Randy Johnson has written nine books about hiking in the Southeast over the years. But the one UNC Press will debut on Monday is probably the most personal: “Grandfather Mountain: The History and Guide to an Appalachian Icon.”
When most people think of Grandfather Mountain, it is of the Mile High Swing Bridge, its animal habitats and the annual Grandfather Mountain Highland Games (July 7-10; gmhg.org).
But Johnson got to know it as a hiker and then an employee. He first visited Grandfather Mountain as a college student. When he next went, he learned that owner Hugh Morton had closed the mountain’s overgrown trails after a hiker died. Johnson persuaded Morton to hire him as a ranger to reopen and oversee the trail network, one of many stories told in his new book.
Morton, famed for photography and conservation efforts, died in 2006 and was buried on the mountain. In 2008, his family sold the undeveloped back two-thirds of the mountain – at 5,946 feet, the highest peak on the eastern face of the Blue Ridge – to the state for Grandfather Mountain State Park. It is a rugged, 2,456-acre expanse enjoyed by hikers and backpackers.
The developed portion remains the Grandfather Mountain attraction that has been in operation since 1952. A nonprofit now runs the attraction (www.grandfather.com).
We asked Johnson to name 10 things most people don’t know about Grandfather Mountain and its surroundings.
1. Hitting the highest notes: “The three peaks at the top – all about the same height – are so scenic that some explorers were actually moved to sing. Andre Micheaux, the famous botanist, burst into song there in 1794, according to his diaries. So did naturalist John Muir in 1898, according to his letters. I’d guess that they were at Calloway Peak or MacRae Peak.
“Here’s some irony: Little did Muir, the father of our national parks, know that the Blue Ridge Parkway would be built right below where he was looking out. Today, the BRP is the most popular unit in the National Park system.”
2. Chutes and ladders: “Many drive to see Grandfather’s swinging bridge, but relatively few reach the park’s higher summits. One of the great ones, Attic Window Peak, has steep, rocky faces, ladders you have to climb ... and a summit with interesting secrets.
“There’s a place up there called Indian House Cave, and some say many Native American artifacts were found there in the early 20th century. It supposedly was a ritual site where Indians would receive power after a visit to the mountain. John Parris, the classic mountain writer, called this ‘the Cave of the Dawn Man.’ It’s probably not a true ritual site, but there are so many legends that it’s pretty interesting.
“Another secret: When you’re almost to the top, up a steep and rocky chute, there’s a way to go out through a fissure and come out into the Attic Window – a perch high on the face of a cliff – with an overlook that has an amazing vista.”
3. There’s no-sweat fun: “If you want an easy hike on the mountain that really gives you a sense of its geological uniqueness, take the 3-mile hike to Storytellers Rock. Many summit hikes are strenuous; this isn’t. You’re right in the heart of a high, scoop-shaped mountain valley. It looks so scooped out it’s called the Boone Fork Bowl.
“It was once thought to have been carved by a glacier. But that’s likely not true, even though it looks like a glacial cirque you’d see in New England or out West. Also easy and cool when you’re there is walking the Nuwati Trail: It’s so flat and gradual. It’s actually the remnant of an old logging rail bed from the early 20th century.”
4. Get face to face: “Grandfather Mountain is known for rocky profiles – places that look like faces. In fact, the actual Grandfather face truly looks like an old man when it’s covered with snow. Hike the Profile Trail to get there; it’s about a 3-mile hike, one way, to a place called Profile View. You look directly out at the entire dramatic face – eyebrows, chin and so on.
“In 2003, the Old Man of the Mountain, a series of cliff ledges in New Hampshire also called the Great Stone Face, collapsed. The thing is, our Grandfather Mountain received its name before New England’s Old Man did. If you’re looking for the ‘true’ face of the Appalachians, Grandfather is the original, as far as I’m concerned.”
5. New meows and antlers: This spring – on the foundation-run part of the mountain – the cougar habitat got two new cubs. “Every year there are new bear cubs, but there have never been cougar kids. Spring and early summer is a good time to see them on special, small-group Behind the Scenes habitat tours.”
6. The rail thing: “Tweetsie Railroad, near Grandfather Mountain, isn’t just a railroad tourist attraction about cowboys and Indians. The original steam locomotive there is from a railroad that ran between Johnson City, Tenn., and Boone between 1918 and 1940. A part of it went right below Grandfather.
“That part of the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina was the highest-elevation passenger railroad in the Eastern U.S. and the longest narrow-gauge railroad in the world; it provided transport to isolated parts of the mountains and also allowed Grandfather Mountain’s timber to be logged. People loved it and it changed their lives; they affectionately named it ‘Tweetsie’ from the sound of its whistle.
“You can explore that history Aug. 27-28 at Tweetsie Railroad’s Railroad Heritage Weekend. The engines are there – historical landmarks that ran on the original tracks – and you can ride in an 1870s parlor car and do other things. The railroad shop at Tweetsie, by the way, is the national leader in rebuilding locomotives.
“Also, visit the Avery County Historical Museum in Newland; it’s 4 miles from Linville and 4 miles from Grandfather Mountain. It has the original Tweetsie’s last remaining caboose, which is now restored, plus the last remaining Tweetsie station, from Linville, is sitting out behind the museum.”
7. Before the Blue Ridge Parkway: “Most people know the Blue Ridge Parkway’s famous Linn Cove Viaduct is at the edge of Grandfather Mountain. But try driving U.S. 221 in the area. That highway was built in 1890 as the Yonahlossee Road, and is still much like it was then, when it was called the best and most modern road in the N.C. mountains. On that road, people would go from Blowing Rock to Linville in stagecoaches and covered wagons. It was North Carolina’s BRP 100-plus years before the BRP was built. Today it is called Little Parkway and is designated an N.C. Scenic Parkway. There’s an absolutely spectacular loop if you combine the parkway and U.S. 221.”
8. Hike below the viaduct: “From Beacon Heights, at U.S. 221 on Grandfather Mountain, all the way to Price Park, near Blowing Rock, the Blue Ridge Parkway is paralleled by the Tanawha Trail: It’s 13 miles long and runs along the flank of the mountain.
“If you park at the Linn Cove visitor center, you can take a handicapped-accessible trail right below the viaduct. Hike beyond that and the trail goes on the side of and below the viaduct. The side trail leads to the best view – a postcard view – of the viaduct.”
9. The mountain’s original eye candy: “Many think the Mile-High Swinging Bridge was Grandfather Mountain’s first attraction. It wasn’t. From 1935 to 1952, the first attraction was a road you could drive up to get a great view.
“That didn’t go as high as the swinging bridge is today, but you can still drive to that location. About three-fourths of the way up the road to the bridge is a viewpoint called Cliffside Overlook. Pull into it. That parking spot is where there used to be a big wooden deck built out over the rock. It was called Observation Point.
“It’s still a good view.”
10. The “Gump” connection: “The last turn on that road before turning left to reach Observation Point is called Forrest Gump Curve. Remember the part of ‘Forrest Gump’ when he was running nonstop across the country? One of those scenes was filmed right there.”