Peak(s):  Mount Mitchell (6684')
Date Posted:  10/30/2020
Date Climbed:   10/27/2020
Author:  Hoot
 Mt Mitchell - Highest US Peak East of Colorado  

Mount Mitchell (6,684', North Carolina #1)
Date Climbed: 27 October 2020
Climbers: Solo
Trailhead: Black Mountain Campground at 3,000'
Distance: 11.2 miles round trip
Elevation gain: 3,684'
Difficulty: Class 1

After visiting six new state highpoints this year, I was eager to sneak in one or two more before the end of the year. A reasonable drive from Ohio, North Carolina’s Mount Mitchell looked like my best option for a good hike. While it is possible to drive to the top of Mount Mitchell and walk a hundred feet to the summit, that seems like an insult to the highest US mountain east of Colorado! A more much worthy alternative is the popular Mount Mitchell Trail which starts at the Black Mountain Campground and climbs 3,684 feet in 5.6 miles to the top of North Carolina. An added benefit of a trip to Mitchell was that I could visit Kentucky’s highpoint on a different Black Mountain with only an additional hour of driving on my way home.

Checking the weather revealed a 2-day window of nice weather just a few days out so I decided to postpone my dentist appointment yet again and go for it. I planned to camp at the Black Mountain Campground, but the day before I left it had closed for the season a week early due to bears in the camp. After a 7-hour drive I got one of the last remaining campsites at the Carolina Hemlock Campground just six miles away. While the bear situation was supposedly much better at this campground, I slept comfortably in the back of my 4Runner the night before my hike.

Car camping at Carolina Hemlocks Recreation Area

I woke up early the morning of my hike in a dense fog. After breakfast, I drove to the Black Mountain Campground in the dark and was only person parked in the large parking area just outside of the campground. It was still a while before sunrise when I got there, but I wanted get started early since I had a long drive home after the hike. Walking into the closed campground in the dark and fog with no one around but the bears was a little creepy. But what really scared me was that the first three restroom doors I tried were locked! Fortunately there was one unlocked restroom near the camp office and all was good.

I stepped over this gate in the dark early in the morning. The Mount Mitchell Trail starts on the left just after the bridge.

At 7:06 am, I started hiking with my headlamp on from the center of the campground just across the bridge from the parking area. I followed signs that led me through the camp, initially west along the South Toe River. Then after crossing a camp road, the trail veered north away from the river and began climbing. After 15 minutes or so and despite the lingering fog, I put away my headlamp. The Mount Mitchell Trail is very well marked with blue blazes and signs at all trail intersections. While there were a few step ups here and there, the leaf-covered trail never got very steep. The morning warmed up quickly and I was hiking in shorts before long.

Above the morning fog

The trail climbing through the rhododendrons
The Mount Mitchell Trail is very well-marked

About halfway up I heard a loud bird call that sounded like an owl. That seemed odd for mid-morning. Shortly after that I passed a guy hiking down the trail with a large can of gasoline. Hmmm. But then the rest of a dozen-man work crew with chainsaws hiked down past me. I talked with their supervisor who told me they were clearing brush from under the telephone line running up the side of the mountain. For some reason I didn’t fully understand, the supervisor was using bird calls to communicate with his crew! As the trail stays in the forest from bottom to top, the only places along the trail with a distant view were all where it crossed the telephone line path.

Fog in the valleys

The trail crosses several small streams making it practical to go light and hike or run the trail with just a filter bottle.

One of several streams along the trail

While the lower part of the trail climbs through mostly hardwood trees above the rhododendrons, the upper part of the trail along Commissary Ridge passes through a beautiful dense forest of spruce and Fraser firs. As I experienced on the Appalachian Trail, the Mount Mitchell Trail got wetter and a little muddier the higher I climbed. I couldn’t attribute the wetness to snow melt this time of the year. I’m still trying to figure out why trails in the east seem to get wetter the higher you climb up a mountain.

At the high end of the trail, I popped out of the forest, pulled up my buff, and walked up a paved path that led from the summit area parking lot to a round observation deck at Mount Mitchell’s summit.

The final section of the trail just below the summit

I reached Mount Mitchell’s summit platform under sunny blue skies at 10:12 am after 3 hours and 6 minutes of hiking. There were about a dozen tourists at the summit, most wearing masks.

Mount Mitchell's summit observation deck
At the top of North Carolina on a beautiful day
summit marker

The summit provided nice views in all directions with signs indicating the names of all surrounding peaks, near and far.

Looking east from the summit

However, despite its elevation of over 1,300 feet higher, Mitchell’s summit in the trees was nothing like the remote alpine summit of Mount Katahdin which I had climbed a few weeks earlier.

Before starting back down the trail, I munched on some snacks below the observation deck away from the tourists. On my way back down, I passed quite a few other hikers on their way up and I was able to provide some with useful information – like how much further they had to go to the one hundredth of a mile (according to my GPS watch :-). I hadn’t noticed any flowers on my way up so I started looking more closely on my way down and did find two kinds of flowers still blooming in late October.

This was one of the few remaining flowers - some kind of aster?
I saw a lot of blooming Gentian (I think Gentiana clausa) aka bottle gentian along the trail

While I had expected the fall foliage to be past prime, it wasn’t much past prime and provided spectacular scenery lower on the trail.

Getting the red carpet treatment!
And lots of yellows
Fall foliage above the rhododendrons

More colors
The South Toe River

I returned to the Black Mountain Campground trailhead at 1:36 pm after hiking 2 hours and 53 minutes from the summit. I talked with one of the rangers at the park office for a while and learned that bears had ripped into tents, snatched a bag of marshmallows just a few feet from campers, and made off with a backpacker’s bear canister. For those reasons the Forest Service closed the campground a week early. Still, the parking lot was nearly full with hikers’ cars, quite a change from when I arrived that morning. I had been really lucky in picking such a beautiful warm day for this hike. On my drive home, I stopped by the very unimpressive Black Mountain highpoint of Kentucky, bringing my total of state high points visited to 33.

Area map showing Mount Mitchell North Carolina and Black Mountain Kentucky

Mount Mitchell Trail topo
33 state highpoints with the new additions of North Carolina and Kentucky

My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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 Comments or Questions

Nice job
10/31/2020 07:04
Nice report, I've been meaning to climb Mitchell at some point soon.

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