The call of the wild has been loud and clear during the pandemic with many people looking for a way to escape, get outdoors and connect more with their loved ones and nature.
That trend is evident with Grandfather Mountain experiencing record attendance the last two years. With more people visiting, the park has also observed a substantial increase in hikers. In 2019, the Linville, N.C., nature preserve recorded 11,889 hikers between January and August. In 2021, 15,110 hikers hit the trails during that same period, a 27-percent increase.
“Having more people on the trails means that people are getting back to nature and specifically seeing the wonders of Grandfather Mountain in a unique way,” said H Patton III, natural resource management specialist for the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation, the nonprofit organization that owns and operates the park. “Hiking our trails offers one of the most difficult and exciting experiences that our guests can have. The rugged connection to the mountain is one that they will never forget.”
Grandfather Mountain offers access to 11 trails varying in difficulty from a gentle walk in the woods to a rigorous trek across rugged peaks. In-park trails include the Woods Walk, Black Rock Nature Trail and Bridge Trail. The nature preserve also provides access to backcountry trails in the adjacent Grandfather Mountain State Park. Along the Grandfather Trail, a very strenuous trail that runs from the mountain’s Hiker Parking Lot out 2.4 miles to Calloway Peak, hikers use in-place cables and ladders for extra steep sections and at times are traversing the ridgeline of the mountain.
With more visitors and hikers comes more responsibility on natural resource management staff.
“The trail feels the effects of every footstep, and it shows over time,” Patton said.
Grandfather’s natural resource staff, comprised of four people, has worked hard this season to help people stay on course by repainting blazes and blocking social trails, or paths made by folks who go off trail. The team has also added new sets of rock steps to help hikers navigate tough terrain and worked to manage the tread, or surface, of trails.
Trail work hours are also on the rise. The team put in 391 hours of trail work from mid-March to early August in 2019. In 2021, that number is 449 hours, a 15-percent increase. This extra time provides more than the benefit of well-kept trails.
“We’ve made a conscious effort to be present more often on our trails,” Patton said. “We like to let hikers know that we are around and available if they need us for any reason.”
Fall is a very popular time to hike at Grandfather Mountain, one of the best leaf-looking destinations in the South. The mountain is home to a myriad of plants and hardwood trees that range from pumpkin-colored beech trees to blood-red sourwoods and rusty red oaks. In addition, Grandfather’s lofty heights provide guests with a spectacular vantage point as the leaf change and fall color advances down the flanks of the mountain and into the piedmont of North Carolina.
While the leaf change at Grandfather Mountain generally starts at higher elevations in late September, the views of fall color brightening up the low-lying valleys below can last through October.
Patton recommends these six tips for folks planning to hike at Grandfather Mountain this fall:
- Choose the right trail for you and your group’s fitness level.
Every trail at Grandfather Mountain offers a great hiking experience, but the experience can be tarnished if the enjoyable hike turns into a survival situation. Grandfather Mountain offers access to a variety of trails that fit any group, from a simple walk in the woods to a full day hike with very rugged terrain.
- Be familiar with the trail.
Use resources such as maps and apps to help navigate trails. Plan your route in advance of your hike. Trail information for Grandfather Mountain is located at www.grandfather.com.
- Check the weather.
Check the weather the week before, week of, days before, the day of and even right before you begin your hike. Weather can change quickly in the mountains, and knowing what you might run into will keep you safe and happy.
- Tell someone your plan.
You should always make people aware of your plan, so if anything were to happen, someone would know to look for you or where to find you. At Grandfather Mountain, hikers are asked to fill out hiking permits before hitting the backcountry trails. These permits also give the hiker contact information to utilize if needed.
- Dress appropriately.
Hiking boots are best for hiking, but please wear closed toe shoes at the very least. Clothes that are moisture wicking are also important. Packing a rain jacket and extra layers is also advised.
- Bring plenty of water and snacks.
Some of the backcountry trails on Grandfather Mountain will take all day to complete. This means water and some snacks to get you through the day will be necessary.
Information on Grandfather Mountain’s trails is located at www.grandfather.com. Advance tickets and online reservations to enter the park are strongly encouraged during the busy fall season. In October, park hours will be 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Trails will close at 6 p.m. All hikers must be back to their vehicles by that time or a search party will be sent out.
The nonprofit Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation strives to inspire conservation of the natural world by helping guests explore, understand and value the wonders of Grandfather Mountain. For more information, call (800) 468-7325, or visit www.grandfather.com to plan a trip.