-and-down hikes from three starting points (below, under trailheads). There are loop hikes possible from the Swinging Bridge area and on the Daniel Boone Scout Trail.
State park hiking permits are free, but getting to the trailhead inside the Grandfather Mountain attraction requires paying the attraction fee. If you park inside the attraction you must return to your car by closing to avoid being locked inside the gate (thus no camping from there). The state park trails are only open during daylight hours, but backpack campers are permitted to park at the state park valley trailheads and spend the night (which includes the Parkway's Boone Fork Parking Area). Camping is free at sites on a first-come, first-served basis. In the future the park plans on placing backcountry campsites on the state's computerized reservations system and a fee will likely be charged.
Caution: This is a serious mountain. The required permit is a safety registration system. You will end up on craggy, alpine, and challenging terrain (and that happens quickly if you start at the Grandfather Mountain attraction). No flip-flops folks! Stout outdoor shoes of some sort-or hiking boots-are recommended. Take a pack, with water, food, extra clothing (including rainwear), and "smart extras"-a first aid kit, flashlight, etc. In winter-a "hike" up Grandfather is actually mountaineering. Learn more about winter hiking in the Boone Area.
Volunteers are encouraged to help maintain Grandfather's trails. Call the park's interim office to learn when trail workdays are scheduled or to get their group involved (828-737-9522). And there are plenty of other opportunities to help build Boone Area trails.
There are three main trailheads. The Profile Trail on the west side of the mountain is located .7 mile north of the junction of NC 105 and NC 184 near Banner Elk (about 12 miles south of Boone on NC 105). The Daniel Boone Scout Trail and Nuwati Trail on the east side of the mountain are most easily reached via the Tanawha Trail from the Blue Ridge Parkway's Boone Fork Parking Area at Milepost 299.9, about 8 miles south of the US 321/221 Parkway access at Blowing Rock. (When snow closes the Parkway, a connector links the Tanawha Trail and US 221, 1.5 miles south of the US 221/Holloway Mountain Road junction south of Blowing Rock). The Grandfather Trail is best started with a drive up to the Grandfather Mountain attraction reached via US 221, 2 miles east from Linville, and 1 mile west from the Blue Ridge Parkway at Milepost 305.
Register for your hiking permit inside the trailhead shelter. Head through the shelter and down to cross rocks over the first stream. No roundtrip hike to Calloway Peak is easy (7.5 miles/2,000 feet of elevation gain), but this first, nearly one mile of the Profile Trail along the headwaters of the Watauga River is easy and makes a great out-and-back family hike (2-miles or so round-trip). There's only one steep stretch on the way to the second big set of stream stepping stones at Shanty Branch.
After that stream crossing, Profile climbs steeply at times winding its switch-backing way through sharp stream drainages. You'll pass Foscoe View (1.7 miles), then more switchbacks to a major campsite. You'll zig-zag higher up, over steps past a huge boulder to Profile View (2.3 miles). There are a number of "profile faces" on the mountain but the one seen from the official Profile View is the "real thing"-the famous rocky face of an old man that gave the mountain its name.
The climb slackens some to famous Shanty Spring at 2. 7 miles (fill up your water bottles!) Then it's steeper and rockier still to Calloway Gap, site of a number of tent platforms for camping (no fires permitted). At Calloway Gap, 3 miles in on the evergreen-covered summit ridge, the blue-blazed Grandfather Trail goes left and right. Left, it's another climb of .4-mile through evergreens past another campsite to a final, uppermost junction. Go left and astounding Watauga View overlooks Banner Elk. Go right on the white-blazed Daniel Boone Scout Trail, and you scramble across the craggy evergreen crest over a ladder to Calloway Peak (where the Boone Trail continues down the East side of the mountain). Turn around here for an awesome hike.
Turning right back at Calloway Gap follows the Grandfather Trail over whaleback ridges with awesome views and alpine scenes. Turn around when you get tired. If a friend drives to the Swinging Bridge at the Grandfather Mountain attraction, you could get picked up. That's an all-day classic crossing of this ridge top.
Most people who explore the distant end of the Grandfather Trail make the smart choice and drive to "the top," the Grandfather Mountain attraction and start near the Mile-High Swinging Bridge. There's a loop around MacRae Peak, and if you only hike to the Swinging Bridge from the valley and get picked up - you miss one of those trails. That is unless you hike back to the valley in one day or backpack - both not easy on this very rugged peak.
Best bet - start in the area of the Swinging Bridge (actually, park just below the summit parking lot at the Black Rock Trail parking area). Head up the Grandfather Trail Extension to a junction with the blue-blazed Grandfather Trail and turn right at .4 mile. Here's where the scenery starts - immediate meadow views reach out over Banner Elk and up to the face of MacRae Peak (look closely, can you spot the ladders on the cliffs at about 11 o'clock?).
Go right at the next junction (the Underwood Trail, your return route, goes left). Soon you're grappling with cable-assists up rocky slabs. The first ladder will surprise you -wedged in a rocky fissure. Keep climbing; a series of ladders takes you above the trees up rock faces. Use caution - parents should assist children. After an open, view-packed ridge, you reach a boulder perched on the skyline. A ladder lifts you to the top of the rock - MacRae Peak - for spectacular views at about 0.8 mile. Note the next summit - Attic Window Peak - and the deep cleft in its face. The trail goes up there!
The trail drops steeply down cable-assisted ladders from MacRae Peak to MacRae Gap at 1 mile. Straight, the Grandfather Trail leads to Attic Window Peak - but go left and take the rugged Underwood Trail on the way back. It descends a big ladder and slides through a mossy green cleft to rejoin the Grandfather Trail. Take a right and retrace your steps back to your car for an action-packed 2-mile hike.
If you turn left to continue on the Grandfather Trail (you will need to hike back unless you were dropped off and will get picked up in the valley) you'll need to ascend the rocky defile up Attic Window Peak, a hand-over-hand climb that'll impress even experienced hikers. At the top, go left (a right leads to a premier tent platform campsite). Summit views await. Continue along the ridge with a dip to the next gap (a right leads to Indian House Cave, a Native-American site), then climbs across whaleback clifftops, through Alpine Meadow campsite to Calloway Gap (more tent platforms at 1.9 miles). Here the Profile Trail enters from the left. It's another .5 miles (2.4 miles total) to the summit, Calloway Peak. Back at your car near the Swinging Bridge, it's a 4.8-mile round-trip hike.
From the Blue Ridge Parkway's Boone Fork Parking Area, there is an out-and-back hike to Calloway Peak on the Boone Trail and a second out-and-back hike into an isolated high elevation valley. There is a connector trail between the two, Cragway Trail, so loop options are possible.
Leave Boone Fork Parking Area. At the second signed junction go left on the Tanawha Trail across the Boone Fork Bridge. The connector to US 221 immediately goes left. Stop and sign in for a permit just beyond. Farther on, a junction sends the Nuwati Trail to the right (Tanawha heads left to the Boone Trail, see below). Going right, the Nuwati Trail passes the Cragway Trail (heading left to the Boone Trail) at 1.1-miles. Nuwati soon passes Streamside campsite on the left, then The Hermitage campsite, crosses smaller streams, then Boone Fork before reaching Storyteller's Rock at 1.6 miles. Scramble up to a great, 360-degree view. Left, below the rock, and right, beyond the rock, tent platform sites invite campers. A turn-around back to your car here is a moderate, relatively flat 3.2-mile hike.
Back on Tanawha Trail, go left where Nuwati goes right. You reach a right turn onto the Boone Trail at 0.6-mile. After a steady climb, the Crag Way junction arrives at 1.6-miles. The Boone Trail continues to the left. Right, Cragway drops down to Nuwati. Whichever way you go, Flat Rock View is right in front of you. Hop up for a great vista and perfect picnic spot.
To continue on the Boone Scout Trail, keep left, and at the next signpost, go left to reach a middle campsite, with four tent platforms and Bear Wallow Spring. To keep climbing, head right at the sign and the trail continues up winding switchbacks and into the evergreen forest zone. There's the Briar Patch campsite, then more rugged evergreen-covered terrain to Viaduct View (take that left to peer down on the Parkway). Higher up, another side trail leads left at 2.6 miles to Hi-Balsam Shelter (no fires). Keeping on, another tent platform is on the left, then major ladders lead steeply up the back of the peak to a sudden opening and 360 degree views. Return to your car the way you came for a 5.6-mile hike. Or continue another few tenths mile to the Grandfather Trail and Watauga View.
On the way down the Boone Trail you can also shorten the hike and alter the descent by going left on the 1-mile orange-blazed Cragway to reach the Nuwati Trail. Exit down Nuwati to Tanawha for a less than 6-mile hike back at your car. Cragway is a steeper trail, so going down is best, unless you want the workout! A simple loop of Cragway is a very exciting lower elevation hike option. There are stunning views of the Boone Bowl valley all along the way-for a 3.6-mile circuit.
(For more detail on this or other Boone area trails, pick up a trail guide by the local outdoor expert who wrote this guide. Randy Johnson's books are authoritative guides to Grandfather Mountain - he started the trail program at Grandfather before it was a state park and built a number of the mountain's trails. His website features an entire page of resources about the mountain.)
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 Grandfather Mountain hikes. Click any map symbol and information balloons pop up. In the trailhead parking map balloons, click "Directions," add your address or location, and step-by-step directions will guide you to the hike from wherever you are! This map permits "Terrain view" so click that to see a topographical map.