Roof of the East: Hiking North Carolina’s Mount Mitchell

By Michael Lanza

At 6,327-foot Celo Knob, on North Carolina’s Black Mountain Crest Trail, I stand in bright sunshine and a chilly October wind gusting to 40 mph or more, staring at the long ridge stretching for miles ahead of me. It’s both stunning and daunting. Several more summits that top 6,000 feet, and others nearly that high, form a forested, earthen rollercoaster, culminating at 6,684-foot Mount Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi. There are a few ways one can climb to the roof of the East. I’ve chosen the longest, hardest, and most scenic.

For many reasons—not always easy to enunciate—I find hikes that are challenging are usually also the most satisfying. So it’s with a powerful sense of excitement that, after enjoying the view from Celo Knob of the spine of the Black Mountains and the rumpled-blanket contours of western North Carolina, I continue my solo dayhike south toward Mount Mitchell.

From the trailhead where I began this hike, at 3,000 feet just outside Burnsville, N.C., the Black Mountain Crest Trail racks up about 5,000 vertical feet of cumulative elevation gain over 11.3 miles to the crown of Mount Mitchell. But those numbers only begin to communicate the physically taxing nature of this trail.

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The hike offers up something of a gauntlet of character-building trail conditions lurking in these rough, old Appalachian Mountains.

Appropriately, hiking the hardest footpath to the top of the East’s highest peak begins with a relentlessly steep ascent of more than 3,000 feet up an old two-track road that gradually narrows to a trail, walking over wet, slick, fallen leaves and through the occasional small pond of mud. From an open meadow on Celo Knob, one can see how the ridge rises and falls in abrupt steps between the multiple summits; and as I’ll discover over the next several hours, the path frequently varies from slick trees roots and mud to granite bedrock.

I’m hiking the long way up Mount Mitchell on the second day of a week of dayhiking in the western North Carolina mountains, hitting several summits and visiting some of the hundreds of waterfalls scattered throughout these densely forested hills, and backpacking in the Great Smoky Mountains.

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A hiker on the Black Mountain Crest Trail to Mount Mitchell, Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina.
A hiker on the Black Mountain Crest Trail to Mount Mitchell, Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina.

The Black Mountain Crest Trail largely clings to the crest of a ridge narrow enough that, even though you’re usually in the woods, the blue sky visible through the trees conveys how quickly the earth drops off to either side. The trail pokes out of the forest occasionally to give me long views from the brink of sharp drop-offs or small patches of wind-pounded, grassy meadow occupied by boulders and ledges of lichen-speckled granite.

But for most of the trail’s miles, I walk a meandering path through the quietly peaceful lushness of the Southern Appalachian forest. Moss and ferns carpet ground that often appears to be more rock than soil. At times, the trail seems to terminate inexplicably in a wall of earth, granite slab, and exposed tree roots, until I see that it actually continues straight over these obstacles. Today’s relentlessly fierce wind slashes through the pickets of trees, but for the most part, I’m protected from it. I pass at least two dozen backpackers and dayhikers on this sunny Sunday, mostly on the southern half of the trail; I see very few people north of Deep Gap, a 500-foot-deep cleft chopped out of the ridge.

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Several hours after I set out from the Bowlens Creek Trailhead, I step off the dirt trail onto the pavement of the parking lot minutes below the summit of Mount Mitchell. The sudden transition from quiet woods to a place noisy with people and cars is a shock. Still, I figure I’ve come all this way, it seems like I should officially finish this hike.

I join the steady stream of people on the short, paved walkway to the top of Mitchell. Standing on the highest point of land in the eastern United States, looking back at the string of summits along the ridge I just hiked, the view is nice—but the journey getting here was much nicer.


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5 thoughts on “Roof of the East: Hiking North Carolina’s Mount Mitchell”

  1. Hey Michael, just wanted to say thanks for this. I had previously hiked up to Mitchell from the South Toe River, but this convinced me to start from the north and do the crest. Amazing up there! Didn’t see a single person all day and after a few miles the only prints in the snow were paws and hooves.

  2. I have done the BMCT once a year ever since my friend told me about it, 5 years ago. Two yrs ago I met who is now my wife, we got married two weeks ago, she was not so much into hiking, but I showed her couple trails and she is in love with outdoors now. I’m planning on taking her to Mt. Mitchell starting our hike on bolens creek. Hope we can catch a good weather and spend some time together. Thanks for the article hope more people get motivated and spend more time outside.

  3. I’m glad to finally see your full report of the crest trail, it seems like you encountered some gnarly wind on the trip. I agree that when you finally get to Mt. Mitchell it is always a shock. I was just hiking a loop there 2 weeks ago, and I saw less than 5 people over a period of 4 hours, then when I got to Mt. Mitchell there are suddenly hundreds. It is the drawback of these peaks in the Southeast with roads to the top, but every time I’ve hiked on the northern half of the trail it is desolate and beautiful. That section from Celo Knob to Gibbs Mt is known as the Horse Rock Meadows btw, but it’s not an official USGS marking. That’s one of the best sections of trail in NC in my opinion.

    I would like to note that unless National Geographic Trails Illustrated is one of your sponsors, I would recommend another map for your readers. Generally we discourage any hiker in NC from buying those maps unless it is the only option. The scale of most of them is between 1:65,000 and 1:75,000 which is too high for compass navigation and judging contours, and their trail accuracy is notoriously spotty. They get people in trouble in more remote places or Linville Gorge where the detail is bad. I always recommend USDA Forest Service maps which are typically between 1:24,000 and 1:35,000. They are also cheaper than NatGeo, and almost always better with trails and topographic information.