Museum hikes explore Montreat’s history and terrain

Melanie English
Special to The Black Mountain News

In April, the Swannanoa Valley Museum will lead two hikes that explore the history of Montreat. Located in the Flat Creek valley on the eastern border of Buncombe County, Montreat is rimmed by mountains on three sides.

The township’s name is a portmanteau of the words “mountain” and “retreat,” named so by a group of Northern interdenominational clergy and lay leaders. Led by Congregational minister John C. Collins who purchased 4,500 acres northeast of Black Mountain for a Christian retreat in 1897, they founded the Mountain Retreat Association “for the encouragement of Christian work and living through Christian convention, public worship, missionary work, schools, and libraries.”

Nearly 400 people pitched tents to attend Montreat’s first “Christian Assembly” that summer. By the turn of the century, candy tycoon John S. Huyler financed finer accommodations at the Montreat Hotel. In 1907, a group of Presbyterians, sanctioned by the Presbyterian Church of the United States, purchased the Montreat Retreat Association.

In 1911, the Mountain Retreat Association elected Dr. Robert C. Anderson as president. Serving until 1946, he was instrumental in the evolution of Montreat as a conference center and educational institution. He proposed that the Montreat Normal School for Women to make use of the ground during the academic year to train young women as teachers. Opening in 1916 with eight students, the school was renamed Montreat College in 1933. It became a coeducational junior college in 1959 and began offering baccalaureate degrees in 1986.

While Montreat’s picturesque setting and Christian focus attracted thousands of conference attendees and students, its isolated setting and accommodations proved to be historically significant on two occasions. During the Second World War, Montreat’s Assembly Inn housed 264 Japanese and German diplomats and businessmen and their families awaiting repatriation in exchange for Allied diplomats and missionaries held by the Axis powers. During the civil rights movement, Montreat was the ideal secluded location for the Christian Action Conference where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at Anderson Auditorium on Aug. 21, 1965. Montreat is also home to the Rev. Billy Graham.

A 2004 conservation easement on 2,460 acres assured the protection of the scenic wilderness that has attracted visitors and residents to Montreat for more than a century. The Swannanoa Valley Museum’s April guided hikes will undercover Montreat’s rich natural, social, and cultural history.

On Saturday, April 9 the museum will host a Valley History Explorer hike through Montreat. Led by historians Joe and Mary Standaert, author of “Montreat (Postcard History Series)” (Arcadia Publishing, 2009) this moderate, three-mile hike will cover the history of the Montreat community and travel passed the ruins of the Montreat hydroelectric facilities, in use from 1913 to 1947. The hike meets at 9 a.m. at Black Mountain Savings Bank at 200 E. State Black Mountain. Advanced registration is required. The cost is $20 for museum members and $30 for non-members.

On Saturday, April 16, the museum will offer another hike along Montreat’s East Ridge as part of the Swannanoa Valley Rim Hike Series. On this hike, the Standaerts will share the history of the town of Montreat, Montreat College and the Montreat Conference Center, as well the Mount Mitchell Railroad and Toll Road, Ridgecrest Conference Center and the Swannanoa Gap. The six-mile 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.

The hike will then follow the Blue Ridge to the famous Swannanoa Gap at Ridgecrest, ascending and descending Rocky Head at 4,019 feet, Brushy Mountain at 3,879 feet and Bogg’s Bunion at 3,800 feet. From Bogg’s Bunion, hike leaders will shepherd hikers through a short off-trail segment to the start of the Rhododendron Ridge Trail for a sharp descent to the Ridgecrest Conference Center.

The hike will end at the Swannanoa Gap at an elevation of 2,600 feet. Hikers should allow about six hours to complete the hike. 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 hike meets at 8 a.m. at Black Mountain Savings Bank. The cost is $30 for museum members and $50 for non-members. Pre-registration is requested.

To sign up for the hikes, visit or call 669-9566.