Mount Mitchell and the Blue Ridge Parkway
A few years ago, I set out on a quest to hike all of the mountains on the east coast above 6,000 feet, the vast majority of which are located in North Carolina. I started up north, in New Hampshire, with the Presidentials -- looming, dark mountains that look like someone scooped them up from out west and plopped them down in the Appalachian range, where their craggy windswept peaks of rock seem distinctly out of place amongst a range that is, for the most part, entirely forested even at its highest elevation. Although shorter than Mount Mitchell, new Hampshire's Mount Adams (not above 6,000 feet but still a challenging climb) and Mount Washington were backbreaking, leg-searing affairs, with Washington in particular being a real bear due to its honorable position as the location of the "worst weather in the world." People die up there -- and not rarely -- and a bright, sunny day can give way to a blinding blizzard, 205 mile an hour winds, or a torrential downpour with absolutely no warning. And sometimes all within the same hour. It's like some mad scientist is up there putting the finishing touches on the weather controlling machine with which he intends to blackmail the governments of the world.
With the Presidentials under my belt, I decided I might as well go for the biggest peak in the east. I was prepared for another hike full of agony and triumph, laden with the emergency gear and multiple layers of clothes Washington and Adams taught me to bring. Turns out it was all for naught. Despite its actual height, Mount Mitchell was a pleasant-looking lump covered with fiery red, yellow, orange, and green fall foliage and possessed of none of the ominous, bald-rock intimidation of the northern peaks. The hike up is surprisingly easy. My partner and I were up and down in two hours, and that includes time dallying about at the top. Comparatively, hiking up and down 5,774 foot Mount Adams took me seven hours and required extensive climbing. The Old Mitchell trail, which leads from the lower park ranger' station to the observation tower at the summit, is by comparison an easy hike that anyone in reasonable health could do without any fear or need for much technical ability beyond simple common sense.
Still, it's beautiful, and the drive along the two lanes of the Blue Ridge Parkway from Asheville (where we narrowly missed being caught in the throng showing up for a concert by hippie jam band mainstays String Cheese Incident) to Roanoke, Virginia, is one of the most breath-taking drives in the country. I'd rank it above pretty much everything but the drive through Monument Valley and the Navajo Nation. In early October, the leaves are just starting to get fiery. Splashes of color abound, and mountains are ablaze with autumn. Frequent pull-offs and overlooks allow you to drink in the scenery or take a quick rest while foxes, woodchucks, and coyotes prowl about outside. If there is a better way to end the summer season, I can't think of it.
The Blue Ridge Parkway leading to Mount Mitchell. Yes, I am taking
photos while driving winding two-lane blacktop.
In the Jeep, still full of sand from the excursion to the Outer Banks, I turn on the radio. Painfully poetic, as if the entire scene had been scripted, "All Summer Long" by the Beach Boys is playing on the radio. Through the streaks of rain on the windshield, I wave to her one more time, then head for home.