MacRae Peak – Grandfather Mountain
This hike follows the Grandfather Trail across series of ladders and cables to the summit of MacRae Peak. After climbing MacRae peak, we continued a little way along the trail before turning back right after Attic Window Peak. It’s a truly amazing hike with phenomenal views.
Hiking up Grandfather Mountain is nothing short of an adventure and one that I will not forget. This will challenge you as much mentally as it will physically as you have to decide how far you can go. Choosing to navigate up ladders on the side of a mountainside with nothing to save you from a nasty fall makes this hike one not for the faint of heart. I have a fear of heights, but especially when it comes to trusting in man-made things that tested me a few times on this hike. But Christine and I kept saying, “I can’t believe we just did that” when we passed through these obstacles and the adrenaline kept us going.
We drove into Grandfather Mountain through the main entrance off 221. If you are planning on doing any hiking on Grandfather Mountain, I would recommend starting as early as possible. Starting later than when the park opens could lead to an extremely long line of cars waiting to enter on a weekend or pretty summer/fall day. There is an admissions fee to get into the park ($18/adult with discounts for seniors and children at press time). Another reason to start early is this hike does take a while. While it is only a relatively short distance, you will want to take time to enjoy the numerous views and you will need to take time going up the ladders. With a lot of people on the trail, there could be a bottleneck through some of these passes. The park closes before nightfall and they do have rangers hiking along the trail to make sure that people get off the mountain in time. If you don’t get back to your car by nightfall, they post they will send out a search.
At the entrance to the park, the ranger warned us that the winds were between over 30 mph at the top. We made our way up the drive and stopped by Split Rock, a picnic spot and witnessed the drop in temperatures and wind firsthand. We then made our way to the Nature Museum and wildlife habitat. We walked around briefly and picked up a hiking trail map from the Nature Museum cashier. We continued our drive along the curvy road up until we reached a parking lot attendant. Since we were hiking, he instructed us to park in the lower lot to begin our hike.
From the parking lot, we took the Bridge Trail, a non-blazed trail that includes switchbacks through a hardwood forest. After a short distance, we started hearing a mechanical, whistling sound. This was the sound of wind whipping through the Mile High Swinging Bridge that lay above us. At .4 miles, we reached the Mile High Swinging Bridge and visitor center. The wind was blowing so hard up here. I felt that I didn’t have warm enough clothes, so we went inside the visitor center to buy a hat and gloves to replace the ones I’d forgotten back at our hotel. The wind was blowing much harder than 30-40mph. I would guess that it was closer to 60mph. My pants sounded like flags beaten by high winds and it was hard to even take a step ahead of you. From the visitor center, we went up the stairs to reach the bridge. Christine was eager to go across, but I had a lot of trepidation. The bridge was “singing” more than “swinging”, but I was wondering if it was safe to cross. Christine made her way across and per an earlier agreement, if I was going to make her hike up Grandfather Mountain, I had to hold my end of the bargain and walk across this 228 foot bridge. Being 6 feet tall, the side railings barely reached my hips and I was worried that a strong enough wind would have blown me off. The bridge has its name because the elevation here is 5280 feet above sea level making it a mile high. The bridge actually only spans two rock formations that has an 80 foot drop, but it is still unnerving. After making it across the bridge and back, we continued the hike.
Christine was having a difficult time making her way across the parking lot to the trailhead. I would see her take one step forward and the wind blew her two steps to the side. We made it to the other side and debated on if we could do this hike with such high winds. I convinced Christine to go a little further, hoping that the brush would slow the wind and after a short distance we didn’t feel the affect of the wind. We began the hike up using the Grandfather Trail, a blue diamond-blazed trail. At .8 miles (including the hike from the parking lot), we reached a junction with the Grandfather Extension trail. We kept going forward on the Grandfather Trail and at .9 miles, we reached Grandfather Gap, an open area that gives you great views. Continuing on at 1.4 miles, we reached a junction with the Underwood Trail. We stayed again on the Grandfather Trail and in a short distance the first ladder appeared. This was a long ladder (the first of nine total) that helped you navigate through a tight gorge between two rocks, but was not that scary. Shortly after this ladder, the real fun started where we had to do some rock scrambling, sometimes with the assistance of cables before coming up to a series of ladders. These ladders were definitely more frightening as you had to often climb up one ladder and then take a step to the left and climb up another ladder. We saw several people that got to the ladders and then wisely turned around as they didn’t think they can handle it. Knowing your limitations is definitely important. These ladders eventually led up to to one area that you were climbing up ladders on the side of the mountain with an insane drop to the side. We made it up this final ladder and took a moment to reflect on what we did and take in the views from the side of the mountain. We continued on the trail for a short distance and at 1.4 miles we reached a ladder on the side of the rock leading to the summit of MacRae Peak at 5845 feet. You climb up this 20 foot ladder and then grab a cable at the top of the ladder to pull yourself up the rock. You can find the benchmark for the peak at the top of the rock, giving you 360 degree views all around you, including the bridge to the southwest.
We climbed back down the ladder and then continued on the Grandfather Trail to the next peak. At 1.5 miles, we reached another junction with the Underwood trail. Continuing on the Grandfather Trail, we went up to The Chute, a rock scramble that leads to the top of Attic Window Peak. The scramble wasn’t too tough, but did require you to climb up on all fours at some points. We reached the top at 1.7 miles and passed the overnight Attic Window campsite. Continuing on the trail, we reached a junction with the Indian House Cave, a short but steep side trail that leads to a cave wall that was a shelter to Native Americans back in the day as artifacts were found here when it was first discovered. We continued back on the Grandfather Trail and the trail here begins to be more of a ridge walk. We took some time to find some nice spots to take in the views, eat some snacks, and then made our way back. At the junction with the Underwood Trail at 2.2 miles, we ended up taking this Yellow Diamond blazed trail to avoid the ladders on the return. This was a steep and rocky trail back without much to see and there is still one large ladder to climb down on the way, but it feels safer than the ones leading to MacRae Peak. At 2.7 miles, we reached the opposite end of the Underwood Trail, rejoining the Grandfather Trail, by taking a right. At 2.9 miles, we reached the junction with the Grandfather Extension trail and then took this Red Diamond blazed trail downhill through some switchbacks for .6 miles (with some more views along the way) until we reached our car at 3.5. miles.
Many people just drive to the upper parking lot to experience the Mile High Swinging Bridge and then return. It is definitely a highlight of Grandfather Mountain, but we were so glad that we hiked past this feature. The bridge used to be a wooden suspension bridge (erected in 1952) and used to sway more in the wind, but the side rails and floorboards were replaced with steel in 1999.
Grandfather Mountain was originally named Tanawha Mountain by the Cherokee, meaning “glorious hawk or eagle”. It was named Grandfather Mountain by pioneers as one view of the mountain does look like an old man’s face staring up into the sky. Daniel Boone once hunted in this area and John Muir after climbing Grandfather Mountain in 1898 proclaimed that the air during his climb had healed him of a bronchial cough.
Overall, I will say this has been one of my favorite and most memorable hikes that I have ever done. The views are absolutely gorgeous around you, as you can see for miles around on a clear day. Once you reached a viewpoint, you thought that it couldn’t get any better; but then you would take a few more steps and be even more impressed. We definitely plan on returning to tackle the hike all the way to Calloway Peak, the tallest peak at 5946 feet.
It’s kind of ironic that John Muir proclaimed that Grandfather Mountain’s air cured him of bronchitis. I was sick as a dog when I hiked this trail, and the air did not have any magical curative properties for me! In fact, I think it may have helped precipitate my garden-variety bronchitis into a full-blown, month-long battle with pneumonia.
Some readers might wonder why I didn’t do the sensible thing and actually rest while I was sick. I wish I had been smarter, but we had planned this trip several months earlier and were there to celebrate our 15th wedding anniversary. There was no way I was going to miss it. So… stupidly, I pushed myself mercilessly so that I could see and do all the things we had planned. I had a great time on the trip, and especially this hike – but I definitely paid a high price for all that fun.
Illness aside, this hike is probably near the top of my list of all-time favorite hikes. The scenery was breathtaking. Every boulder I rounded, every opening I stepped into; I practically gasped with disbelief at how truly beautiful nature can be. The ladders and cables were a perfect balance of scary and fun. I felt challenged and rewarded in equal measures.
Our adventure started off in the hiker parking area on Grandfather Mountain. The trail from the parking lot to the bridge was short and easy. Almost immediately, we could hear the harmonic hum of the wind whipping through the bridge. Evidently, the ‘singing bridge’ is a more accurate moniker than ‘swinging bridge’. We spent a little time at the ‘Top Shop’. We both crossed the bridge. I was very proud of Adam for crossing. He does not like heights and the bridge was not a happy place for him!
The bridge didn’t scare me at all, but the wind’s strength did! The main trail system on Grandfather Mountain starts directly above the parking area. The sign marking the trailhead is loaded with many, many warnings and cautionary tales. On the way over the the trailhead, the wind literally blew me off my feet! I rolled like a tumbleweed across the parking area – pretty remarkable for a full-grown, adult woman! It was the strongest wind I’ve ever encountered — even topping the weather we experienced on Mt. Washington. I told Adam that I thought it was stupid to hike in such strong wind, but he encouraged me to hike a little along the trail, in hopes that the trees and other obstacles would shelter us from the wind. Thankfully, he was right and the wind wasn’t bad for most of the hike.
All of the ladders and cables were sturdy and securely fixed to the rock, so I never felt like I was in any real danger. They greatly aided us in traversing some very steep terrain. When you look at MacRae peak from a distance, it looks so steep and practically unscalable. When you finally climb the last ladder to the highest point of the peak, you truly feel on top of the world! We shared the peak with a group of Boy Scouts and a group of Amish men. Quite an interesting mix of folks!
After leaving MacRae, we continued along the Grandfather Trail in the direction of Calloway peak. The trail took us through a fun and challenging rock scramble called ‘The Chute’. Near there, we met one of the Grandfather Mountain rangers. He was out hiking the trail to sweep for hikers in trouble and for people who might be cutting time short to make it back to the parking area by 5:00.
After the Chute, we passed the Attic Window Peak backcountry tent site. After that, we walked a short way along an open, razorback ridge or rock. We had more spectacular views looking toward Banner Elk and in the direction of Calloway Peak. Along this ridge, we stopped for a snack. While I was eating my Luna bar, I measured up the distance to Calloway peak. I wasn’t feeling any better. I was cold, stuffy, achy and exhausted. As much as I wanted to reach Calloway peak, I wanted some soup and a hot bath even more. I apologetically told Adam that I couldn’t go any further. I could tell he was disappointed, but he willingly turned back.
On the return, we took the Underwood Trail. It was quite steep and rocky, but only required one downward ladder climb. Eventually, we reached the junction of the Grandfather Trail and the Grandfather Extension. The extension led us back down to the hiker parking area without having to cross the Swinging Bridge parking lot again. That little section of trail had one pretty view from a bridge and lots of fall color. We got back to the car and made our way back down the mountain. I could not believe the line of cars waiting to get into Grandfather Mountain. It stretched for several miles! Insane! I guess it’s a good idea to get an early start when you visit Grandfather. All in all, it was a super day and a great hike. I can’t wait to go back sometime when I’m not sick!
- Distance – about 3.5 miles
- Elevation Change – about 1600 feet
- Difficulty – 4.5. The ladders and cables make this a tough hike. The climbs over the mountains make this hike take a lot longer than you would normally on this distance.
- Trail Conditions – 4. The trail was in good condition. Ladders and cables were sturdy and secure, but rainy/icy/snowy weather will make the rock climbing treacherous. If you have a fear of heights, ladders or precipitous edges, this hike might not be for you.
- Views – 5. AMAZING!
- Waterfalls/streams – 0. There are no streams on this hike.
- Wildlife – 0. This area is heavily traveled, so it’s unlikely you’ll see wildlife.
- Ease to Navigate –4. The junctions at all the trails are well-marked. We got a little turned around through one of the rock scrambles.
- Solitude – 1.5. Expect to see lots of people on this trail unless you go at an off time. But we never felt too crowded where we couldn’t enjoy things by ourselves.
Directions to trailhead: The entrance to Grandfather Mountain is located on US 221, two miles north of Linville, North Carolina, and one mile south of the Blue Ridge Parkway at milepost 305. Signs for the entrance are well-marked and an entrance station is right off the road with large gates. Travel up the road by car until you reach the parking lot designated for hiking trails. The trailhead for the Bridge Trail is on the left side of the parking lot as you are driving up. Coordinates for the hiker parking area are 36.096145, -81.831802.