MOUNT MITCHELL. HIKING TO THE TOP OF THE APPALACHIAN MOUNTAINS

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By: LOWA Ambassador Lisa Ballard 

Mount Mitchell (6,684’) in western North Carolina is the highest point east of the Mississippi. There’s something about the label, “highest”, that tugged at me, so I traveled there in May to climb it with Jake Blood. Jake helped build the trail network and was a hiking encyclopedia about the peak.

We started the six-mile ascent at a campground immediately entering a rhododendron jungle. As we climbed, Jake pointed proudly to the extensive trail work that used lengths of local, rot-resistant locust wood for water bars and steps. There was surprisingly little rock. The continental ice sheets during the last ice age never made it this far south and thus never left behind the familiar plethora of scree and talus on more northerly mountains.

 

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We followed a series of switchbacks through the dense forest, steadily gaining elevation. Though I was prepared for anything wearing my LOWA Explorer GTX Mid, I could have worn a Renegade Lo. The footing was smooth as we made progress up a relentless 3,500 vertical feet.

About half way to the summit, Jake suddenly veered off the trail, bushwhacking a short way to a rock under an old horseshoe sticking out of a tree trunk above our heads. He scratched the lichen off the rock revealing the date, April 21, 1935.

“It’s the date that Elisha Mitchell and his survey team likely stopped here,” said Jake. “That horseshoe proves they used horses.”

 

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Then Jake told an intriguing tale as we continued our climb. Mitchell, a professor at the University of North Carolina, was not a particularly outdoorsy guy. After completing the survey of this part of the Appalachian Mountains, one of his students, Thomas Clingman, argued that Clingman’s Peak, further down the same ridge, was higher than Mount Mitchell. To settle the feud, Mitchell attempted to remeasure his namesake summit. He got lost, fell off a waterfall and died.

Listening to the story relieved the monotony of the trail. Eventually, the rhododendrons gave way to boreal conifers. The views were few, only when the trail crossed a power line. The trees in the southern Appalachians, even at 6,000 feet, were surprisingly tall and dense.

About a quarter mile from the top, we reached a paved path crowded with tourists who had driven up the auto road, quite a contrast to seeing only a half-dozen hikers on the trail.

On the summit, a viewing platform lifted visitors above the tree tops… and Professor Mitchell’s grave! Seeing his tomb atop his namesake mountain was a creepy surprise. By climbing Mountain Mitchell, I added another “highest” to my tally, and perhaps the oddest one of all.

Content Courtesy: Lisa Ballard