OK, yes, it is true you can drive to the summit of Mount Mitchell, highest peak east of the Mississippi at 6684 feet, and during the summer months even enjoy a meal at a full-service restaurant right on the mountaintop. But that’s not the way we were going to do Mount Mitchell. First of all, it would hardly comport with my personal travel philosophy: “It’s not a vacation until you traumatize a major muscle group.” Second, there is so much to be missed by zooming straight to the top—the very essence of the mountain, in fact.
We started our climb at the Mount Mitchell trailhead inside the Black Mountain Campground in the Pisgah National Forest. The trail rises gently (at first) through hardwood forest understoried with rhododendrons and mountain laurel. The forest had shed its leaves, and there was a crisp sense of anticipation in the early morning air: the mountain had things to share.
The path steepened, and we rock-hopped across two small streams before encountering the first of several enchanting small waterfalls.
As we pushed upward, the forest gradually gave way to evergreen hemlock and spruce, which scented the air so charmingly it seemed the trees themselves were beckoning us up the mountain.
The path becomes much more arduous, and eventually turns into a mosaic of rocks and gnarled tree roots, so entangled with each other that they appear to be the very bones and sinew of the mountain.
All of these things, and more, are secrets never seen by those who motor to the top and climb a short, paved walkway to an observation tower. They miss seeing a mile of pathway embedded with so much mica that the dirt and rocks beneath your feet glitter with ridiculously improbable beauty on a sunny day. They miss icicles, on a 63-degree day, clinging to the underside of a cliff that has created its own little microclimate.
They miss the hours devoted to studying the patterns of how rocks tend to fall here, how the roots tend to twist, and where the moss tends to grow, till you eventually just know where to find a safe foothold without even thinking about it anymore.
We spent so much time getting to know the mountain that it was almost jarring to arrive at the summit, where an observation tower blunts the wilderness and the 360-degree view seems almost an affront to the intimacy of the journey it took to get there (almost–but not quite).
12 miles and 3684 feet of elevation gain (and loss, which is sometimes the more challenging part of the equation) brought us back to our car in the chilly hollow where we’d begun. We could have driven straight to the top of Mount Mitchell, and had the rest of the day free for other adventures. But we lived with a mountain for a day, and that can leave your imagination free for other adventures–for a lifetime.