I was the first person of the day to arrive at the infamous Mile High Swinging Bridge. I’m not a fan of heights; more specifically I have a fear of falling from heights. So of course walking across the swinging bridge a mile above sea level and a few hundred feet above a chasm shouldn’t be a problem, right? Oh and the wind was gusting 40 mph that day. No problem at all.
It actually wasn’t any problem at all. The word “swinging” in the name of the bridge is a little misleading. The metal bridge has so many support cables tied to various points along the span that the bridge doesn’t really swing that much at all. Maybe a few inches either direction. It’s more like the Mile High Suspended Bridge, but that doesn’t have the same ring to it.
But that doesn’t mean the wind can’t swing people. My first trek across the bridge I carried a little GoPro in one hand to record a video. I wanted to walk right down the center of the bridge, end to end, and capture about a short video. Instead I ended up with a zigzag pattern from left to right as I struggled against the wind to walk in a straight line. Didn’t help any that I was gripping the handrail with all my strength. It was thrilling, terrifying, and I wanted to do it again.
But the bridge isn’t the only thing to do at Grandfather Mountain. I walked across the bridge one final time and headed into the very nice gift shop. I met one of the park employees who explained the difference between Grandfather Mountain the Attraction, Grandfather Mountain the Mountain, and Grandfather Mountain the State Park. Huh?
Grandfather Mountain is actually a small chain of mountains that from a distance resemble the old, worn face of a grandfather looking up into the sky. Calloway Peak is the highest point on Grandfather Mountain at 5,946′. The range of the mountain also includes the private attraction and state park.
In 1952 photographer and conservationist Hugh MacRae Morton inherited 4,000 acres of land on Grandfather Mountain from his grandfather (love the connection). He immediately began working to open the mountain to tourism by building an access road and the first Mile High Swinging Bridge. Today the attraction is operated by the non-profit Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation.
In 2008 the state of North Carolina purchased 2,600 acres from the Foundation and created the state’s 34th park. Grandfather Mountain State Park features a series of trails across Calloway Peak and several other smaller peaks. Visitors enjoy the backcountry camping available here on a tract straddled between the Blue Ridge Parkway, Grandfather Mountain attraction, and NC Highway 105.
Learning the distinction of the name “Grandfather Mountain” was interesting, but before I left I was told I needed to visit the second floor of the gift shop to view the current art exhibit. Hugh Morton was well known as a landscape and wildlife photographer during his life. He would trek dozens of miles carrying photography career weighing more than anything I could ever buy in today’s market to capture stunning photography. The exhibit was interesting to explore, and I noticed an advertisement for his book Hugh Morton’s North Carolina.
I drove down the curvy mountain road back to The Nature Museum. The museum is housed inside a large building along with a gift shop, restrooms, and restaurant. The museum only takes a few minutes to explore, but it’s an interesting few minutes. The museum has more educational aids than historical artifacts, and spends a great deal of time explaining the Foundation’s conservation efforts.
Right around the corner was Mildred’s Grill. The made-to-order food looked to be pretty good, but I had brought my own lunch today so I wouldn’t be eating here. The large indoor dining area also featured a few places to sit outside. The weather at Grandfather Mountain was sunny and warm this day, but the average temperature even in mid-August is only 75-degrees. Comfortable, but it can get chilly fast.
The Wildlife Habitat was a neat place for an educational stroll. The private mountain top attraction is more than just a swinging bridge, museum, and zoo; they also provide public education and preservation efforts. The habitats include a black bear, deer, otters, cougars, and bald eagles.
I arrived at the river otter habitat just as Amy was about to feed them. She’s the kind of mother we all dreaded as children; instead of just feeding the otters, she would give them an activity to do first. How many times did we hear, “You can eat after your bedroom is cleaned?” Still, the otters were enthusiastic and wonderful to watch. Amy spent about fifteen minutes talking about the customs of otters and their natural habitat, answering questions from the large attentive group, and giggling over the cuteness of the little critters.
The paved path winds through a dense forested area between each of the habitats, making it an easy and comfortable walk. It only takes about twenty minutes to walk the path past all the various wildlife, but you’ll probably spend much more time than that after gawking over the deer and watching the bear bathe himself in the pond.
I packed my own lunch because I wanted to enjoy a solo picnic instead of sitting inside a restaurant. The Cliffside Picnic Area was one of many areas at the mountain that offered parking, tables, and a beautiful view. But I never would have known about the best view if it hadn’t been for the ominous sign reading “Avoid Ledges. Supervise Children.” Like a moth to a flame I was suddenly pulled toward the sign, up the gentle slope of a boulder, and stood on a sheer drop off enjoying a beautiful view.
Views like this are common through the attraction. There are several scenic overlooks and picnic areas. Even the view from the road itself is beautiful as it winds higher up the mountain to the swinging bridge. Along the road be sure to keep an eye out for “Forest Gump Curve”. This was the filming location of a scene when Gump (Tom Hanks) is running continuously across the country.
I figured this would be a great time to enjoy a little hiking. After all this is one of the most popular activities on Grandfather Mountain. The Trails Parking Area is near the top and provides plenty of parking for day hikers on the mountain.
There are plenty of trails to be enjoyed here, ranging from a gradual walk to what in the world was I thinking?! The Grandfather Trail begins at the parking area and rapidly ascends to the swinging bridge before MacRae Peak, The Chute, and finally Calloway Peak. The trail is so steep and technical at times that hikers have to use rustic wooden ladders to climb sections of the trail.
I wanted a more gradual experience so I chose to hike the Black Rock Trail to Grandmother View. The trail was relatively flat until near the end at the scenic overlook, and even then it was only a gradual drop. It was a peaceful hike through the dense vegetation. Without any sounds to overload your hearing, your other senses are left to experience the trail; the musty smell of nature and cool mountain air tickling your skin feel a hundred times more intense.
The latest the park ever stays open is 7 p.m., so I was back at the swinging bridge an hour before close. Conditions were much calmer this time so I was finally able to get out into the middle of the bridge and capture a few photos. It was also later in the day, so there were more people at the top. This is a popular area to visit, but not everyone has the gumption to cross the bridge.
I crossed it, several times, capturing the video and photos I needed. The lighting was just perfect and the partly cloudy skies added to much drama. It was just warm enough to be comfortable and with no breeze it was almost silent. After crossing over the bridge one last time I sat the photography gear down, plopped onto a rock ledge, and just enjoyed the view for awhile.
Of course I was too chicken to enjoy the best view in the house. Once crossing the bridge and climbing a few stone steps there are no rails. This is Linville Peak, and it is just as natural as it was a hundred years ago. I watched as other visitors quickly and fearlessly trekked across the exposed stone face of the peak, disappeared into the foliage, and reemerged ten minutes later on the peak. I should have gone, I wish I had gone now, but at the time I thought this was good enough.
This just gives me another reason to return again soon. Grandfather Mountain had enough activities and entertainment to keep me occupied for an entire day. I had arrived just minutes after they opened, and I was still sitting at the Mile High Swinging Bridge just minutes before they closed. A day just wasn’t enough. I’m thinking this should be one of those places I visit once or twice each year.
I still need to visit Linville Peak, and I want to hike out to Calloway Peak. I still need to see Amy feed the cougars and talk about the bears. I still need to eat at Mildred’s Grill and sweet talk another visitor into capturing a photo of me running around Forest Gump Curve. I need to visit Grandfather Mountain again, and sooner is most definitely better than later.