Mount Mitchell is, at 6,684', the crown of the Appalachian Mountains and the highest peak in the United States east of the Mississippi River. Part of the Black Mountain Range, which itself boasts some twenty peaks and sub-peaks above 6,000-feet along its 15 mile length, Mount Mitchell is home to one of the most unique and fragile ecosystems in the Southern Appalachians. Though not quite high enough to break treeline at these latitudes, the crest of the Blacks is home to a magnificent Spruce-Fir forest more representative of areas 1,000 miles to the north. These forests are remnants from the last Ice Age that have retreated over time to only the highest and coolest peaks in the region. Unfortunately we may be in danger of loosing this rare forest forever as non-native pests such as the Balsam Wooley Adelgid and man-made threats such as acid rain have taken a devastating toll in the last century. The ghostly bare trunks of countless firs are a common site for those who visit these peaks but happily much of this unique habitat continues to survive.
Mount Mitchell and many of its surrounding peaks are contained within Mount Mitchell State Park, North Carolina's first, formed in 1915. Access to the state park is off the Blue Ridge Parkway about 30 miles north of Asheville. We had tagged the peak a couple times before, always using the 'cheaters route' by parking at the summit lot and walking the few hundred yards to the top. We hadn't been back in about a decade (unforgivable!) and in our absence a few things had changed, such as the old 30' summit towers replacement with a more modern low-profile observation platform. Now, with a 10 and 12 year old in tow (actually they tow us most of the time), we decided to bag the peak a more honest way by making it a part of a 6-mile loop through the park.
We'd begin at the ranger office at Steppes Gap, at the State Parks southern gate. We'd then follow the 2-mile Commissary Trail around the southern slopes of the mountain to eventually join with the Mount Mitchell Trail which would take us another mile-and-a-half and nearly 1,000 vertical feet to the summit. From the top we'd meander down the ridge via the Old Mitchell Trail for the final 2-ish miles back to the car. With temps around 60, a pleasant breeze blowing from cloudless blue skies, and the greens of spring painting the valleys below it promised to be a hike to remember...and it was...
Hike Length: 6.0 miles Hike Duration: 4:00
Trailhead Temp: 60'F
Min. Elevation: 5,770' Max. Elevation: 6,684'
Total Vertical Gain: ~1,300' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 217'