Fall Foliage in the Blue Ridge Mountains: Mt. Mitchell

Filed under: Autumn, Blue Ridge Mountains, Hiking, Nature, Things to Do


 About a month ago I became a leaf spotter for the Fall Foliage Network. ( I have to be honest and tell you that it was because they would list the Carolina Bed & Breakfast on their site for free in return for our submitting twice weekly reports on the leaf color in our area.) It’s actually turned out to be kind of interesting.  I find myself paying much more attention to the trees and the leaves than normally and I have noticed things I never really did before. (For example, Dogwoods seem to be among the first trees to change color. At least they are this year!)  On the spotter’s report they ask for information about trees in your neighborhood and then, if you can see other areas, to include any mountains or valleys near you. Usually we can see the mountains from our bedroom window except for right now when the trees are full!  So James and I took advantage of one last window of time before we are full for the rest of the month, to head out to the Blue Ridge parkway and Mt. Mitchell. And yes, you are right, we climbed to the summit instead of driving up there!  I promise this is the last blog about hiking (for a while anyway) but it was just the best day!     

Mt. Mitchell State Park is about 30 miles from Asheville.  It’s a beautiful drive north on the parkway with many spectacular views.  Mt. Mitchell is the highest peak east of the Mississippi (which at 6687 ft  isn’t really saying a lot for those of you out west).  Needless to say, James and I did not have the time available to climb from the base so we picked up the Old Mitchell Trail at the Park Office. This trail ascends the final 1000 feet over about two miles and as it is part of Mt. Mitchell State Park it is extremely well marked and maintained.  This does not mean it is an easy hike however!

. Much of the trail climbs through old pine forests and is cluttered with rocks and tangled roots.  The beginning of the hike takes you through an eerie landscape of dead Frasier Firs killed by the Balsam Woolly Adelgid.  This is an aphid which was introduced to the United States sometime in the early 1900’s.  It reached the mountains of North Carolina in the 1980’s and has caused widespread devastation of the Frasier and Balsam Firs. The stumps and fallen branches litter the sides of the trail although there are many saplings coming up around them.  In areas the forest has recovered and the smell of pine surrounds you as you hike.


One of the prettiest sights were the abundant red berries on the Mountain Ash Trees.  Legend has it that the Native American God Manitou fills the trees with berries in advance of the winter and the more berries on the Mountain Ash, the more severe the winter will be.  I have no idea where this year’s crop lies on the usual scale but there did seem to be a lot of them.

 By now we were getting near the summit and could look back to where we had been  The buildings on the far left in this picture are the Park Office and the closer buildings on the right are a small restaurant where you can stop and get something to drink or eat.  We actually had stopped at this restaurant on our first visit to Asheville about eight years ago.  At that time we didn’t go any higher as the mountain was shrouded in clouds and the cold wind made getting out of the car in our summer shorts and tee shirts less than fun.

The Old Mitchell Trail joins the walk from the parking area a short way from the summit.  I admit James and I felt a teeny bit smug as we entered the flow of tourists who had driven to the top (smug and considerably more tired). Many people stopped at this sign to have their picture taken but few went just a short walk beyond it to read the plaque embedded in a large rock.   We went out of curiosity, expecting that it would be an original version of wooden sign but instead we were surprised to find that it is the gravestone of Elisha Mitchell.  Mitchell was a professor at the University of North Carolina who was the among the first to explore and measure these mountains.  It was his assertion that Mt Mitchell was the tallest mountain in the chain that ultimately led to his death.  When he was 62, one of his students claimed to have found a mountain higher than Mt. Mitchell while also stating that Mitchell had incorrectly measured the mountain.  Although he was quite frail, Mitchell returned to the mountain and must have lost his way.  His body was found at the base of a 20 foot waterfall (Mitchell Falls) where it appeared he had slipped and, having been knocked unconscious, subsequently drowned.

Just below the parking lot are a number of secluded picnic tables where James and I set out our obscenely expensive but very elegant lunch: fresh bread, local cheeses, and amazing French sausage among other delicious items.

Now that we were refreshed and rested from the hike up, we decided to take an offshoot of the trail to Alice Camp. The camp was originally a logging camp and the terminus for the railway used to get lumber down the mountain.  The State Park was established in 1915 in response to concerns that excessive logging was destroying the natural beauty of the area.  The railroad was converted to a toll road and tourists of the 1920-30’s could drive up and spend the night.

To get there, you descend down below the Park office and then walk along an old logging road for about a mile and a half.  The walk is easy and the views of the mountains just spectacular.  Nothing actually remains of the camp itself although clearly hikers still use the area for camping.  We did find the remains of an old apple orchard and there were even a few apples left on the trees. After exploring the area, we returned to the cut-off from the Mt. Mitchell Trail and walked about a mile up a relatively gentle sloping gravel road to our car at the Park Office.

James and I were glad to have made the extra effort to hike to Camp Alice as it did give us some of the best views of the surrounding countryside and the trees which were just beginning to change color.  And, while the hike up to Mt. Mitchell is pretty strenuous, it is possible to drive up and see the summit then return to the Park Office and make the hike to Camp Alice–a walk which can be as long or as short as you want to make it and easy enough for almost anyone to enjoy. 

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