Grandfather Mountain. While it may not be the tallest mountain in North Carolina (Mount Mitchell holds that title), it is certainly one of the most beautiful. And this hike is NOT for the faint of heart. But Grandfather Mountain is also so much more than hiking! With a nature museum, a wildlife center, and not to mention the famous mile high swinging bridge, hiking Grandfather Mountain is just the beginning of everything you can do there.
Grandfather Mountain is located near Linville, North Carolina, about 70 miles from Asheville. It’s easily reachable from Banner Elk (25 minutes), Linville (10 minutes), or Boone (35 minutes). As of April 2020, admission to Grandfather Mountain State Park was raised slightly for adults (ages 13 to 59) from $20 to $22. Children aged 4 to 12 are $9 and children under 4 are free. Seniors aged 60+ are $20. The hours of Grandfather Mountain State Park vary based on the season.
November to February: 8 AM to 6 PM
March to May: 8 AM to 8 PM
June to August: 8 AM to 9 PM
September to October: 8 AM to 8 PM
As of writing this, on 25 July 2020, visitors are now required to purchase tickets to visit Grandfather Mountain online, due to COVID-19 restrictions. Additionally, visitors are required to wear a mask in all indoor facilities on Grandfather Mountain. Check here for the most recent guidance for COVID-19 in Grandfather Mountain State Park.
Starting from the Bottom
At 5, 964 feet (1,812 meters), you’ll be glad to know that you actually drive most of the way up Grandfather Mountain. The entrance to Grandfather Mountain State Park is at the foot of the mountain, and you drive past several stop offs and picnic areas on the way up. Aside from the amazing views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, you also drive along a curve that Forrest Gump actually ran in the movie! This is marked by the signs pictured. I thought this was a cute surprise and had no idea Grandfather Mountain was used for the movie until I saw the signs.
The wildlife center and nature museum are located roughly halfway up Grandfather Mountain.
Wildlife Center and Nature Museum
The Grandfather Mountain State Park Wildlife Center is a unique experience that’s enjoyable for the entire family. Their habitats include black bears, cougars (no longer found in the wild on Grandfather Mountain), elk, bald eagles, and river otters. These habitats are not your usual zoo enclosures though, they’re pretty sizeable, and built around the animals’ natural habitat. There was almost no one at the wildlife center when we went, but it’s definitely worth a stop. There is a restaurant and gift shop inside as well. We stopped in on our way back down the mountain after a long day of hiking.
We didn’t stop at the nature museum but I wish we had! It explores the history of Grandfather Mountain, as well as the flora and fauna native to the area. This includes exhibits on birds native to North Carolina, minerals found in the area, and even realistic wax models of wildflowers, berries and mushrooms found on Grandfather Mountain. The nature museum and wildlife center are a must when you visit Grandfather Mountain State Park, especially if you have children!
Mile High Swinging Bridge
The Mile High Swinging Bridge in Grandfather Mountain State Park should not be missed. It’s a quick aside before starting your day of hiking, as it is located just off the main parking lot by the trail heads. While it is a swinging bridge, don’t be too scared, it barely moves! And on windy days, it’s pretty cool to hear the wind whistle through the bridge, it’s almost like it’s playing music!
The bridge was built in 1958 and is 228 feet long. It is widely regarded as “the main attraction” in Grandfather Mountain State Park and has apparently shown in reviews and surveys that it’s many visitors’ favorite part of the park.
Hiking Grandfather Trail
While the Mile High Swinging Bridge was impressive, and provided an amazing view…for me, hiking Grandfather Mountain was by far my favorite thing about Grandfather Mountain State Park. It was gorgeous. It was challenging. It was thus far the most difficult, but also most rewarding hike of my life (I have a feeling living less than an hour from the Dolomites now might change that). And more than anything, it was incredibly fun!
As you can see from the sign here, Grandfather Trail is no joke. If I’m being honest, I was by no means “an experienced hiker” at this point, but I was in decently good shape. Still, I almost didn’t even do the hike. Be cautious and use your best judgement here, I’ll go into more detail of what makes Grandfather Trail difficult. But as the sign says: “Be prepared for steep inclines with cables and ladders scaling cliffs”.
Patio – .25 mile; Grandfather Extension – .3 miles; Grandfather Gap – .5 miles; Macrae Peak – .9 miles (pictured below); Attic Window Peak – 1.2 miles (pictured below); Indian House Cave (pictured below); Alpine Meadow – 1.5 miles; Calloway Gap – 1.9 miles; Watauga View – 2.3 miles; Calloway Peak – 2.4 miles (pictured below).
At the beginning of hiking Grandfather Mountain, you’ll have a choice between the less strenuous Underwood Trail and Grandfather Trail. The Underwood Trail goes around the peak rather than using cables and ladders to scale cliff faces. However, the Underwood Trail is still quite steep and rugged at times. The Underwood Trail is marked with yellow blazes, and Grandfather Trail with blue. After taking the Grandfather Extension from the parking lot by the visitors center, turn right to stay on Grandfather Trail.
While only 2.4 miles, Grandfather Trail wastes no time before you’re climbing ladders like the one pictured here. Yes, the trail continues over those rocks. No, that isn’t a screen capture from Tomb Raider. Grandfather Trail is also an out and back trail, with most people utilizing the Underwood Trail to go back.
These small ladders are nothing compared to what lies ahead though. Before even reaching Macrae Peak, there’s a sheer rock face with cables to assist you in climbing it. We saw quite a few people turn back here, and opt for the Underwood Trail. I was hesitant, but wanted to power through. Surely, I thought, it couldn’t get more difficult than this. Boy, was I wrong. Immediately following the cables, we were confronted with a few different ladders, going straight up more rock faces. Did I mention I’m afraid if heights? These ladders were at least five times the size of the ones pictured here. Ladders like this continue throughout the trail, all the way until Calloway Peak at the very end. Unfortunately, I was too involved in the moment to think to get photos of them.
Finally reaching Macrae Peak though, made facing my fear of heights all worth it. The view was breathtaking. Plus, there were plenty of spots to take a nice rest while soaking it all in. Photos truly cannot do it justice.
Macrae Peak is closely followed by attic window, which provided another stunning view.
Indian House Cave is next, and is a quick aside from the main trail, but well worth it.
Keep in mind that your views during this hike will vary greatly depending on what time if year you go. But Grandfather Mountain is beautiful year round. During the winter months, the trail will be icy and slippery! We went in March and there was still ice slowly melting on some portions of the trail. This trail is dangerous, a few of the ladders are very exposed, and people have died on the trail. So be careful and stay safe, pay attention to what you’re doing. The trails and ladders are very well maintained as well.
Hiking Grandfather Mountain is no small feat, and by the end you’ll be exhausted. But for every ladder climbed, every cable clung to, every crevice and cliff face carefully navigated…the views pay off ten times over, as illustrated in the photos below.
Comment below to share your experience with Grandfather Mountain, or share your favorite trails!