I purposefully waited until within a couple weeks of the vernal solstice – the longest day of the year – to do a double traverse of Grandfather Mountain. I had only done that kind of trip a couple times before, once in the late fall, and once in the spring. Both prior trips took about all day, leaving me no margin for error to get back to the parking lot before dark. This time I had a few hours to spare.
I would hike the full height of Grandfather Mountain, from NC Highway 105, up the Profile Trail, to Calloway Gap, along the Grandfather Trail, over Attic Window Peak and MacRae Peak, down to the Swinging Bridge, and then back the same say to the NC 105 parking lot, in one day. Total mileage is only about 10 miles, and the net altitude gain is only about 2,000 feet. Compared to some of the 20 mile days and 3,000 feet gain trips that Kelly Pipes and Hank Perkins do on the Appalachian Trail, the statistics seem kind of plebian. But the Grandfather Mountain Trails, particularly along the peaks, are some of the most rugged on east side of the Mississippi River. There are many steep, slick, nearly vertical sections requiring hanging onto tree limbs, roots, cables and ladders. And the total altitude gain and loss, repeatedly going up and down many peaks, is probably closer to 4,000 feet.
The purpose of the trip was training for a major backpacking trip in late July, 2011, to the Wind River Range in Wyoming. That, plus being able to say at age 59 years that I can still do it.
It turned out to be a fortuitous trip in another regard. I had been on Grandfather Mountain many dozens of times – maybe as much as a hundred, dating back to the 1960’s - in every season and all sorts of weather. But I had never seen the top of the mountain covered in full bloom rhododendron like I did this time. I hit it right at the peak of the flower season and was delighted to see blossoms everywhere. From a distance, some of the peaks looked like flower gardens.
The logistics worked out in even numbers. I got up at 6:30 a.m., was on the road by 7 a.m., and started hiking about 8 a.m. I made it to the MacRae Peak by 11 a.m. Lunch was partaken at the Bridge about 12 noon. It took a total of 4 hours for half the trip. Normally, ascending is slower then descending, because of the extra physical labor of climbing. So, you would think I could get back down in less than 4 hours. But on this trip, many parts of the trail are so rough, steep and slick, that descending is almost as slow as ascending. Plus, the second half of the day I was more tired and moving slower. So, I made it down to the parking lot at 4 p.m. on the dot. An even 8 hour day.
As usual, I crossed paths with many persons on the mountain and got to frequently play Ranger Bob. I seem to inspire confidence in people I meet on the trail and a large percentage ask for my advice and directions. The highlight today was when a family of four stopped to chat. Then they asked where I was going. The teenage daughter’s eyes narrowed as she listened to my description and calculated what I was doing. Then her eyes got wide as she understood the magnitude of the hike. It was about four times as much as even the most ambitious typical day hiker on Grandfather. She asked me several more questions about the logistics, and then said “Congratulations!”