”Mountains know secrets we need to learn. That it might take time, it might be hard, but if you just hold on long enough, you will find strength to rise up” — Tyler Knott
When I was a kid, my dad loved to take the family out for a Sunday drive. With no real destination in mind, it was a great, inexpensive way to calm rambunctious children. Put us in a warm car (this was pre-air-conditioning) with the windows down, and the bright sun shining, we were all sure to be lulled into sleep — or at the very least, tricked into silence, because there’s no sense trying to talk with open windows.
I couldn’t help but think of those Sunday drives as John, my husband, and I made our way onto the Blue Ridge Parkway while staying in Black Mountain, North Carolina. Leaving town, we traveled west to Asheville in order to access the parkway. Moon roof opened and windows partially lowered, John and I relished the refreshing mountain air. We never tired of the breathtaking vistas along this ribbon of roadway. It is no wonder it’s often called America’s Favorite Scenic Drive.
There were no gas stations along the parkway; however, there were plenty of places to hop off and travel into nearby towns to fill up. The speed limit was 45 mph, but steep curves and bicyclists slowed down speeds even more. That was OK with John and me as we enjoyed our leisurely drive.
We couldn’t help but notice there were also many motorcyclists on the winding stretch of road. There were no tolls on this route, and nearly all of the stops along the way were free with plenty of places to picnic, take photos, hike, or rest and take in the majestic scenery. With mile markers and signage along the parkway, attractions and overlooks were easy to locate and identify. In fact, according to several sources, since being fully completed in 1987, the parkway has become the most visited National Park Service sites.
With only a couple of days to explore, it was hard to decide which sites to visit. I asked several Black Mountains residents for their favorite spots to visit and/or hike. Mount Mitchell was a clear favorite. Located about 35 miles north of Asheville at milepost 355.4, we could drive almost to the top of the highest mountain east of the Mississippi. While driving to the “apex of the Appalachian Mountains,” John and I listened to the Mount Mitchell AM radio station with its delightful, homespun monologue.
Mount Mitchell is one peak located in the J-shaped Black Mountains, which are considered part of the Blue Ridge Province of the Southern Appalachia. It was once known by the Cherokee as Attakulla, which means “leaning wood” or “wood leaning up,” and was later named Black Dome by white settlers. However, the name officially changed in 1858 to commemorate Dr. Elisha Mitchell, a geologist, educator, Presbyterian minister, and beloved professor at the University of North Carolina, who passionately pursued his belief that Mount Mitchell was the highest peak in the Appalachian Mountains.
Dr. Mitchell’s story is epic and full of intrigue. Using barometric readings, mathematical formulas, as well as repeatedly journeying all over the mountainous terrain, Mitchell labored for years to prove his hypothesis. Sadly, in his zealous pursuit, Mitchell slipped and fell 60 feet into a pool at the bottom of what is now known as Mitchell Falls. It is believed he died instantly. Mitchell’s trail was tracked and his body found days later by mountain guide and storyteller, “Big Tom” Wilson, who had guided Mitchell on previous expeditions.
Without any of the modern technological advances, Mitchell’s work estimated the summit to be 6,672 feet. While scientists now know that Mount Mitchell is actually 6,684 feet high, Mitchell died not knowing how close his calculations were. His body is buried near the summit of his cherished Mount Mitchell to honor the magnitude and devotion of his work.
From the parking lot, John and I made the short ¼ to ½-mile, steep hike along the paved path to the observation deck at the summit with its 360-degree view. Initially, our panorama was blurred due to ongoing cloud cover traveling over the multitude of mountain peaks. However, when the sunlight finally broke through the mist, the views were heart-quickening. According to information read in the museum, we were viewing mountain tops as far as 85 miles away!
I felt as if I was floating on an island in the sky with the sun warming my skin. I couldn’t help but marvel at the wondrous carvings of mountain tops — at least that is how the layer upon layer of mountain peaks appeared to me. In that moment, I sensed the greatness of our Creator, the awe of those old mountains, and felt gratitude for having the ability to be right there in that moment.
In the early 1900s, the logging industry nearly decimated Mount Mitchell, raising concern across the state, including those of North Carolina Gov. Locke Craig. This led to the declaration of Mount Mitchell becoming North Carolina’s first state park in 1915. Now, the park offers visitors seven hiking trails, a visitor’s center, museum, gift shop, and more.
With more than 91 species of birds identified, an abundance of balsam firs, fresh blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries for visitor picking in August, an extensive number of rare plants and animals, and a number of dramatic historical stories attached to the mountain, I could not help but marvel at Mount Mitchell’s beauty and rich history. The story of Dr. Mitchell’s integrity, perseverance, and determination — along with the unparalleled mountain top views — invoke wonder, inspiration, and awe. A visit to Mount Mitchell definitely leaves you feeling closer to the Divine and filled with a sense of the Creator’s peace.