Randy Johnson Books


Trails and Tribulations: Grandfather Mountain, NC Hiking Trails

Grandfather Mountain's paths were once a danger zone. Then a ranger stepped in.

Randy heads up the Grandfather Trail's cable climb on MacRae Peak.

By Randy Johnson, Special to The Charlotte Observer, March 30, 2008
Photos by Helen Hopper
(See more about Grandfather Mountain)

I was hiking down Grandfather Mountain recently when a hiker asked, "What's that you're carrying?"

The wonderfully shaped piece of bark I'd picked up was "a souvenir," I said. I had painted the faded blue trail marker -- the "blaze" -- on it in 1978 after starting Grandfather Mountain's trail program.

Back then, one of North Carolina's most spectacular peaks -- now one of the state's most popular trail destinations -- was on the verge of prohibiting hiking. Popular paths were overgrown. Searches for lost hikers were commonplace.

I'd discovered Grandfather during college while looking for the snowiest spot in the South. Like many then and now, I drove up to the Mile-High Swinging Bridge tourist attraction. But then I set out across the wild ridge on the Grandfather Trail, long-ago dubbed the "Trail of 13 Ladders" for the rungs that help hikers scale sheer cliffs.

I returned often, lured by the same vistas that had inspired early explorer Andre Michuax. When he reached the top in 1794, he sang "La Marseillaise" and proclaimed this "the highest mountain in all of North America." The vertical-mile drop from Calloway Peak to the Piedmont still offers that impression.

But on one 1977 visit, I encountered "No Trespassing" signs. A hiker had died of hypothermia. Rather than risk having other people leave the trails, become lost and perish from cold, Grandfather Mountain simply put its wilderness off limits.

Managers at public parks had the know-how and funding necessary to run a trail system safely. But Grandfather Mountain was and remains one of the nation's few privately owned wilderness areas.

Quick inventory: At 5,964 feet, Grandfather is the highest peak in the eastern Blue Ridge Mountains. When the air is clear the skyline of Charlotte, more than 100 miles distant, notches the horizon. With altitude comes width: Grandfather Mountain is 5,000 acres -- 4,500 of it backcountry -- with enough physical diversity to hold 16 distinct ecological communities.

It is too big to ignore, too big to fence, and ringed by three highways: U.S. 221, N.C. 105 and the Blue Ridge Parkway. The tourist town of Blowing Rock is nearby.

Bottom line: Controlling access to the vast backcountry on the site, let alone keeping a head count, is extremely difficult. Maintaining its trails was expensive and daunting. And when trails disappear, hikers can, too.

Hiking fee
I had been in New England, conducting hiker research funded by the U.S. Forest Service, and learned that at privately maintained campsites, backpackers seemed happy to pay camping fees that funded improvements and management. That gave me an idea.I met with Grandfather Mountain owner Hugh Morton and assured him his six trails could be safely opened to the public through a program that charged a hiking fee.

Six months later, I was an idealistic young trail ranger hired to manage wilderness recreation for him.

The first step was getting hikers on board.

New trailhead signs explained that the hiking permit wasn't an entrance charge, but a user fee intended to maintain the trails.

Selling the new system was an uphill battle, but a combination of trail building and fee explanations yielded converts.

Hikers received a trail map for their fee -- and the permit was a safety registration system: When you buy a permit, your presence is recorded. If you don't return, you won't be the only person who knows you're lost.

I was that other person. The job included monitoring trail traffic and striving to reopen and upgrade the trail network. I assured Morton the trail effort would break even. The daily trail fee was $1.50 in 1978. It's $5 today -- still nominal and a fraction of the $14 admission to enter the grounds by car.

Over the first few years, I accomplished the basics: clearing the five main paths of vegetation, cutting away downed trees and painting those colored blazes. Much of this was a solitary labor of love. After a long hike carrying heavy loads of tools, it was just me, my dog and the sound of the wind in the evergreens.

During a hike at Grandfather Mountain's 2008 Naturalist Weekend, Randy describes trail maintenance techniques.

I enlisted volunteers in more arduous tasks, such as replacing those rotting old ladders, carrying signs up the mountain, opening new trails and, later, rebuilding an old backpacking shelter. Scout groups, Outward Bound trail crews, Boone-area outdoor types and even friends lent their hands.

The first paid laborers joined me after the mid-1980s, when the Profile Trail was built. Today, there's a solid handful of trail rangers who patrol and maintain the trails, a few year-round employees and a number of strapping helpers hired for the busy summer season.

Grandfather's trail total is now 11 -- all known for being litter-free, well-marked, trimmed open for easy walking, with water breaks and wood and stone steps to prevent soil erosion. There are even many tent platforms for more comfy camping.

Managing a wilderness? That sounds like a contradiction, and in some respects it is. You need to make it easily accessible to those who love outdoor adventure -- but remote enough to keep it wild.

Academic research played into this balancing act, even though some scientists seemed to believe that private ownership tainted the mountain's status as a natural area.

Peregrine falcons were reintroduced to the Southern Appalachians at Grandfather in 1984. That was the last time Hugh Morton hiked to the summit (he died in 2006). Endangered species of bats and northern flying squirrels and bats were discovered on the mountain.

Blue Ridge Parkway
Not so many years earlier, Morton had fought Blue Ridge Parkway planners who wanted to put its "high route" across his mountain. He prevailed, and the famous road was built on the "low route" that skirted Grandfather Mountain far below and several miles from the entrance that leads to the Mile-High Swinging Bridge.

The lower route preserved the visual appeal of the already popular suspension bridge -- and protected the mountain's back country. Also protected: Grandfather Mountain's Black Rock Cliffs Cave area -- home to the endangered bats. (Their cave is now gated to protect them.)

The last stretch of the parkway to be completed, the 1,243-foot Linn Cove Viaduct, also brushes up against the mountain -- and was computer-designed in such a way to further protect the mountain while offering motorists a close look at its wild beauty. The scenery makes one of the most popular stretches of the parkway.

Today, the mountain is the world's only privately owned, United Nations-designated International Biosphere Reserve. Now widely appreciated as one of the East's most significant natural areas -- and one of North Carolina's most spectacular mountains -- its miles of trails are more popular than ever. The Trail of 13 Ladders is still the South's top adventure hike.

Two trails became National Recreation Trails.

The trail-fee program? It eventually proved a success, too. A 1985 study by Virginia Polytechnic Institute's School of Forestry found that 98 percent of Grandfather hikers paid their trail fees.

The successful preservation of private wilderness at Grandfather reflects the convergence of tourism and environmentalism that we've come to call eco-tourism. Long before the term was coined, it was being practiced on Grandfather Mountain. It is based on the notion that hikers can indeed see the forest through the trees when the goal is preservation.

And if you don't agree, go take a hike. At Grandfather.

Pointing out the peaks—Randy (left) and a participant of the May 2008
Grandfather Mountain Naturalist Weekend.

Author, outdoorsman
Randy Johnson is the author of "Hiking North Carolina," "Hiking the Blue Ridge Parkway" and other books (www.randyjohnson books.com). He'll be leading a hike on Grandfather Mountain and presenting a program on the trail system at Grandfather Mountain's Naturalist Weekend, May 17-18.

Hiking permits
A permit is required to hike Grandfather Mountain trails.

Hiking is included as part of full Grandfather Mountain admission. Cost: $14; $12 for 60 and older; $6 for ages 4-12; 3 and younger, free. Guests who purchase a ticket to the attraction may access the trails from inside the gates.Guests who visit for hiking only may access the trails from off-mountain trailheads and must purchase hiking permits. Cost: $5; $6 for 60 and older; $3 for ages 4-12; 3 and younger, free.

Backpacking/camping (one night, two days): $10; $3 for ages 4-12; 3 and younger, free.
Group rates and annual passes available.

• Grandfather Mountain entrance, U.S. 221, Linville
• Closest to Profile Trail: Invershiel Exxon, N.C. 105 and N.C. 184, Banner Elk; Extreme Snowboard & Ski, N.C. 184, Sugar Mountain (closed in April) ; Foscoe Fishing Company and Outfitters, Foscoe; Seven Devils Exxon, N.C. 105, Foscoe.
• Closest to Nuwati and Daniel Boone Scout trails: Grandfather Mountain Market, U.S. 221 and Holloway Mountain Road; Footsloggers, U.S. 221 and Main Street, Blowing Rock .
• Other area outlets: Footsloggers, 139 Depot St., Boone; Mast General Store, 630 W. King St., Boone; Mast General Store Annex, N.C. 194, Valle Crucis.

828-733-4337 (gate); 800-468-7325 (office); www.grandfathermountain .com.

Comfortable camping
To protect the environment, many campsites on Grandfather Mountain have tent platforms, which also make for comfy sleeping. They range from easy to reach (a few in Boone Bowl) to single sites perched atop rocky crags (Attic Window Peak). And there's the Hi-Balsam backpacking shelter.

Best don't-miss Grandfather hikes
1. South's most Alpine climb
Length: 2 miles. Level: expert.
From the Swinging Bridge area, climb the Grandfather Trail up cliffs on ladders to the massive, teetering boulder of MacRae Peak. Loop back on Underwood Trail.

2. Postcard perfect (and partly handicapped accessible)
Length: 1.5 miles. Level: easy-to-intermediate.
Hike to the spot where Hugh Morton took his famous postcard pictures of Linn Cove Viaduct. From Linn Cove Visitor Center, the Tanawha Trail -- 0.4 miles under the span is paved and flat -- explores a boulder garden on the way to a great view.

3. Birth of a mountain stream
Length: 0.5 to 2 miles. Level: Easy.
The start of the Profile Trail is an easy amble along the fledgling Watauga River. Spot trout in pools. Youngsters welcome.

4. N.C.'s "Old Man of the Mountains"
Length: 4 miles. Level: strenuous.
New Hampshire's famous "Old Man" formation fell off his mountain in 2003. His "relative" may be here. People see a number of faces on Grandfather Mountain, but the most startlingly realistic is an awesome view from the Profile Trail near Banner Elk. Falcons nest atop that rocky ridge.

5. South's only glacial cirque
Length: 4 miles. Level: easy --intermediate.
Did a glacier rest in the scoop-shaped "Boone Bowl" below Calloway Peak? It looks like one did, and that once had geologists guessing. From the Blue Ridge Parkway, take Nuwati Trail to a spectacular valley and awesome viewpoints.

All photography copyrighted by Randy Johnson. Permission and credit required for reproduction or other use.
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