Hiking on Grandfather Mountain or Tanawah
Base Town: Blowing Rock, 3640 ft & Linville, 3680 ft | Trailhead: varies on location, ~4000 ft | Elevation Peak: Calloway Peak 5964 ft / 1818 m | Elevation Gain: ~1900 ft
Special notes: Grandfather Mountain is a privately owned park & nature reserve
Grandfather Mountain or Tanawah (it’s Indian name)
Geologists are estimating that Grandfather is one of the oldest mountains on our planet. It was probably the first rock formation rising out of the prehistoric Ocean about 65 millions years ago. The south slopes of Grandfather Mountain are dropping over 4500 ft into the Wilson Creek area and Pisgah National Forest. The Blue Ridge Parkway is traversing on the south side in approximately 4000 ft to 4500 ft elevation over numerous bridges and the impressive Linville Viaduct.
The Blue Ridge Parkway offers easy access to hiking trails with many overlooks and parking opportunities. The Tanawah Trail runs for about 20 miles parallel to the Blue Ridge Park Way starting at the Beacon Heights and ending in the Moses Cone Park near Blowing Rock. The Tanawah Trail and a few little trails forking off are the only public non fee trails.
If you like to hike in the private-owned Grandfather Mountain Park each hiker has to pay admission, enforced by Rangers along the trails. The Grandfather Mountain backcountry is very different from other mountain areas in the south. Above 5000 ft the trees are changing from deciduous forest to spruce-fir forest usually found further north in Canadian climates.
The north slopes of Grandfather Mountain are quite different. The Watauga River is running in the valley on the northern slopes sharing is a narrow bed with NC Highway 105. The entire valley is developed and on the other side are two major ski areas. Sugar Mountain Resort is the biggest in the State and is attracting many skiers from the entire Southern United States. Many summer homes and several golf courses are in the neighborhood as well.
Trails with No Fee
1. Tanawah Trail
The Tanawah Trail is an approximately 20 miles long easy hike starting at the Beacon Heights near the Linville exit. It follows the Blue Ridge Parkway all the way down to Moses Cone Park where it ends in the park’s trail system. The trail is crossing many different creeks and streams. After 3 miles of hiking the trail winds its way underneath the Linville Viaduct of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Many boulders are along and under the bridge and some are easy to climb and provide a nice view either onto the Bridge itself and the passing road traffic or over the bridge into the Wilson Creek area. After another 4 miles of hiking in the high alpine fir forest, the Tanawah reaches one of the most spectacular overlooks, the top of Rough Ridge.
Past the Rough Ridge, the trail stays most below the crowns of Oak, Hickory and Maple trees undergrown with lots of Rhododendrons. This thick forest provides some cool shade in the summertime from the hot burning sun to make the hiking experience more pleasant and keeps the temperatures much lower.
On cool and cloudy summer days mainly after a thunderstorm, a layer of mist and fog will create a mystic atmosphere mixed with different scents from roots, wet soil, and leaves. Right before the trail emerges into the Julian Price Park and Moses Cone Park trail system it is crossing some wide-open meadows where cattle are grazing over the summer month.
2. Beacon Heights
Beacon Heights is the end or start of the Thanawah Trail. The Beacon Heights are sloped huge rock shields located close to the parking lot at the Linville exit of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Many people are coming to this place on sunny days enjoying the views and relaxing in the summer sun.
From here you have great views to Grandfather Mountain with its huge rock boulders and walls on the southeast slope. A short five-minute hike takes you from the parking lot to the rocks at Beacon Heights.
3. Rough Ridge Trail
The far most exposed section of the Tanawah trail follows along the Rough Ridge. Like the name already says it is a rocky crest above the trees providing long-range views. Part of the trail is running over a long boardwalk to protect the very fragile soil and plants in that area. About at this elevation the deciduous forest changes more and more into a spruce-fir forest. The climate above 5000 feet is much colder and fir trees are a more robust species withstanding the rough climate in higher elevations.
This is one of the few sections of the Tanawah trail above the lush and thick trees. The Rough Ridge is providing gorgeous views into the Pisgah National Forest and the Wilson Creek area. On this side of the mountain, the elevation drop is more than 4000 feet. In mid-June, the Catawba Rhododendrons are in full bloom and shortly after that spectacle blueberries are growing right into your mouth. They are a delicious snack while hiking along the trail.
4. Trails in Moses Cone & Julian Price Park
The two parks are well covered with hiking trails and 25 miles of a carriage road system. The creator of the road system, the original owner of the 3600-acre Estate, Moses H. Cone, designed, engineered and build the carriage roads across his entire property.
Since the park became part of the US National Park Service the public has access to the entire property and is able to enjoy the complex system of trails. The trails are closed to bicycles and only hikers and horsemen are sharing the roads.
- Green Knob Trail: Hiking trail – 3 miles loop following a wonderful creek. Some pretty views from Green Knob over to Grandfather Mountain. Access from Mills Pond near the Price Lake Picnic Ground. About one hour walk.
- Boone Fork Trail: Hiking trail – 5 miles loop following the Boone Fork River. About halfway the River cascades over a 200 feet tall staircase of huge granite boulders. Many little waterfalls and pools are creating a nice place to relax and to enjoy a refreshing dive on hot summer days. The trail starts either at the Price Lake Campground or at the close by Picnic Ground. About one and a half hours for the loop. Tanawah Trail and Boone Fork Trail are sharing a 2-mile section.
- Rich Mountain Trail: Carriage Road – Starts at Trout lake and offers some nice and quiet trails. Beautiful views from the top of Rich mountain. To the south with Grandfather Mountain to the north as far as Virginia with Mount Rogers and to the west into Tennessee. The meadows around Rich Mountain are a cattle range during the summer month, please keep gates closed.
- Flat Top Mountain: Carriage Road – 3.5 miles to the fire tower at Flat Top Mountain (4550 ft). 360-degree views above the trees from the old fire tower.
- The Maze: Carriage Road – Complex trail system starting at the Bass Lake in Blowing Rock. About twelve miles of winding trails creating a real maze and challenging the sense for orientation. Halfway and above the Bass Lake the Moses Cone Manor, a craft center and gift shop.
See my other hiking trip: Hiking Thru the Narrows – Zion National Park
Fee Required Trails
1. Calloway Peak (5964 ft) via Nuwati & Boone Scout Trail
Both trails are starting at the Boone Fork Overlook. About one mile past the trailhead they split and the Nuwati trails follow a wooded crest for about one and a half miles merging back together with the Boone Scout Trail. This is the only trail on the east side of Grandfather Mountain leading to Calloway Peak. About two thirds up the way to Calloway Peak there is a shelter and a small primitive campground.
Hikers need an overnight permit to use the facilities. Calloway Peak is the highest point in the entire Grandfather Ridge. Calloway Peak offers 360-degree long-range views and if weather and air conditions are perfect you can see the skyline of Charlotte, North Carolina’s biggest city. From Calloway Peak, the trail follows the crest of the Grandfather Ridge over to the tourist station at the swinging bridge.
Several wooden ladders are necessary to climb to get over some vertical and overhanging rock cliffs. In the middle between Calloway Peak and the swinging bridge, a bypass avoids some more difficult climbing sections. Only experienced hikers with no fear of heights should take the direct ridge route.
2. Calloway Peak (5964 ft) via Profile Trail & Calloway Trail
This route is the only trail on Grandfather Mountain’s northwest slope. A big sign on Highway 105 is showing the turn off to the parking lot and trailhead. In the beginning, the trail follows and then crosses over the Watauga River. It continues under the canopy of Oak and Maple trees with thick undergrowth of Rhododendron shrub. After hiking for about 2.5 miles the trail passes the Profile View.
The big rock face to the North has a profile like the face of an old man. The trail leads over over a rock walkway with approximately 200 steps formed by flat rock boulders, called Peregrine’s Flight. At its end is Shanty Spring. The water is dripping over an overhanging 30 ft tall rock cliff. Past the spring the trail becomes much steeper and strenuous and is renamed into Calloway Trail. It leads over big rock boulders until it reaches the Grandfather Ridge. Turn to the left and hike the 0.4 remaining miles to the peak of Calloway or turn right and hike over the ridge to Mac Rae Peak (5939 ft).
Note: If you are a resident of Watauga or Avery county with proof of residency in April and December a hiking permit is only one dollar. Permits are available at the main gate to Grandfather Mountain Park or at the Grandfather Mountain Market on Highway 221 near the Holloway exit of the Blue Ridge Parkway.