Even if you’ve already crested the 6,684-foot crown of Mount Mitchell—the high point of North Carolina’s Black Mountains and the tallest peak in America east of the Mississippi River—by car, it’s incredibly rewarding to walk your way to the top. The Old Mitchell Trail offers a short, direct, and steep route to the summit from the headquarters of Mount Mitchell State Park, and given the destination—which, as you’d expect from this kingliest Appalachian peak, delivers incredible panoramic views—it ranks among North Carolina’s top day hikes. It’s also a way to enjoy a bit more solitude on your Mount Mitchell experience than is available at the heavily visited, car-accessible mountaintop.
Though you can shorten the hike by starting at the state park’s restaurant (which is open May through October, by the way), we’ll profile the full length by beginning at the park office. From there, it’s a strenuous 2.2-mile hike up to the summit of Mount Mitchell, which depending on your physical condition and favored trail tempo takes about 1.5 hours to traverse.
The Old Mitchell Trail in the park, marked by yellow circles, is a maintained remnant of a venerable highland route that’s been used to traverse the crest of the Black Mountains for centuries, and once connected Mount Mitchell with the North Fork of the Swannanoa River.
You’ll begin by climbing through a Southern Appalachian subalpine spruce-fir wood that’s been devastated (like so many in the range) by the non-native balsam adelgid, which has killed many of Mount Mitchell’s Fraser firs and left them standing as ghost snags. (The Black Mountains got their name from the dark spruce-fir timber cloaking their high peaks and ridges.) Your route takes you through unaffected stands of this boreal-style forest, too.
On this first stretch of trail, you’ll be edging the western flanks of 6,320-foot Mount Hallback, one of the numerous “Southern Sixers”—the Southern Appalachian peaks 6,000 feet and higher—in the Blacks.
You’ll pass the park restaurant at about the half-mile point, and continue climbing the along the timbered ridge crest, nabbing nice views here and there. At just shy of a mile you’ll cross a bridge. The uphill route from here on out incorporates wooden and stone stairs. At about 1.4 miles, the Camp Alice Trail breaks off to the right and downslope, and then, continuing forward on the Old Mitchell Trail, you’ll hit some real climbing with a few switchbacks.
Before you know it, though, you’ll be up at the observation deck marking the top of this greatest Appalachian peak. Mount Mitchell’s named for University of North Carolina professor Elisha Mitchell, who in 1835 climbed to this apex of the Black Mountains and confirmed it was higher than Mount Washington in the Presidential Range of New Hampshire’s White Mountains, which many contended was the East’s tallest peak. (As it happens, Mount Washington—cool a mountain as it is, and New England’s loftiest—falls short of almost two dozen peaks in the Southern Appalachians.)
You’ll want to spend awhile soaking up the summit views (alongside all the folks who drove up here—don’t gloat!). The panorama includes in the near ground other great peaks of the Black Mountains, including, to the north, the second- and third-highest mountains in the range—6,647-foot Mount Craig and 6,611-foot Balsam Cone, respectively—as well as the northernmost Black, 6,327-foot Celo Knob. The southwestern Black Mountains, which curve around to the west and northwest like a fishhook, are visible, too, including 6,320-foot Blackstock Knob and 5,920-foot Yeates Knob (aka Big Butt).
Depending on air quality, you can see far beyond to other mighty Southern Appalachian ranges, including the Bald Mountains and the Great Smoky Mountains to the west, the Great Balsams to the southwest, and the Roan Highlands to the north. A commanding landmark to the northeast is 5,946-foot Grandfather Mountain, the high point of the Blue Ridge Escarpment and such a prominent and rugged massif that it, too, was long ago speculated to be the East’s tallest peak.
You’ll probably still be swimming in visions of that panorama on your return tramp down to the trailhead.
– You can make a loop of your Old Mitchell Trail outing by combining it with the Camp Alice (blue square) and Commissary (orange diamond) trails, which are easiest to take on the return hike. It’s roughly the same total mileage as the Old Mitchell Trail there-and-back.