There and Back on the Grandfather Trail...
My first taste of Grandfather Mountain was back on April (’06). It was the last day of “locals month” where residents of neighboring counties can get in the gate for only $1. We took the kids along and hit the tourist hot spots…the animals and the Mile High Swinging Bridge (groan). The most beautiful part was getting a close look at the rugged summit ridgeline to the north. Nevertheless I had to chuckle when I read the sign welcoming us to “the most rugged mountain in Eastern America.” “Yeah right,” I thought as I remembered my handful of near-death experiences in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
I decided to do the Grandfather Trail as my inaugural hike on the mountain as I only had an afternoon to go. The trail also manages to hit some of the more exciting terrain in a quick 5-mile out-and-back hike. I followed the caravan of Florida people up the mountain to the bridge parking area. Happily, I noticed not a single person heading over to the Grandfather Trailhead.
The first stretch from the parking area is a good introduction to the trail. Just rocky and steep enough, I imagined, to convince (almost) anyone wearing sneakers or sandals that they’ve wandered onto the wrong path. After about a quarter mile I reached an area known as “the Patio” with impressive views of McRae Peak looming ahead. Just past the half-mile mark I hit the first cable which was helpful since the rock it climbed was quite wet. From here the trail got interesting to say the least. I climbed a series of six(?) ladders, each a little more exposed than the last. In fact, the upper two are completely exposed and would be a horrible place to get caught in a storm. You top out on a narrow ledge and then climb the rock slabs to the summit ridge. The trail made its way through a scrub forest that reminded me of the woods near tree-line up north to the perched boulder that is the summit of McRae Peak. A 20’ ladder helps you up the boulder and the views at the top were amazing. To the west an easterly wind was blowing wisps of cloud up from Pisgah National Forest while to the west there was just enough haze to almost imagine SugarTop wasn’t there. One weird thing I noticed though was that there are two(1,2) benchmarks at the summit; both with the same date. If anyone can explain this to me please do.
After about 20 minutes I reluctantly climbed down off the summit boulder and headed for Attic Window Peak. Descending to McRae Gap, the Grandfather Trail then passed through a couple interesting areas on its way to Attic Window.
Attic Window Peak soon after. The views are to the west of the greater Banner Elk area. Even with the development the views were incredible. From Attic Window the trail continued north along the cliff edge frequently breaking out into the open treating me to beautiful views and a nice mountaintop breeze. About a half mile north of Attic Window the Grandfather passes over a large rock outcrop giving great views ahead of Calloway Peak. The trail then dropped back into the woods, passed a couple of nice backcountry campsites, and reached the Profile Trail on its way up from NC-105 at Calloway Gap.
From Calloway Gap the Grandfather Trail was a bit steep in spots as it climbed Calloway Peak and doesn’t have the views found on other parts of the trail. I passed the Watauga Spur Trail 0.1 miles from the summit deciding to visit it on the way down if I had time. The last tenth of a mile was enjoyable with more views but at the same time a bit of work as it makes its way over numerous boulders on the summit ridge. I found the “X” I assumed marks the summit but was unable to find a benchmark. I didn’t stay long as I could see clouds beginning to cover the ridge to the south. Heading back, I made the quick side trip to Watauga View which was very impressive. The views were to the N towards Foscoe and Boone. I snapped a few quick pics but I was concerned about the weather so didn’t stay as long as I would have liked.
The return trip was uneventful. The clouds I had seen earlier had broken up by the time I made it back up on the ridge and I had clear skies the rest of the way. When I got back to McRae Peak I took a right on the Underwood Trail. The trail guide I had describes the Underwood Trail as “an alternate route around McRae avoiding the steep climb over the peak as well as the exposed ledges and ladders.” I therefore read “alternate” to mean “easier.” I was mistaken. You do save yourself the vertical climb but the trail is a mile long “choose-your-own-adventure” of mixed rocks and boulders. I made horrible time and without the aid of my new hiking poles I’m sure my knees would have been much worse for the wear. Upon reaching the Grandfather Trail I made quick work out of the remaining half mile of trail and was soon joining the caravan of Florida people back down the mountain.
Overall this was one of the most interesting and challenging hikes I have done in the Southern Appalachians. Earlier I had laughed at how rugged the mountain claimed to be but I was repeatedly amazed by how rugged it really was. My legs and joints really hadn’t taken a pounding like that since I was in the White Mountains. Kudos go out to all the people who recommended I pick up a set of hiking poles as they literally saved my rear on numerous occasions and made things so much more bearable on my knees. An AWESOME day in the mountains…..but then what day isn’t?!
To see more pics visit my webshots album of the trip here.