Mount Mitchell is the highest peak east of the Mississippi River. On a clear day, visitors on the summit can see for 85 miles. This impressive mountain inspired North Carolina’s first state park and today has one of the most unique summits in the country.
Visitors can drive almost to the summit of Mount Mitchell in North Carolina, which sits at 6,684 feet. The two-lane, paved road ends at a parking lot about a quarter-mile from the top. From the parking lot, there is a paved path that is a 10-minute walk to the summit.
Driving up Mount Mitchell is only the beginning of the things to do on this mountain. As you read on, you’ll find out the full spectrum of activities available after driving to the parking lot just below the summit, including multiple hikes, a museum, and a campsite.
Driving Up Mount Mitchell
Mount Mitchell is the tallest peak in the Eastern United States. It is a popular site to visit in North Carolina, along with the Blue Ridge Mountains. It rises above the rest of the Blue Ridge Mountain Range in western, wooded North Carolina.
At 6,684 feet, Mount Mitchell is the crowning peak of the Black Mountain Range in the Appalachian Mountains. The Black Mountain Range gets its name from the dark appearance the spruce and fir trees give off on the high slopes of the notable peaks throughout the range. This commanding mountain range contains six of the ten highest peaks in the eastern United States.
The road that leads up Mount Mitchell is located directly off the historic Blue Ridge Parkway. To get to the road up Mount Mitchell, NC Highway 128, visitors commonly leave from the closest town, Asheville, North Carolina. Asheville is in the western part of the Blue Ridge Mountains. This town sits between Knoxville, Tennessee, and Charlotte, North Carolina.
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Asheville is about two hours from both Knoxville and Charlotte.
Coming from Ashville, drivers get on Blue Ridge Parkway at The Parkway’s Folk Art Center around milepost 382.
Once visitors enter the parkway at milepost 382, it is a 27-mile drive to the summit parking lot (after about 22 miles, vehicles must exit onto Highway 128). Blue Ridge Parkway and eventually NC 128 steadily climb as they wind their way up the mountain.
The only way to get to NC 128 is via Blue Ridge Parkway. Since Blue Ridge Parkway is a two-lane road, it is accessible from either direction. Once you’re off Blue Ridge Parkway, the road up Mount Mitchell is only 4.5 miles to the summit parking lot, close to the top of the mountain. This road may seem like an insignificant road, but Blue Ridge Parkway is also a mountain road, so drivers are already high in the mountains when they start driving on Highway 128.
Though the road is less than 5 miles long, traffic can still be heavy on the mountain. Without traffic, it takes 10-15 minutes to get to the top, but with traffic, it can take closer to 30.
The road to the top has plenty of places to pull off and stop, with the first main pullout being Mount Mitchell State Park Restaurant. This restaurant serves traditional American cuisine, and travelers can enjoy a homecooked, southern-style meal. Some of the dishes they have are country-fried steak, BBQ pork, chicken noodle soup, and chicken chili. Before heading out, check the hours of operation.
The other main turnout on Highway 128 is Mount Mitchell Campground. The nine-site family campground makes for a secluded camping experience. The campsites are set up for tents, and no RV hookups are available. The campsite’s elevation is 6,320 feet, so even in the summer, nights can get frigid. Make sure to bring your warm sleeping bag and a jacket!
Campers must make a reservation before going camping, and with only nine spots, the sites get booked quickly and months in advance. Luckily reservations are open up to 11 months in advance. The camping season starts in May and goes until October. So the summer months are the peak times to visit this campsite.
The amenities at the campsite include bathrooms with flush toilets, water spigots, fire pits, hiking trails, and picnic tables. For a typical campsite, it costs just $23 per night, not a bad price to fully immerse yourself in the beauty of the slopes of Mount Mitchell.
There is no fee to drive on NC Highway 128 or to get into Mount Mitchell State Park. It is a typical road, so there is no restriction on vehicle length. However, keep in mind that there is limited parking at the top and the various turnoffs, so if you are driving a full-size RV, it might be challenging to navigate the tight turns and find places to park if you want to stop and walk to the summit.
Along the 4.5 miles up the road, visitors are graced with the view of miles of deep green spruce and fir trees that cover the surrounding mountains, ridges, and valleys.
Near the summit, there is also a museum that shares more about the mountain’s physical and cultural history. At the museum, three-dimensional models of the mountain demonstrate the rock and fault lines that aided in its formation. There are also large wood carvings of historical buildings and figures from the area. Many of the displays are also adorned with historical artifacts.
Those who decide to hike the quarter-mile from the summit parking lot to the true summit can easily access the top by walking up a wide, paved path. The overlook area on the summit has an observation deck with 360-degree views.
Additional hikes are available to those looking for more trails through the trees at the top. These other hikes include:
- Balsam Nature Trail
- Old Mitchell Trail
- Deep Gap Trail
One thing to keep in mind is that the summit road is sometimes closed, depending on the weather. However, the road is open year-round, with a few exceptions. In snow, freezing rain, or other inclement weather, the steep turns on the road become treacherous, so park officials close the road for safety reasons. Before heading up the road, check the conditions of Blue Ridge Parkway and NC 128.
Is Mount Mitchell the Tallest Mountain in North Carolina?
Mount Mitchell claims the title for the tallest mountain in North Carolina. However, there are a few mountain peaks in the surrounding National Forests that come close. For example, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Smoky Mountains at 6,643 feet, just 40 feet lower than Mitchell.
Road Trip Answers Fun Fact: Mount Mitchell is named after Dr. Elisha Mitchell, a scientist that took the first measurements of the mountain. Dr. Mitchell helped confirm this mountain as the tallest in the eastern United States.
Is Mount Mitchell or Mount Washington Higher?
Mount Mitchell stands 396 feet higher than Mount Washington, which is 6,288 feet tall. However, Mount Washington has a larger footprint compared to the taller, narrower Mount Mitchell. Like Mount Mitchell, the Mount Washington Auto Road allows you to drive to the top.
Mount Washington also has more extreme weather. Conditions on Mount Washington change quickly, and it is susceptible to severe snow and ice buildup—sometimes building up at 10 inches in an hour.
Mount Mitchell still gets storms, but not as extreme as Mount Washington.
What States Can You See from Mount Mitchell?
If it’s a clear day, visitors can see four different states from the top of Mount Mitchell: North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.
The panoramic view from the top includes the rippling mountains in the distance that fade into a blue haze of fir, red spruce, and mountain ash trees. The summit is a great place to visit anytime, but as the sun gets lower in the sky, the light highlights the ridges of the surrounding mountains and sets the whole scene aglow. The astonishing views make the peak a popular place to watch the sunset.
Can You Ski Mount Mitchell?
There is backcountry skiing available on Mount Mitchell. Skiers usually must snowshoe to the summit and then ski down. This location isn’t the most accessible when it comes to skiing, which makes it less popular than other places.
Mount Mitchell can get anywhere from 30 to 70 inches of snow per year, sometimes even more.
Adventurers can hike the Mount Mitchell Trail to find the best place to ski, starting at the Black Mountain Campground. The hike is 5.6 miles and ends at the top of the mountain, where you can then ski down.
If you love making your ski runs in the backcountry, Mount Mitchell could be the perfect place for you. Unfortunately, there are not many places like that to ski in the southern United States.
The Full Experience of Mount Mitchell
This mountain is an iconic piece of the landscape of North Carolina and the rest of the eastern United States. The road makes the summit accessible to almost everyone with its parking lot and wide, paved trail to the top.
Anyone making the drive down the section of Blue Ridge Parkway that passes by Mount Mitchell should plan a trip up the mountain. The summit area helps visitors appreciate the landscape, history, and beauty of the area.