Grandfather Mountain State Park's rugged backcountry isn't for the faint of heart. Hikers traversing the craggy topography ascend a series of rigorous trails, scrambling over rock faces and climbing up cliffs via ladders to get to the highest point: Calloway Peak. At 5,946 feet of elevation, you've reached the catbird seat of the mountain. At your perch on the escarpment, take in dramatic panoramic vistas of the Piedmont's rolling hills below and the Blue Ridge's smoky amethyst peaks kissing the horizon. On a clear day, you can even spot downtown Charlotte in the distance.
Tromping along the Grandfather Trail, you might inhale a fragrant whiff reminiscent of Christmas trees and for a second imagine you're in the heart of the Canadian boreal forest. No, you're in the South, hiking through a similar spruce-fir forest that is unique to this high-elevation stretch of the southern Appalachians.
If you think the landscape in this pocket of northwest North Carolina feels out of place, you're right. Grandfather Mountain's ecological diversity has been capturing the attention of naturalists and botanists since the late 1700s. The alpine area is home to more than a dozendifferent plant communities and over 70 species of rare, threatened, or endangered animals.
"If you were to go down one of Grandfather's watersheds, starting at Calloway Peak and descending the southern side of the mountain all the way to the bottom of Wilson Creek, you'd end up at around 1,800 feet in elevation," says Jesse Pope, president and executive director of the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation . "In that stretch of about 15 miles, you'd experience the same biome changes and life zones that you would if you got in your car in Maine and drove to Atlanta."
Grandfather Mountain State Park is one of the newest in North Carolina. Until the early 2000s, it was privately owned by the MacRae family, who acquired the land in the late 1800s and developed a portion of the property into a tourist destination. After becoming the sole proprietor in 1952, Hugh MacRae Morton widened the old one-lane road to accommodate cars zipping up the mountainside and built the Mile High Swinging Bridge—the highest suspension footbridge in the country—at the summit. In 2008, North Carolina acquired 2,456 acres of the untamed land to develop Grandfather Mountain State Park. The private Grandfather Mountain nature park was taken over by the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation to become a nonprofit organization. Both sides carry on Morton's mission to preserve and protect the biodiversity and natural beauty of the land.
Make a nearby High Country town like Linville, Blowing Rock , or Boone the home base for your trip. To conquer some of the Southeast's most difficult hiking, adventurers can explore the park's 13 miles of trails and sleep under the stars at one of the campsites. For a milder experience, travelers can buy tickets to see the attractions. As you drive the serpentine two-lane road to the top, you can pop in the CD included with your ticket purchase. Between twangy bluegrass tunes, the tracks offer a narrated tour, calling out sites like Forrest Gump curve (a section of the character's cross-country run in the film). At the top, take a family-friendly hike along the Bridge and Black Rock Trails (the daring can try a backcountry trek like the Grandfather Trail). The main draw is the Mile High Swinging Bridge, suspended 5,305 feet above sea level. If Calloway Peak isn't on your agenda, cross the bridge to Linville Peak for a more accessible postcard-worthy vista.
"As a biologist, I find there's always something to be discovered here," says Pope, who started working at Grandfather Mountain as a park ranger in the summer of 2002 and is now part of the team trying to preserve the mountain's recently discovered synchronous fireflies. "Absorb what's around you, and recognize how different it is from where you're from. We like to say, 'Wonders never cease.' "