Hikes explore hidden history of area’s highest peaks

Melanie English
Special to The Black Mountain News

This September, the Swannanoa Valley Museum's exclusive hikes visit some of the most notable historic sites in the exploration of Western North Carolina.

On Saturday, Sept. 12, the museum will lead a hike to a breathtaking and remote waterfall on a private land preserve with permission of the owners. The 25-foot waterfall below the summit of Mount Mitchell in Yancey County is the site where Dr. Elisha Mitchell plummeted to his death while trying to prove the mountain that now bears his name is the highest point in the United States east of the Mississippi River.

In 1835 Mitchell, a science professor at the University of North Carolina, made his first excursion to the Black Mountains to measure elevations. Grandfather Mountain was believed to be the highest peak in the region, but Mitchell posited that the Black Mountains were higher. Using barometric pressure readings and mathematical formulas, Mitchell deduced that the highest peak in the range, known as Black Dome at 6,476 feet, was higher. During subsequent visits in 1838 and 1844, he calculated the mountain to measure 6,672 feet- only12 feet less than the modern measurement of 6,684 feet.

In the 1850s, Mitchell's former student, U.S. Senator Thomas Clingman, claimed to have measured another mountain at 6,941 feet. Mitchell returned to verify his measurements in 1857. While hiking alone during a thunderstorm, he fell from a cliff above a waterfall and drowned. Search parties from the North Fork and Cane River communities scoured the area for his body. Mitchell was buried in Asheville on July 10, 1857.

The following June, he was re-interned at the top of the peak, which was officially deemed Mount Mitchell. In the early 1880s, the U.S. Geological Survey confirmed Mitchell's measurements of his mountain as the highest in the Eastern U.S.

The museum's moderate to difficult 6.5-mile long hike will retrace Mitchell's steps to the falls through pristine, environmentally protected wilderness. Public access to this site is strictly prohibited, and this is a rare opportunity to experience the environment once traversed by Mitchell. Following old logging roads, surrounded on both sides by dense forest, hikers will travel uphill over a few arduous sections and across several stream crossings before hiking to the base of the falls.

Museum volunteers will ensure that all hikers make the steep descent safely. Hike leaders will divulge the history of Mitchell's explorations and point out landmark ridgelines and 19th Century wagon and horse routes. Hikers should wear good shoes and bring water, lunch, snacks, hiking sticks, and cameras. The cost is $35 for museum members and $50 for non-members.

The following Saturday, Sept. 19, the museum hosts the eighth hike of the Swannanoa Rim Series along Montreat's East Ridge. Hikers do not need to register for the entire Rim Series to participate in this hike. The hike presents the history of the town of Montreat, Montreat Conference Center, and Montreat College, as well the Mount Mitchell Railroad and Toll Road, Ridgecrest Conference Center and the Swannanoa Gap. The 6-mile-long hike is mostly moderate, with easy stream crossings and a few fairly precipitous descents. The hike follows established trails with the exception of a short, 300-foot off trail section.

Starting at Montreat's Graybeard trailhead, the hike will cross four streams to reach 3,913 feet at Pot Cove Gap. Hikers will follow the old Mount Mitchell Railroad bed, known as the Trestle Road around Thunder Knob and begin to follow the crest of the Blue Ridge marking the Continental Divide at Long Gap.

Hikers are advised to wear sturdy hiking boots and bring plenty of water and snacks. Hiking sticks are recommended for the slippery stream crossings and sharp descends. The cost is $30 for museum members and $50 for non-members.

Advanced registration is required for both hikes. The hikes meet at the museum at 223 W. State St. in Black Mountain at 8 a.m. To sign up visit or call 669-9566.