Mt. Mitchell is the highest point in the continental United States east of the Mississippi River. The 6,684 summit is named for local professor Elisha Mitchell, who fell to his death while attempting to confirm a prior measurement of the peak’s height. The summit is located in Mt. Mitchell State Park in western North Carolina, part of the Black Mountains, a subrange of the Appalachians. There are multiple routes to the summit, ranging in difficulty from 10-plus miles with 3,000 feet of elevation gain and challenging back country treks to driving. The route described here is a good choice for a challenging day hike, offering physical challenge and scenic variety.
GETTING TO MT. MITCHELL STATE PARK
Mt. Mitchell State Park is located in western North Carolina about an hour’s drive from Asheville, the nearest city. Although Asheville makes a good base of operations for hiking in the area, it may be easier to get flights into Charlotte (125 miles southeast, about a 2.5 hour drive) or Knoxville (150 miles west, about a 3 hour drive).
STAYING AT MT. MITCHELL STATE PARK
Camping is available at Mt. Mitchell State Park through the end of October. (For additional information about camping at Mt. Mitchell State Park, click here). For information about accomodations in Asheville, click here. For information about accommodations in Little Switzerland (45 minutes northeast of the park) click here.
WEATHER: Like many topographically prominent mountains, Mt. Mitchell has volatile weather. Average annual precipitation is 37 inches (Los Angeles is 15). Temperatures range from an average low of 11 degrees in January to an average high of 81 degrees in July. The lowest temperature ever recorded was -34 degrees Fahrenheit (1985). For up to date information, click here.
CELL PHONE RECEPTION: Some areas have weak cell phone reception but don’t count on it. The nearest reliable cell phone reception is at the intersection of Highway 694 and Blue Ridge Parkway, about 20 miles from the park.
DOGS are allowed on leash. Exercise caution as needed depending on the weather; also note that some of the rocky terrain and tree roots may be difficult on their paws.
5.6 mile “balloon” hike; approximately 1,200 feet elevation gain; allow 3.5 hours
Starting from the ranger station at Stepp’s Gap (elevation 6,100) begin by following the signed Commissary Trail. This fire road was once used for transporting supplies to Camp Alice, a logging camp and stop on the Mt. Mitchell Railroad, which operated in the early 1900s. The trail descends about 300 feet over 1.2 miles, allowing hikers to acclimate to the altitude while also offering excellent views of the rest of the Black Mountains.
At 1.2 miles, you reach a junction with the steep Camp Alice Trail. A mountain stream crosses the trail at this point; a few yards upstream are an attractive series of cascades. You can shorten the hike by taking the Camp Alice Trail to the Old Mitchell Trail to the summit (one mile, approximately 900 feet of elevation gain). For more variety, continue on the Commissary Trail, which now heads southeast. You pass a junction with the Mountains to Sea Trail (1.5 miles from the start) before reaching a junction with the Mt. Mitchell Trail (2 miles.)
Now the work begins as you make your way up the steep single-track. Fortunately most of the route is in the shade – mainly fir and spruce trees, plus some red elders. The trail makes a few tight switchbacks as it climbs Commissary Ridge. At 1.3 miles from the fire road, the trail merges with the Balsam Nature Loop, with which it shares the last 0.3 mile to the top.
On the summit, you’re joined by visitors who drove up or hiked from other routes. A stone pathway leads to the lookout above Elisha Mitchell’s grave. Mt. Mitchell is notorious for unpredictable weather and there is a good chance that the view will be obscured by clouds. However, if visibility is good, the panorama is predictably impressive, including much of western North Carolina, eastern Tennessee and southwestern Virginia.
After visiting the lookout, continue down the path toward the upper end of the Old Mitchell Trail. (You can conntinue down the walkway to the parking lot where there is a museum describing the natural history of the area, a gift shop, a snack stand and restrooms).
The Old Mitchell Trail descends steeply through the woods. Stay left at a junction with a spur leading to the campground before arriving at another split 0.5 mile below the summit. The Camp Alice Trail branches off to the right, descending back to the Commissary Trail and the junction you passed earlier while the Old Mitchell Trail continues straight. As of this writing, the lower end of the Old Mitchell Trail is closed. Additionally, the Old Mitchell Trail is closer to the road and its noise.
The Camp Alice Trail drops sharply (watch out for tree roots – and a low-lying metal pipe). Soon you’ll hear the sound of the creek before arriving at the bottom of the trail. Retrace your steps on the Commissary Trail 1.2 back to the ranger station.
Additional information: Trip descriptions here, here (ascent via the entire Mt. Mitchell Trail) and here (ascent via Commissary/Camp Alice trails; descent via Old Mitchell trail); trail descriptions here, Map My Hike report here
Text and photography copyright 2018 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.
Categories: Beyond L.A.