Anyone who knows me knows how much I love the North Carolina mountains. I go at least once a year with my wife and adult daughter.
But for all those trips over the past 20–plus years, I’d never visited Grandfather Mountain, one of the state’s premier mountain attractions and nature preserves…until recently.
Here’s my embarrassing truth: I’d heard tales of the park’s Mile High Swinging Bridge, and I was a bit reluctant to give it a try.
This summer I made two trips to Grandfather Mountain, about 111 miles from Charlotte, and I can’t believe I waited so long.
Just shy of 6,000 feet, Grandfather Mountain is a destination, with plenty to see and do once you get there.
As for the Mile High Swinging Bridge, I’ll talk more about that later. First, some of the other things to see and do:
If you visited Grandfather Mountain years ago, the new Wilson Center for Nature Discovery is a reason to return. The center recently completed a major expansion, doubling its size to include a documentary theater and more than a dozen interactive exhibits to help visitors explore the mountain’s natural history, flora, fauna, geology and weather.
One of my favorite parts was the Mineral Cave — two walls lined with some of the state’s precious and semi-precious mineral. The cave, which includes the largest amethyst found in North America, is said be the most comprehensive mineral display in North Carolina.
I especially liked learning (and seeing) how gold deposits can be embedded in the veins of quartz.
Outside the center, new outdoor spaces include an amphitheater, pavilion and botanical garden.
Pro Tip: If you’re a nature nerd like me, plan your trip to coincide with one of Grandfather Mountain’s many educational experiences, which include a speakers series.
Pro tip: It’s kinda hokey, but don’t leave without taking a souvenir picture with Mildred the Bear.
Just a short walk from the Wilson Center, I stopped to visit some of North America’s most iconic animals – black bears, bald eagles, cougars, elks and otters. Now that the weather is cooling, the animals should be more active during the daytime.
The Wildlife Habitat is open during park hours, so guests can stop by whenever. I timed my visit so that I could listen in as park guides talked about the various animals. Those public tours are held on a regular schedule, weather permitting.
Pro tip: For an additional $35, you can take a behind-the-scenes tour, between April and October, to learn much more about the animals and their care.
Grandfather Mountain has no shortage of hiking and walking trails. They were what I enjoyed most during my visit to the park. The trails range from easy (family friendly) to strenuous (think twice).
Easy: If you prefer to keep things flat, I recommend the Woods Walk, a 0.4-mile path that loops through a quiet forest. You’ll find benches along the way for resting or simply to enjoy the beauty of nature.
Not as easy: The Bridge Trail is a 0.4-mile hike that starts at the Black Rock Parking Area and ends at a parking area near the Mile High Swinging Bridge. I won’t say it’s easy, but it’s easily doable. Just pace yourself. On my way up (and back), I saw plenty of seniors and children who were doing just fine. I also took in some amazing views of the mountain forest and huge rock overhangs.
Think about it: At 2.4 miles, Grandfather Trail is rated technical/strenuous. It’s not for everybody. Hikers are asked to fill out a form, with emergency contact information, before they start the trek. I wanted to give it try, but I was called off by a park guide as I approached the entrance to the trail. He said I didn’t have the five-plus hours needed to complete the roundtrip. Portions of the trail, he said, require hikers to navigate cables and ladders anchored into mountain rock.
Pro Tip: If you plan to hike, wear sturdy shoes that support your ankles. Hikers are required to be off the trails one hour before the park closes.
Finding food is easy. Inside the Wilson Center is Mildred’s Grill, a 140-seat restaurant that serves hot food and an assortment of beverages (no alcohol). The menu includes burgers, chicken wraps, turkey and cheese sandwiches, buffalo chicken salad and vegetable beef soup. The kid’s menu includes chicken strips and hot dogs.
The park also has more than 100 picnic tables scattered along in scenic locations. Many of the picnic sites have charcoal grills…if you prefer to cook your own.
Pro Tip: The lunch-hour line can get long on busy weekends, so you might want to eat earlier or later. After the day has ended and you leave the park, the towns of Boone and Blowing Rock, about a 30-minute drive, offer additional food options.
About that Bridge
Acrophobia – that’s the name they call it. It means having an intense fear of heights.
I wouldn’t call my fear intense, but the thought of walking across that bridge was enough to cause some mild anxiety.
After leaving the Wilson Center and driving up to the Black Rock Parking Area, I decided to hike to the bridge, along the Bridge Trail. It would give me time, I thought, to calm my nerves.
I emerged from the woods at what seemed like the top of the mountain, having seen some of the bridge’s supporting cables along the way.
The view from up there was spectacular. Nothing but mountain tops, valleys and rolling hills.
After a few deep breaths I climbed some concrete steps that led to a walkway that led to the bridge. I could feel my heart begin to quicken.
By the time I reached the bridge itself, my chest was pounding. Like a man who whistles past a graveyard, I chuckled at a dog that was flat-out refusing to cross, pulling back against its leash until the owner gave in and turned around. Another dog started across with no care at all. I paused to commiserate with a woman who had instructed her husband to go ahead – she would be there waiting when he returned, she said.
I probably wouldn’t write this article if I had chickened out. So, yes, I crossed the bridge…all 228 suspended feet of it.
And looking back, it wasn’t nearly as scary as I had psyched myself into imagining. Yes, it’s high. And yes, it did seem to sway a bit and even buckle beneath my feet. But…
I did it!
Pro tip: If I can, you can.
Other points of interest
Forrest ran here
Did you know that a scene from the movie “Forrest Gump” was filmed at a certain location on Grandfather Mountain? There’s a marker now designating it as the Forrest Gump Curve.
Grandfather Mountain has many curious rock formations, none more so that Split Rock, which is estimated to be about 640 million years old, which is older than the mountain itself. It split as a result of millions of years of weathering.
Burl from black birch are found in forests near Grandfather Mountain. The burl is a plant tumor caused by soil borne bacterium — which induces normal cells to grow too fast and too large. A main stem tumor is rarely fatal to the tree; the outer layers just expand around it.