Nestled in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains near the town of Burnsville NC, Mount Mitchell looms large above the surrounding area.
Rising to an impressive 6,684 feet above sea level, Mt Mitchell is both the highest point in North Carolina and the tallest mountain east of the Mississippi River.
The desire to preserve and protect Mt. Mitchell State Park’s dramatic summits (and the surrounding Pisgah National Forest) led to it becoming the very first of the NC State Parks in 1915.
After making the swooping 10-minute drive up from the Blue Ridge Parkway, visitors to Mount Mitchell State Park are greeted with one of the state’s most breathtaking scenic overlooks.
The park’s attractions include a museum detailing the history and culture of the area, a concession stand that includes a full-service restaurant, and a small shop offering souvenirs and important park info.
With its sprawling scenic vistas, it’s not surprising that hiking Mt Mitchell is a very popular activity. And with Mt Mitchell hiking trails ranging from under a mile to nearly 11 miles, the park is a perfect place for hikers of all ages and abilities.
Read on for our in-depth guide to Mt Mitchell State Park camping and hiking options, including a detailed overview of all the best Mt Mitchell hiking trails and campgrounds.
READ MORE: The 15 Best Things to Do in Burnsville NC
Mt Mitchell State Park NC Info
ADDRESS: 2388 N.C. 128, Burnsville NC 28714
OFFICE HOURS: November to March: 9:00am to 5:00pm on weekdays; closed on weekends. April to October:
9:00am to 5:00pm daily
ENTRY FEES: Free
OFFICIAL WEBSITE: NCparks.gov
RESERVATIONS: Reserve Online or call 1-877-722-6762
DIRECTIONS TO MOUNT MITCHELL STATE PARK:
From Asheville, take the BRP north to Milepost 355 and turn left onto NC 128, which leads to the state park. Note that winter weather conditions may cause delays or closures on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
From I-40 West, take exit 86, NC 226 to Marion/Shelby. NC 226 merges with US 221 and US 70 in Marion. Veer left on US 70. After about two miles, turn north on NC 80. Follow NC 80 north/northeast for 16 miles. Turn left onto the Blue Ridge Parkway. Follow the parkway to Milepost 355 and turn right onto NC 128, which leads to the state park.
From Burnsville, travel east on Hwy 19, then south on Highway 80 and turn right onto the Blue Ridge Parkway. Follow the BRP south to Milepost 355 and turn onto NC 128, which leads to the state park.
READ MORE: The 20 Best Pisgah National Forest Hiking Trails in North Carolina
Tips for Hiking Mount Mitchell
As one might expect of the highest point in NC, there are ample hiking options to explore through Mt Mitchell’s pristine forests and its neighboring peaks (which nearly rival Mount Mitchell in elevation).
Mt Mitchell State Park offers seven different hiking trails. But you can get more mileage by making your way into the surrounding Pisgah National Forest, or by starting from the Black Mountain Campground and trekking to the top on foot.
Hiking trails at the park include trails to the Mount Mitchell summit, to surrounding ridgelines and peaks (including the 6,637-foot Mt Craig, as well as to surrounding campgrounds.
Due to the fact that these hikes involve North Carolina’s highest points, it is VITAL to remember that Mount Mitchell weather can be unpredictable and chilly, even in the summer months.
We highly recommend that hikers wear appropriate clothing (i.e. multiple layers), carry the common hiking essentials, and always be on the lookout for ice on the trails!
READ MORE: The 52 Best Hikes in North Carolina for the 52 Hikes Challenge
Mt Mitchell Trails
Deep Gap Trail
Level of difficulty: Moderate to Strenuous
Distance: 8.6 miles
This 8.6-mile, moderate to strenuous trail begins at the picnic area near the summit of Mount Mitchell.
As it follows the crests of the Black Mountains, it crosses Mount Craig and Big Tom Mountain, offering spectacular vistas along the way on clear day.
This trail follows along the Black Mountain Crest Trail, which extends an additional 7 miles into the Pisgah National Forest over a handful of gorgeous high peaks!
READ MORE: Visiting the Cradle of Forestry in Pisgah National Forest
Mt Mitchell Summit Trail
Level of difficulty: Easy
Distance: Less than 1/3-mile
This 280-yard paved road begins at the upper Mount Mitchell parking lot and leads to the summit observation platform.
While the Summit Trail gets steeper near the top, this is one of the relatively easy hiking trails that’s great for all ages.
On a clear day, visitors can see as far as 85 miles and enjoy spectacular views of the surrounding mountains that make up the Pisgah National Forest.
READ MORE: The Top 25 Blue Ridge Mountain Towns in GA & NC
Balsam Nature Trail
Level of difficulty: Moderate
Distance: 1.4 miles
This short (around 0.75 miles each way) nature trail starts at its junction with the Mount Mitchell Trail and ends at the tower summit parking lot.
The tiny stream located along this trail is the highest spring in eastern America. It has a very chilly average temperature of just 36 degrees!
This spring was an essential water source for park employees during the developmental of Mount Mitchell State Park.
READ MORE: The 30 Best Waterfalls Near Asheville NC
Mount Mitchell Trail
Level of difficulty: Strenuous
Distance: 11.9 miles
Today, this is the main hiking trail used to climb Mount Mitchell, from the very bottom to the top.
The trail begins at the Black Mountain Campground, which is operated by the U.S. Forest Service, and ends at the summit.
You can also reach Setrock Creek Falls, one of the most popular waterfalls near Burnsville, from the campground.
Note that this 6-mile trail (11.9 miles round-trip) requires about 4.5 hours of strenuous hiking to reach the top and around 3.5 hours to return to the base of the summit. Please plan accordingly.
READ MORE: The 10 Best Waterfalls Near Boone NC
Old Mitchell Trail
Level of difficulty: Moderate
Distance: 4 miles
Used by Appalachian explorers as early as the 1840s, the Old Mitchell Trail was the primary trail for reaching Mount Mitchell during the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Today, this trail can be hiked around 2 miles each way, from the Mount Mitchell State Park restaurant to the summit.
Hikers who choose to tackle this moderately strenuous trail are rewarded with jaw-dropping views, a close-up look at the spruce-fir forest, and frequent chances to observe deer in their natural habitat.
READ MORE: The 15 Best Western North Carolina Mountains For Hiking
Mount Mitchell Camping
You could spend several days exploring the state park’s hiking trails, and camping offers a great way to immerse yourself in Mt. Mitchell’s soaring summits and sweeping views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
There are numerous campgrounds in and around the park, ranging from easy access drive-up campsites to backcountry camping that requires long approach hikes.
Mt. Mitchell Campground
Located off the Mt Mitchell State Park entry road, just a short mile from the summit, this is the most easily accessed campground in the park.
The 9-site family campground is open from May 1 to October 31, and each site is equipped with a grill and picnic table.
There are restrooms nearby for use during warm seasons, but showers and hot water are not provided.
This campground operates on a first-come, first-served basis, so arrive early if you want to beat the weekend crowds, especially once the fall colors in North Carolina begin to show.
READ MORE: The Ultimate Pisgah National Forest Camping Guide
Campers are permitted to leave their vehicles in the state park overnight if they want to backpack into the Pisgah National Forest. To do so, fill out the forms provided at the trailheads (or the park office) and leave them on your dashboard.
The Deep Gap Trail offers countless backcountry camping options, a majority of which provide incredible Blue Ridge Mountain views right from your tent!
IMPORTANT NOTE: Park gates are locked at the posted closing times, after which no entering or exiting is allowed!
If you leave the park and don’t return before closing time, you will not be able to re-enter. Check with the park office for the after-hours emergency phone number, and please contact the camp hosts only for emergencies.
Also, it is not uncommon to encounter black bears at Mount Mitchell State Park, particularly in warm weather months. So always be prepared, and read about bear safety before hitting the hiking trails!
READ MORE: North Carolina Wildflowers Guide (& Where to See Them in Western NC)
Black Mountain Campground
The Black Mountain Campground is located east of the mountain in Burnsville’s Toe River Valley, just a short drive from the gates to Mount Mitchell.
The campground offers 37 primitive campsites, plus 3 campsites with electric hookups.
All the campsites are equipped with picnic tables, tent pads, lantern posts, and campfire rings with grills. The facility provides hot showers and restrooms with flush toilets, with firewood and other necessities available for purchase.
Located along the South Toe River, the campground offers no shortage of things to do, including picnicking, day hiking, and trout fishing.
There are a variety of hiking trails to choose from here, from a leisurely half-mile walk through a forest dotted with wildflowers to Setrock Creek Falls to a challenging hike up to the summit of Mount Mitchell.
Note that this Mt Mitchell campground closes in the winter months. And while there are some first-come, first-served options available, it’s always best to reserve a campsite ahead of time via their official website!
READ MORE: The 10 Best Campgrounds in the North Carolina Mountains
Other Things to Do in Mt Mitchell State Park
1. Picnic Tables & Picnic Shelters
Is there anything better than a mile-high picnic at Mount Mitchell?! The shady picnic area, open year-round, is located at the north end of the summit parking lot.
There are 40 picnic tables available, as well as stone grills and fresh drinking water. There are also two picnic shelters with fireplaces that are perfect for group picnics.
Each shelter accommodates up to 16 people, and use of the shelters is free of charge unless reservations are requested.
2. Mt Mitchell Restaurant
Starting to hear you stomach rumble? Enjoy a relaxing meal in the Mount Mitchell Restaurant, which is located approximately a half-mile from the park office.
It’s open from May through October, and hungry hikers will enjoy the restaurant’s food as much as its scenic views.
The restaurant is open 7 days a week, from 10AM until one hour before the park’s closing time. Call ahead for COVID-related closure information.
3. The Assault on Mt. Mitchell
The Assault on Mt Mitchell is an annual 102.7-mile bicycle race.
The grueling race runs from downtown Spartanburg SC, along the Blue Ridge Parkway, to the summit at Mt. Mitchell State Park in North Carolina— a total vertical ascent of more than 10,000 feet!
There’s also an off-road version of this race for those who prefer mountain biking to road cycling.
4. Mt Mitchell State Park Events
There are an array of events held in or around Mt Mitchell State Park, including festivals, car shows, trail marathons, and various arts & craft fairs in North Carolina.
Check out NC State Parks’ official Event Calendar for a schedule of what’s coming up for the 2022 season.
5. Watching Wildlife
Bird watchers have recorded a mind-blowing 91 species in Mount Mitchell State Park.
Many of these species are more characteristic of New England and Canada than the typical birds of North Carolina, including winter wrens, slate-colored juncos, red crossbills, and golden-crowned kinglets.
From the observation tower, it’s typical for visitors to see the rare peregrine falcons whipping past. The luckiest of visitors might also catch a glimpse of a northern flying squirrel, or hear the wooing call of the saw-whet owl.
White-tailed deer and black bears are seen here as well, and at night you may even spot a bobcat or gray fox.
Always be respectful when you’re around NC wildlife, and be sure to keep a safe distance for viewing! –by Dawson Tozier; all photos by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett unless otherwise noted