LINVILLE, N.C. – Grandfather Mountain, the not-for-profit nature park run by the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation, is known for its extremes: an impressive rise in elevation above the North Carolina Piedmont, access to some of the South’s most challenging hikes, vast ecological abundance and, at times, wild weather.
Winter is the time of year when the weather at Grandfather – one of the most rugged mountains in the Eastern U.S. – is at its most extreme, and park staff must be prepared to encounter a variety of conditions.
Many significant weather records have been set on the mountain during the colder months. Grandfather Mountain has been providing daily weather observations from the top of the mountain since August 1955. The highest winds of the year are experienced in winter, with the current record gust set at 124 mph on Feb. 25, 2019. In addition, the coldest temperature recorded on the mountain is minus 32 degrees Fahrenheit on Jan. 21, 1985.
Grandfather has seen the extremes of 24 inches of snow in one day (March 16, 1993), 55.06 inches of snow in one month (January 1977) and 128.71 inches of snow in a winter (1959-1960).
The arctic blast that hit a large portion of the country at Christmas 2022 brought frigid temperatures to the mountain. Dec. 23, 2022, saw a low temperature of minus 17 degrees and a wind chill of minus 54.2 degrees, and Christmas Eve brought a low of minus 18.2 degrees and a wind chill of minus 56.8 degrees.
Grandfather Mountain is open, weather permitting, in the winter – and while the majority of winter days at the park can be quite pleasant, the extreme-weather days require a lot of extra preparation and work from staff.
Grandfather’s maintenance staff, along with park operations staff, is responsible for evaluating the mountain each day in winter to check conditions, determine the park’s opening status and do any needed removal of ice and snow.
In a single season, the maintenance crew pours anywhere from 12 to 18 tons of road salt to keep the roadways free of ice and safe to drive on for the mountain’s staff and guests. This does not include an extra 1,000 pounds of salt put on the walkways and habitat paths. With the addition of the Wilson Center for Nature Discovery’s new concrete sidewalks with animal-paw-print designs, the maintenance crew had to find a material that works like salt but won’t damage the new concrete, is environmentally friendly and can work in Grandfather’s extreme elements.
In winter, it’s not uncommon for park staff to head to the Mile High Swinging Bridge with brooms in tow to sweep ice away after a rime-ice event. Rime ice occurs when super-cooled water droplets (like from a cloud or fog) freeze to a surface. The result can produce a dramatic effect where the mountain’s windswept evergreens and Swinging Bridge are covered in a dense layer of ice that can be inches thick and have the appearance of spikes.
After snowstorms at Grandfather, vehicles are fitted with snowplows to clear the road and allow access to the top of the park. For deep snows, a snowblower comes in handy to blow the heavy snow off the roadways rather than have it piled up on the side of the road. The crews stay ready since the mountain’s weather can change at a moment’s notice.
“Coming in day to day, you never know what the road conditions are going to be and how the mountain is going to look up top,” Gideon Hughes, maintenance manager for the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation, said. “One day the weather could start with rain, turn cold and then transition to freezing rain, and then we have to work quickly to get everything salted. You never know what’s going to happen in winter on Grandfather.”
For the mountain’s animal habitat keepers, winter preparations begin months in advance as they ready the resident black bears for their winter slumber. This includes carefully monitoring the bears’ diets and gradually increasing their fat supply in late summer and early fall, before limiting their food during winter, a process that mimics the natural fluctuations a bear would experience in the wild. Grandfather’s bears go into a state of torpor, or light sleep, in the winter.
“The bears do not go through a typical hibernation, per se,” Christie Tipton, animal habitats curator for the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation, said. “It is not uncommon to see one of the bears sleepily wandering around the habitat during the winter, whereas the otters are actually more active in the winter and sometimes like to dig tunnels in their habitat after a snowfall.”
While the otters may enjoy the freezing temperatures, the harsh conditions can sometimes cause problems by freezing the animals’ water supply. Habitat staff keep this from happening by breaking up ice that may form over water sources inside the habitats and ensuring that lines that supply heat to these water sources remain operational.
No matter the conditions, Grandfather’s habitat staff has to ensure that the bears, elk, eagles, cougars and otters have access to food and water during the winter, even if the habitats are inaccessible by car and the keepers need to hike up the mountain in the snow or ice to get to the animals.
While technology over the years has brought improved automated weather-reporting equipment to Grandfather Mountain, a number of park staff are still responsible for measuring and recording weather totals at the top of the mountain, Wilson Center for Nature Discovery and Entrance Gate. This sometimes means venturing out into extreme conditions to take a daily reading.
“We are very intentional about the weather measurements that are taken on the mountain and do everything in our power to take these observations at the same time every day, regardless of how extreme the weather may be, in order to maintain consistency in the data,” John Caveny, director of education and natural resources for the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation, said.
Staff tasked with recording the weather measure rain totals and snow depth in designated locations, calculate snow melt-to-water equivalents and, at times, have to remove ice from weather equipment in order to keep it functional.
“High-wind events will often blow all of the snow off the designated site at the top of the mountain or cause rain totals to be misleading,” Caveny said. “By taking measurements at the bottom, middle and top of the mountain and comparing them to each other, we can get a big-picture view of how different the weather can be across these different gradients. Through the long-term collection of this data, we build a picture of what the specific climate of Grandfather Mountain is.”
Mountain staff also maintain the park’s trail system to keep it accessible during the winter, although it is not uncommon for some of the rockier trails, such as Black Rock and the Grandfather Trail, to close due to the formation of ice.
Trail maintenance is a continual process on the mountain but picks up especially in the fall, considering that winter weather can wreak havoc on a trail when not monitored properly. If brush is not cleared and if drainage on a trail is not working properly, a trail could become inaccessible for months after the first snowfall or severe winter storm.
“If we don’t clean drainages well in the fall and make the necessary removals, then the winter destroys trails and makes them inaccessible,” H Patton III, natural resource management specialist for the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation, said. “It’s work that requires continuous monitoring and upkeep.”
Hikers should be prepared to encounter ice any time the trails are open during the winter months and even into early spring.
Visiting Grandfather Mountain in the Winter
While the weather atop Grandfather is some of the most extreme and fast-changing in the Eastern U.S., between the periods of wind and snow, you’ll find many sunny days perfect for hikes and visiting the park.
The winter season is generally quieter, with more opportunities for magical mile-high experiences. Cold temperatures bring clearer views – and even the chance to see the Charlotte skyline more than 80 miles away on some days. The new Wilson Center for Nature Discovery offers the perfect place to warm up with a dozen interactive exhibits, a film about Grandfather’s history and ecology in an ADA-accessible theater and homemade soups, burgers and wraps at Mildred’s Grill. More tips for visiting in the winter can be found at www.grandfather.com/winter-visits.
In the winter, guests are encouraged to call 828-733-4337 or check www.grandfather.com before visiting the park to learn about the day’s conditions and opening status. While the staff works very hard to make the park accessible, there are days when all or portions of the mountain are closed because of adverse conditions.
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, visit www.grandfather.com.