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Celebrate State Parks Centennial Aug. 26 at ASU, Aug. 27 at Grandfather Mountain


“Exploring 100 Years of Grandfather Mountain: A State Park Centennial Celebration”
  • Dr. Patrick McMillan
    Friday, Aug. 26
  • 7-9 p.m. (social from 7-7:30 p.m.)
  • ASU Library, 218 College St, Boone (Room 114) 
  • Expeditions on Grandfather Mountain
Expeditions at Grandfather Mountain State Park:
  • Saturday, Aug. 27 beginning at 11 a.m. (last expedition leaves at 1:30 p.m.)
  • Boone Fork Parking Lot; Blue Ridge Parkway, just north of mile marker 300 (GPS: 36.120076, -81.781358)
  • Nuwati Hikes leave every 30 minutes beginning at 11:00am, the last hike leaves at 1:30pm.
  • Cragway loop hikes leave at 11:15am and 12:15pm (longer and more strenuous hikes)
  • Plan on two hours for the Nuwati Trail; three hours for the Cragway loop.
  • No pets, please.
  • Bring water.
  • Dress for the weather and wear closed-toe shoes, appropriate for hiking.
More information: 828-963-9522 


By Angela Gazzillo

Photos by Todd Bush

Editor’s Note: Read more of this story and others in the August edition of High Country Magazine. Get the free digital copy here.

Comprised of rock formations that have towered over the North Carolina highlands for centuries, our beloved Grandfather Mountain is a natural treasure like no other.

Stately and majestic, he’s long been known as an Appalachian icon — the enduring guardian of the Blue Ridge Mountains with an abiding legacy one billion years in the making.

Our venerable forefather, zenith of the eastern escarpment of the Blue Ridge, anchors the history of life in the High Country. However, as the newest protected park in the Old North State, he also stands as a beacon for progress and change.

After a prolonged era of private ownership, his grandeur and glory are now preserved for generations to come, and new leadership promises improvements that will make his peaks and valleys more accessible to the public.

As the North Carolina State Parks system celebrates its centennial this year, we, too, are invited to celebrate its steadfast commitment to our natural resources through its latest acquisition, Grandfather Mountain.

Preserved and Protected

For generations, Grandfather Mountain has been known as one of the most popular and iconic attractions in the Southeast. Although the state parks system purchased much of the mountain several years ago, the continued operation of the for-profit attraction has yielded some confusion amongst the general public over who, or what, oversees the mountain.

Folks want to know: Is it privately owned? Is it state property?

The answer is, while the for-profit attraction is still alive and well, the remaining acreage is now government owned and operated as Grandfather Mountain State Park.

Sue McBean

In the 1952, conservationist and photographer Hugh Morton inherited more than 4,000 acres on Grandfather Mountain from his grandfather, Hugh MacRae. Morton worked to develop the land, which was first purchased into his family by his great-grandfather in the late 1880s, and make it more accessible to tourists.

From then on, Morton established and grew the now iconic mountaintop attraction. Upon his death in 2006, Morton’s heirs struggled with the decision they would have to make regarding whether to sell the property or keep it in the family.

Ultimately, they elected to ensure the continuation of Morton’s legacy by selling the majority of the property to the state of North Carolina.

In 2008, trustees of the N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund and the Natural Heritage Trust Fund each designated $6 million to purchase the undeveloped “back country” acreage of the property, and the general assembly was later asked to formally authorize Grandfather Mountain State Park as a unit of the state parks system.

Details of the purchase were released to the public in a press statement from the state parks office in January 2009:

“An agreement announced by Gov. Mike Easley in September calls for the state to acquire 2,456 acres on the landmark mountain for $12 million from the Morton Family and Grandfather Mountain Inc. The acquisition will also include a conservation easement of 749 acres that will be retained by the heirs of Hugh Morton.”

The Morton family then established the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation, a non-profit that now operates and manages the attraction, which sits on the 749 acres retained by the family and includes the famous Mile High Swinging Bridge, animal habitats, restaurant and nature museum.

Thus, Grandfather Mountain State Park was born, and new leadership soon arrived to ensure the property’s natural resources would remain preserved and protected for years to come.

Keepers of the Park

Sue McBean, a 51-year-old nature enthusiast and native of Cleveland, Ohio, had been living in North Carolina with her husband for more than 15 years when she accepted her dream job as superintendent of Grandfather Mountain State Park.

Her career began with a degree in parks and recreation management earned from Ohio State University. Upon completion of her studies, she did what many adventurous recent graduates do: traveled.

“I spent my first years out of college traveling all over the country, doing fun things in different places,” said McBean. “We moved to North Carolina for my first real job, and I’ve been here with the division now for 23 years.”

She started as a park ranger at Jordan Lake State Recreation Area in Apex, North Carolina, from which she moved after 13 years to Haw River State Park, which encompasses Guilford and Rockingham counties.

“I was at Haw River for three-and-a-half years when this new place at Grandfather Mountain opened, and it just sounded so perfect. Haw River used to be an Episcopal diocese retreat and conference center, so they have this train of cabins for kids and four different motel buildings, a conference center and gymnasium, a swimming pool and tennis courts, a kitchen and a dining room,” McBean explained. “It was a lot of facilities management, and then Grandfather Mountain opened and it had… nothing. It didn’t have an AC system or a sewer system or anything like I had to deal with at Haw River. It was a mountain. It was brand new and it just sounded very exciting. It sounded like the place I wanted to be.”

Happy to call Grandfather her home, McBean says her role as park superintendent in the North Carolina mountains is the job for which she was made.

“I should have come here when I was 30, because when you’re young your knees don’t hurt, and I’m 51 now. I was a little old to take the job, really, but it’s what I have always wanted,” she said. “I was really happy to end up in the place that is what people imagine when they think of being a park ranger. They’re not thinking of standing on a beach directing traffic, but it was all a good experience. It was good background and good knowledge to have, but this is the place to be.”

Grandfather’s remote and rocky backcountry and lack of facilities allows her to spend more time in the park that most superintendents get to spend.

McBean relies on a small but mighty crew to help her care for the park, which includes two rangers, one maintenance mechanic and one office assistant, as well as three seasonal employees that started in April and will work through October and another seasonal ranger that works Saturdays and Sundays.

Although limited resources are always an issue for state parks, McBean said she is grateful for the funding and support the mountain receives from North Carolina, without which her park could not operate.

“Every park will say that they don’t have the staff they really needs to operate and do the things they want to do. It would be nice to have another ranger, but, as everyone says, we’re doing more with less,” she explained. “The people of North Carolina really love their parks and they support their parks. I think that’s a big deal.”

A Common Goal

Although McBean was new to the area at the time and was thrown into the process of the mountain’s separating ownership, she said the transition was a pleasant one.

“The Morton family and the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation have been so easy to work with,” she said. “They were really accepting and inviting, and helped in the ways that they could. We have shared missions.”

Although the state park section and the attraction are operated under different ownerships, the two entities often work together to preserve and protect the mountain’s valuable ecosystem, which his home to 72 known rare, threatened or endangered plant and animal species, as well as a variety of watersheds that stem from the mountain and transition into our drinking water.

Stipulations of the purchase ensure that both parties, the state and the Morton family, are equally invested in guaranteeing the preservation of the mountain in the future.

Through the sale, the state also acquired nine sections of easements that encompass 1,460 acres of land that Morton entrusted to the Nature Conservancy back in 1990. That protection is why activity on the mountain is limited to hiking today.

“There’s no rock climbing, no mountain biking, no fishing, because they are written into the easements,” McBean said. “Concurrently, the state has an easement over the private property attraction so it can’t be overbuilt.”

If the Morton family ever decides to sell the 700-plus acres that house the attraction, the state will first rights to buy it, which means the public can rest easy knowing it will be protected forever.

McBean promised the mountainside will never be developed on her watch for condominiums or a ski slope, although she admits that she loves to ski.

“Just not on my mountain,” she said.

She finds comfort in knowing that the property is protected, and believes that the general public shares in her sentiment.

“Whether they come to the mountain or not, a lot of the appreciation is vicarious,” said McBean. “You can live on the coast and still appreciate that there are clean mountain streams up here.”

Centennial Celebration

This year, the North Carolina State Parks system celebrates 100 years of preservation and the establishment of its first park at Mount Mitchell, which stands in Yancey County and boasts the highest peak in the United States east of the Mississippi River.

All state parks are participating in the festivities through the 100 Mile Challenge, which encourages hikers and adventurers to hike a total of 100 miles in state parks throughout the year. Want to join in? Visit www.ncparks.gov to print out a log sheet and simply keep track of the date and mileage you cover with every hike.

Many outdoor enthusiasts are tackling the challenge by touring various parks in the system, although Grandfather Mountain is taking it to new heights and encouraging hikers to accumulate all 100 miles in its park.

Those who complete the 100 Mile Challenge within Grandfather Mountain will earn a T-shirt courtesy of the Friends of the High Country State Parks, a nonprofit dedicated to protection, preservation, expansion and raising state park funding in the area.

McBean assures that it’s not too late to participate, even if you’ve hiked on Grandfather earlier in the year. The challenge includes trails that are not necessarily on the state park property but are still considered part of the mountain, such as Beacon Heights and the Tanawha Trail.

“Grandfather Mountain does not just start at the parking lot of N.C. Highway 105 and go up. Few people realize how massive the mountain really is,” McBean said. “Geologically speaking, you’re still on Grandfather Mountain, so as far as we’re concerned, that counts.”

In addition to the 100 Mile Challenge, Grandfather Mountain will host a series of celebratory events in honor the state parks system’s centennial Aug. 26-27.

Dr. Patrick McMillan will host a lecture in the library of Appalachian State University on Friday, Aug. 26 entitled “Exploring 100 Years of Grandfather Mountain — A State Park Centennial Celebration.” His inspirational lecture will explore not only the history of the mountain itself, but the extremely diverse ecosystems on the mountain.

“Just listening to him is incredible,” McBean said. “I heard him talk last year, and just left so inspired and happy. He knows everything. Every plant, every mineral, every rock, every geological process, every bird — he’s just amazing! And he’s an incredible speaker.”

A 7 p.m. social event with birthday cake will precede the 7:30 p.m. lecture.

On Saturday, Aug. 27, a series of hikes will encourage the public to get out and enjoy the park. A slower-paced tour along the Nuwati Trail will take hikers to Storyteller’s Rock and will make stops along the way to hear from scientists, naturalists and environmental educators about what they’re seeing along the trail. The two-hour, three-mile roundtrip hike will begin at 11 a.m. with groups leaving every half-hour until 1:30 p.m.

A more challenging expedition led by volunteers from the Blue Ridge Hiking Club will lead participants on a three-hour, four-mile trek along the Cragway Trail with a 950’ elevation gain. Tours will leave at 11:15 a.m. and 12:15 p.m. that day.

For more information about centennial events, visit www.ncparks.gov.