by Sandy McLeod
A glance at any map will reveal that Asheville, NC is in close proximity to the Blue Ridge Parkway. There are five entrances to the Blue Ridge Parkway in and near Asheville. These give visitors easy access to mountain peaks ranging from 2,000-6,684 feet, culminating in the highest peak in the East, Mount Mitchell.
For those who want to experience the high country, with peaks and views over 5,000 feet, but do not want to make strenuous hikes part of the itinerary, there are two excellent opportunities to do so: drive to Craggy Gardens and Mount Mitchell.
From Asheville, drive north on the Parkway. Craggy Gardens is on the way to Mount Mitchell. If entering the Blue Ridge Parkway from Burnsville and heading south back to Asheville, Mount Mitchell can be seen first, then Craggy Gardens. Choose either route for a scenic drive where the most breathtaking views of the Blue Ridge Mountains can be viewed right from the car window, or an overlook.
Take this day trip from April through November, when the road to the high country is most likely to be open. Make sure to bring a jacket or sweater along – even in the summer. The wind is stronger on the slopes and the temperature will be 15 degrees cooler than Asheville.
Craggy Gardens, Milepost 364.4, Blue Ridge Parkway
From the South Asheville (191) or Town Mountain Road (Downtown Asheville) entrances to the Blue Ridge Parkway, Craggy Gardens is a 30 to 45 minute drive north. The peak of Craggy Gardens sits at an elevation of 5,500 feet and is accessible via the Craggy Pinnacle trail. There are many bald mountains at a similar elevation in the Western North Carolina area, but most cannot be reached by vehicle. Access the trailhead from the Craggy Gardens Visitors Area parking lot. Though this climb is steep in portions, it is well marked and easy to follow and most visitors can make it up in a half hour or so. On top of this bald mountain, the landscape is filled with rhododendrons and other types of flowering plants and scrub. These create natural borders for meadows teaming with colorful wildflower blossoms throughout the summer. Once atop the peak of Craggy Mountain, take in a 360-degree view of the rocky slopes, tree line and vegetation that covers this extraordinary area. Some may not be fit or able to make the climb to the peak of Craggy Mountain. The views are still incredible from the parking lot. This is an ideal place to sip on a beverage and relax while others take the climb.
Mount Mitchell, Milepost 350
Many visitors to Western North Carolina are unaware that the highest mountain peak in the East is just a 45-minute to one-hour drive north of Asheville. Mount Mitchell is 6,684 feet and offers the most breathtaking views of the entire area on a clear day. Though some hardy hikers make the all day climb from Black Mountain Campground in Burnsville, most prefer to drive to the peak of Mount Mitchell traveling on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Take the parkway north from Asheville and continue past Craggy Gardens to milepost 350. The long windy road takes visitors up Mount Mitchell, past the restaurant. Some may choose to park in the lower parking area and enjoy a picnic while taking in some high altitude views. Or, just proceed up the mountain to the Visitors Center.
At the top of the summit parking lot, there is a Visitors Center and concession stand. Stop for a drink and a light snack and prepare to ascend to the peak of the highest mountain in the East. The Summit Trail begins behind the Visitors Center. In the past several years, it has been greatly improved with pavement and stairs for easier access. Take in 360-degree views on top of Mount Mitchell and look through binoculars on the platform to see more details of the landscape. On a clear day, visitors may see as far as 85 miles distance, and can discern some of the highest peaks and curves of rivers that mark the landscape of the Southern Appalachian and Smoky Mountains.
Before heading up to Craggy Gardens and Mount Mitchell, check the weather report for the day. The Mount Mitchell website is updated with daily weather conditions and forecasts. Weather in the high country changes frequently and quickly, so be sure to come prepared.
Visit Asheville Cabins online reservation system to book a cabin rental in Asheville for your NC mountain vacation.