Almost 6,000 feet high in northwest North Carolina is Grandfather Mountain, an amazing 300-million-year-old natural wonder that is also one of the most biologically diverse places in the Southeast. For instance, there are 16 different classifications of natural communities and 73 rare or endangered species (including 32 that are globally imperiled) that are nestled in the dramatic cliffs, steep slopes, forests and river beds.
Located in Linville, Grandfather Mountain is an ideal place to walk, hike and bird watch. The mountain has 11 trails of various difficulty. Hikers can access the trails inside Grandfather Mountain State Park for free from one of two off-mountain trailheads located either on the Blue Ridge Parkway or N.C. 105. Access to the trails from the Swinging Bridge and inside the park requires the purchase of a ticket in advance. Due to COVID 19, only a certain number of tickets will be sold each day for certain time slots.
Two-thirds of the mountain consists of wild and undeveloped sections owned by the state. Grandfather Mountain towers above its surrounding region with a 1,500-foot vertical drop into the Linville River Valley to the west and a 4,000-foot vertical drop into the Catawba River basin to the east, which makes it perfect for bird watching. There are as many as 200 different bird species and 100 of these are documented breeding colonies.
In fact, it has one of the highest number of breeding birds in the East. The most convenient place to observe them is outside the windows of the Nature Museum Restaurant. Look for nuthatches, tufted-titmice, Carolina chickadees and juncos. If you’re on the Profile Trial, you’ll likely see warblers (especially in spring), scarlet tanagers, Louisiana water thrushes and a number of varieties of vireos. The Black Rock Trail is home to birds that prefer a high elevation spruce-fir ecosystem such as the pine siskins, kinglets, winter wrens, magnolia warblers, hermit thrushes and peregrines.
Don’t forget to look up. There are hundreds of raptors soaring over the mountain as these birds of prey make their annual southward migrations. Among the ones to look for are bald eagles, golden eagles, peregrine falcons, red-tailed hawks, American kestrels, merlins and vultures.
Of course, to many the highlight of Grandfather Mountain is the Mile High Swinging Bridge, which is the country’s highest suspension footbridge. The 228-foot suspension bridge spans an 80-foot chasm at more than one mile in elevation. For those with disabilities, the new Top Shop provides an elevator to the bridge.
Nature lovers are fortunate to have access to Grandfather Mountain. It was owned by the family of Hugh Morton, who owned the mountain and died in 2006. The family, along with the state of North Carolina, worked together to find a way to protect the land while guaranteeing public access to the rugged trails, swinging bridge and secure habitats for bear, cougar, elk and other wildlife.
The state bought 2,600 acres of the back country but gave the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation an easement that enabled the trails to stay open to the public and true to its rugged history. For example, at points hikers must use ladders and cables to scale rocks, something that isn’t often found in state parks. The Foundation also maintained ownership of the land where the attractions are located, including the swinging bridge, while agreeing to a conservation easement that limited future development. All proceeds from tickets and souvenirs go toward preserving the mountain. Adults: $22; Seniors: $20; Children four-12: $9.