The dog days of summer are here. But Mount Mitchell State Park stands tall as a respite from the wrath of Sol. After all, it is the highest point in the eastern United States. The park presents hiking, camping, picnicking and dining — in a climate where cool breezes blow even during when molasses- thick air envelopes the Tri-Cities.
The rarefied atmosphere there calls to mind Canada more than Dixie. The flora and fauna follow suit. Luckily, in 1915, then-North Carolina Gov. Locke Craig recognized the special character of this mountaintop and made it North Carolina’s first state park.
The superlative highland scenery of Mount Mitchell State Park is a Southern Appalachian highlight. You can gain views on your drive up, since it is located off the Blue Ridge Parkway. As the last Ice Age retreated north, cold-weather plants and animals of the north retreated with them — except for those that survived on the highest peaks in our Southern Appalachians. These mountaintops formed, in effect, cool-climate islands where the northern species continue to survive. Mount Mitchell is one of these islands.
A summertime camping trip will feel more like October than August. Mount Mitchell’s campground is for tents only, unless you can carry an RV from the parking area up the stone steps to the campground. The short walk immediately enters stunted and weather-beaten mountain ash and a few other hardwoods mingling with evergreens. The nine campsites splinter off the gravel path that rises with the mountainside. Set into the land amid the dense woods, they are small and fairly close together, but are private due to the heavy plant growth.
There is little canopy overhead, as the trees become gnarled the higher they grow. Two water spigots lie along the short path; a bathroom with flush toilets is midway along the path. Firewood is sold by the bundle in the parking area. Sites 1 and 9 are the most private, but you’ll feel lucky to get a site at all during summer weekends — they are reservable. This tiny campground exudes an intimate, secluded feel. The only noise you’ll hear is the wind whipping over your head.
By the way, Mount Mitchell records fog, rain or snow eight out of every 10 days. Snow has fallen every month of the year; 104 inches drop annually. Don’t let those facts deter you though; variable weather is part of the phenomenon that is Mount Mitchell.
The fog rolled in and out of the campground during my midsummer trip. Now and then the sun would shine, warming me and opening incredible panoramas. Wooded ridges came in and out of view with the fog; the whole scene seemed like some other world.
Carry a jacket along when you tramp the park. First drive up to the summit parking area and make the short jaunt to the observation tower atop Mount Mitchell. Here lie the remains of Elisha Mitchell, who fell to his death from a waterfall after measuring the height of the mountain. From the tower you can see the Black Mountain Range and beyond. Back near the parking area, check out the museum that details the natural history of Mount Mitchell.
Many other hiking trails thread the park. My favorite is the Deep Gap Trail, also known as the Black Mountain Crest Trail. The path starts at the picnic area just below Mount Mitchell. It’s a rugged 6.8 miles there-and-back hike along the Black Mountain Crest to Deep Gap. But you don’t have to go the whole way. It is less than one mile to the outcrops atop Mount Craig. Several other peaks stand more than 6,000 feet high.
The path bisects dense evergreens, primarily Fraser fir, one of the two primary components of this highland forest. The other is red spruce. Mountain ash and yellow birch are two deciduous hardwoods clinging to these heights. Moss grows on anything that doesn’t move. Yet the hike presents other scenes, bald rock faces, open grassy locales, ultra- dense woods dark as dusk and thickets of Catawba rhododendron.
Hikers can also take the Old Mount Mitchell Trail past the park restaurant and loop around Mount Hallback. Yes — there is a park restaurant where you can dine in climate-controlled comfort with million-dollar views. Mount Mitchell State Park is surrounded by the Pisgah National Forest. This, in essence, increases the accessible forest area well beyond the 1,860-acre state park. Many national forest trails connect to the state park trails, allowing nearly unlimited hiking opportunities. Procure a trail map from the park office for the best hiking experience.
Get your supplies at home before you leave. There are no stores nearby. Once in the highlands of the Black Mountains, you won’t want to leave this wonderful mountaintop just to pick up some forgotten hot dog buns.
There are multiple ways to get to the state park. The most scenic, and perhaps slowest, is to take the Blue Ridge Parkway north 34 miles from Asheville to milepost 355. Turn left into Mount Mitchell State Park. The main facilities are 4 miles up the road. You can also go via Burnsville, N.C., off exit 9 on I-26.
For more information about the park, visit www.ncparks.gov.