When I stopped at the visitor center on my way to check in at the Airbnb I booked, the guy behind the counter told me that if I wanted to see the best views the area had to offer I should go to Mount Mitchell. He explained that it's the highest peak east of the Mississippi and sits at almost 7000 feet above sea level. That's all I needed hear, say no more. How do I get there?
He explained that the easiest way there wasn't possible because the Blue Ridge Parkway from Asheville to Mount Mitchell was closed. I'd have to take 70 north to 80 west, then get the parkway from there. Ok. No problem.
So, the plan was to wake up early and get on the road to catch the sunrise from the mountaintop. That sounded good in theory, but I didn't get on the road until about 7:30a and the mountain didn't open until 8a. Driving highway 70 was pretty uneventful, it took me about an hour to get to highway 80. I missed my turn and had to stop at nearby gas station for directions. I explained to the attendant where I was going and he seemed a little hesitant about giving me directions to the mountain from 80. He said that the road was a very winding road and he thought that I should take a different way. I told him that's the way I was told to go.
His only advice was to take my time and drive very slow around the curves. That there were a couple of hairpin turns that I'd have to navigate and that I shouldn't rush. I said ok and continued on my way. Starting out driving on 80 wasn't that bad, I passed through Marion, which is beautiful. Lake Tahoma was my first stop on my way up, the fog hovering just above the lake with the sun and high clouds streaking the sky. It was gorgeous. Simply magical. I didn't stop long because I was on a mission to get to my perfect shot up on the mountain.
As I continued to drive, the road, as promised, began to wind and turn in on itself. Snaking up the mountain slowly, my mind was really starting to work overtime and all I could think of was the shear drop off the side of the mountain. There were a couple of overlooks to stop and take pictures. I was so stressed out from the drive that I could hardly enjoy the views. There were only one or two other cars on the road so that made it a little better because I could take my time.
After about 45 mins or so I finally made it to the entrance to the mountain and drove the short distance up to the ranger's office. There was only one other car in the parking lot and the office was closed, it's hard to explain the feeling of being all alone. The view on either side of the road was into the valley below. The hills were almost completely submerged by the fog, but the tops of the hills were still visible. The sun was out and the sky was treated with clouds. It was so completely and absolutely quiet up there that I just stood still and appreciated the silence.
I had just two more miles to go before reaching the very top of the mountain. So I pushed on and made it to the top where there were two parking lots. It was a bit colder up there so I pulled on my sweater underneath my jacket and got out of the car. As I walked around, taking everything in, I noticed that there were garbage bins with chains and pad locks on them. That didn't really bother me at the time. I found a map showing the nearby trails and I saw that I was at the beginning of Deep Gap Trail. The map showed that it was a 4.9 mile hike to the end. Since this was my first time up there I didn't know that it was a strenuous hike, and it didn't occur to me that I should take my time because I was 7000 feet up.
Anyway, as I started on the hike all I could think about was how beautiful, eerie, scary, quiet, alone it was. There wasn't another soul around. Oh, and there was no cell phone signal either. So as I walking on the trail, which was very well marked by the way, the forest got thicker as I made my way further in. There were stairs that had been made from rocks and strategically placed by the park service, really great. Except for the fact that they meandered up and down some really steep parts of the mountain.
As I was walking I stopped and thought that I heard voices, but I didn't hear them again the whole time I was on the trail. I don't know if my mind was playing tricks on me or not, but I continued on. The path got steeper and was a lot more rugged even though the path was still very clearly marked. When I took a breath and stood still it was so utterly quiet that it started to make me uneasy. It's one thing to be adventurous and another to be stupid. There was no one around but me, I had no signal on my phone, no one knew where I was. And, my imagination started to work overtime. All I think of was the fact that I was being silently stalked by a bobcat and that at any moment I'd have to fight for my life. Whether it was a valid fear or not, I stopped in my tracks and turned around to go back. I wasn't prepared for the type of hike this was turning out to be.
By that time I'd hiked about 15 or 20 minutes into the forest, so it would take me about the same time to get back to my car. The hike back was mostly uphill and I was so out of breath from going so fast that I had to stop and rest. It wasn't until then that I realized the altitude might have something to do with the fact that I was really out of breath. I had to slow down and take my time to avoid passing out. When I finally made it back to the entrance of the trail, I was over it. All I wanted was to get off that mountain. But, of course, I couldn't leave until after I'd gotten the photos that I came up there to get. That was the whole point of the trek. To get some great shots.
The highest point was a few more stairs above the parking where I was, so it wasn't a great effort to get up there. The view was unreal. There really is something about being utterly alone in a place. Standing there taking in the view with just my thoughts to keep me company, it was great.
As I got back in my car to start the arduous journey back down that crazy winding road, I realized that this was truly a magnificent end to a great trip.