Even the best-planned vacations can have a hiccup. My trip along the Blue Ridge Parkway with my daughter had two hiccups, like a bonus or buy-one-get-one-free situation. Mother nature was to blame.
We were staying in Asheville, North Carolina, right after a fierce spring windstorm. High winds had tormented eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina the weekend before our arrival.
With the ground heavily saturated by spring thawing, high winds easily toppled some large trees along the parkway. The section closest to Asheville, heading north towards Boone, was closed.
It is not unusual for sections of the Blue Ridge Parkway to be closed, especially in the off-season. The majority of the 469 miles along the parkway are at a high elevation, around 6,000 feet at the highest point. The high elevation results in windier, colder and wetter conditions than the valleys around it.
The most common reasons for the parkway to be closed are high winds, downed trees, snow or ice. Weather in surrounding cities may seem pleasant, but road conditions vary along the parkway. Ice can still be present in the tunnels long after warmer temperatures elsewhere in early spring and late fall.
The road conditions on our trip forced a decision on us. We had to decide whether or not to visit Mount Mitchell, the highest point in elevation east of the Mississippi in the continental U.S. With a section of the parkway closed, we had to drive an hour and twenty minutes looping out to reach another area to access the parkway.
Mountains are calling
Quoting the bumper sticker “The mountains are calling and I must go,” I convinced my daughter that Mount Mitchell was a necessary stop on our trip. We were also able to change our last night hotel stay from Asheville to staying farther north in Blowing Rock, North Carolina. The change gave us more time exploring and less time in the car.
A common theme of the trip was experiencing hairpin turns. On the steep switchbacks, we would take turns having to peer out over the edge at the deep ravine below.
After what seemed like a vertical ascent straight into the sky, we stopped at the state park parking lot. I felt compelled to give my car a couple of congratulatory thumps on the hood. Well done tiny equinox, I thought. The thin mountain air must have been getting to me as I imagined my car responding, well-done white-knuckled mama. If there ever was a time to exchange mutual respect with a vehicle, this was it.
In Yancey County on a spur road off the Parkway, Mount Mitchell is nestled within the Black Mountain subrange of the Appalachians. Mount Mitchell State Park was established in 1915. It was the very first state park in North Carolina.
Long before, the native Cherokees had another name for the mountain, Attakula. The first European settlers renamed the mountain, Black Dome, due to its rounded shape and black color created by a dense forest on the summit. The legacy of a professor from the University of North Carolina inspired another name change.
Elisha Mitchell explored the area in 1835, determined to find the exact elevation of Black Dome. He was confident that the Black Mountains were higher than Mount Washington in New Hampshire, what was thought to be the highest point in the East.
Mitchell believed the elevation at the summit to be 6,672 feet. His claim of the highest elevation was challenged by his former student, Thomas Clingman. Sadly, Elisha Mitchell died in 1857 attempting to prove his measurements. He slipped off a cliff near a 40-foot waterfall, suffering a fatal head injury. His primitive but thorough method of calculating elevation was later proven to be only 12 feet off the actual height of 6,684 feet. His body was interred at the summit of Black Dome, which was renamed Mount Mitchell in his honor.
We hiked in reverent awe on the steep 980-foot trail to reach the observation deck. The chilly air combined with the scent of red spruce and young Fraser fir trees made it seem like we were walking in a Christmas card.
Slightly winded, we stopped at the most picturesque place, again noticing the layers of blue mountain ranges in the distance. The last few feet brought us to the summit, where we took in a 360-degree view of the Black Mountains. Mesmerizing — the view was simply mesmerizing.
The mountains had called and we had arrived. We spent time on the mountain top, sharing the moment with strangers who at that moment felt like members of our tribe as we collectively took in the view before us.
Reluctantly, we eventually returned to our car and began the descent on the mountainside. I glanced in my rearview mirror to see a cyclist drafting behind our car. On the longest stretches without turns, he was clocking speeds of just over 40 mph.
Euphoria and fearlessness appeared to be gifts bestowed on visitors to the area. I felt the urge to live an elevated life, bottling up the mountain-top experiences in order to make it through the valleys of life.
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