Hiking Mount Mitchell in North Carolina

Note to my fellow wanderers: This guide was written from my first-hand experiences. I try my best not to over-glamorize any location I travel to because I want HappyWander’s content to be as authentic as possible. My goal is to provide you real information so that you can have the best possible adventures wandering the world. Enjoy!

Mount Mitchell, nestled in the scenic beauty of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, proudly stands as the highest peak East of the Mississippi River, offering breathtaking panoramic views from its summit. If you’re in the North Carolina, South Carolina, or Tennessee area, or just looking to travel somewhere in the Appalachian Mountains for a hike, Mount Mitchell is a great choice. In this guide, I will review everything you need to know about hiking Mount Mitchell. Let’s dive in!

Overview of Mount Mitchell

Located in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Western North Carolina, Mount Mitchell stands above all the rest at 6,684 feet tall. Climbing the tallest mountain East of the Mississippi is certainly a challenge. In this guide, I hope to make that challenge a little more fun for you, starting with the essentials:

Hiking Mount Mitchell in North Carolina Map

This is a map (via alltrails.com) of the route I did.

Where to Park

I arrived at 10 AM on a Sunday in January, and there were plenty of spots left. I’d imagine during the more friendly weather that it would be a lot busier on a weekend, so if you travel to Mount Mitchell then, be sure to arrive early.

Parking at Mount Mitchell in North Carolina

Here is the map on Google Maps:

Distance Traveled

According to Alltrails.com, I traveled 12.12 miles. If you find this hike on alltrails.com, it says that it is 11.2 miles, which in my experience is less than it actually is. Plan on over 12 miles.

How Long Does it Take to Hike?

I arrived at around 10 AM and finished at around 5:30 PM, so it took a little under 7.5 hours. I didn’t stop to eat lunch, but I did stop for about 10 minutes to take a break and grab a quick snack. I was also moving pretty quickly, so I’d recommend allotting at least 8 hours to hike this one, maybe even 9 or 10 if you have slow to average speed hikers with you.

Elevation Change

According to Alltrails.com, you climb almost 4500 feet of elevation on Mt. Mitchell.

Mount Mitchell Elevation Map

You can pretty much expect a battle the first half of this hike on the way up, and an easier 2nd half on your return back to your car.

Mt. Mitchell elevation profile (via alltrails.com)

Difficulty

If you exercise regularly this hike is still pretty difficult. You can expect the lion’s share of your energy to be used the first half of the hike (a little over 6 miles) because this beast is almost all uphill. In addition, the top 1/3 of the hike was heavily iced and snowy, adding to the complexity. Finally, parts of this trail were littered with tree branches, making it extra difficult (and making me question if I was on the correct trail). You’ll need plenty of cardio and length strength for this one.

Overall, I’d give this hike a 8.5 / 10 in difficulty.

Permits

There are no permits required for this hike.

Cost

There is no cost to hike Mount Mitchell. Free is the best!

When to Go

You can hike Mount Mitchell year round. I went in January (because hiking season is every season!), and I had a blast. If you don’t bring the right gear, you’re going to suffer on this hike in the winter.

Pro tip: If you want to see the conditions at the peak, check out this live camera that takes a photo every few minutes.

Recommended Gear

Hiking Mount Mitchell is a great full day hike experience. I’ll highlight the gear that I brought, as well as additional gear that might benefit you:

  • Layers: Depending on the weather, I’d recommend wearing layers. In January, I wore multiple layers including thermals and a winter jacket that is wind/water proof. At the top of the mountain you can expect the temperature to be 15-20 degrees colder than at the bottom, even in the summer. Dress accordingly! It’s better to have too many layers that not enough.
  • Hiking backpack with straps: If you don’t have a backpack with straps, I recommend you get one. They aren’t too expensive on Amazon. Your shoulders and back will thank you later. This hike will make you pay physically, so it’s a good idea to take every advantage that you can.
  • Portable charger: If you take a lot of photos / videos like me, you’ll want to bring a portable charger for your phone. I also use the alltrails.com app to navigate so having enough battery is important.
  • Water bladder: If you want to save on weight and also help your backpack be more balanced than carrying a big bottle of water in your bag, a water bladder is important. I personally use a 3L water bladder that lasted the entire hike with some left over.
  • Hiking shoes: Hiking shoes that are waterproof will benefit you if you go in on this trail. I saw a few people with tennis shoes on, but their feet must have been soaked by the end of the hike because it was VERY muddy in long stretches.
  • Crampons / Hiking Spikes: If you go in the winter time like I did, this is an absolute necessity. It was crazy icy the last 1-1.5 miles, and it is very slippery and potentially dangerous without hiking spikes. These helped me tremendously.
  • Snacks: Who doesn’t like snacks? While hiking, even on a short hike like this, you burn lots of calories. My personal go-to’s on this hike were: Honey roasted peanuts, gummy bears, protein shakes, and protein bars. I didn’t pack a lunch on this hike, but these snacks were more than adequate to give me the energy needed.
  • Bug spray: I didn’t experience bugs on this hike, so this wasn’t really needed. However, you may want to use some just in case, especially in summer.
  • First aid kit: It’s a good idea to bring Band-Aids, a bandage, and some cut cleaning items. I have needed band-aids in the past from slipping on rocks, but I did not on this hike.
  • Sunscreen: While a good portion of this hike is shaded in the trees, there are some areas where you’ll be exposed to sun.
  • Flashlight: If you go anytime near sunset, I’d recommend having a flashlight. I wouldn’t want to hike this one in the dark as there are a million roots and rocks all over the trail.

Nice to Have Gear:

Here are a few items that would make your Sleeping Giant East Trail hiking experience even better:

  • Shoe impact insoles: These can help as you traverse hard rocks along the way.
  • Phone tripod: If you go alone or with a group and want great pictures, a phone tripod is key. I use one on every hike I go on. You may not need to use one very often because there were quite a few people on this trail that you could ask to take a picture for you.

The Play By Play: My Route Hiking Mount Mitchell

So what’s it like hiking Mount Mitchell? Read my Mount Mitchell hiking guide play by play below:

Briar Bottom Trail

Once you leave the parking lot, you’ll have to cross over a bridge towards the campgrounds. At the time I hiked Mount Mitchell, the campgrounds were closed so I had to hop a low metal gate over the bridge. Once you get past that, you’ll trek on the easiest terrain of the entire hike, a flat, gravel road.

Briar Bottom Trail on Mount Mitchell

Mount Mitchell Trail

Once you turn on to Mount Mitchell Trail, you can expect a steady climb for the next 5-6 miles all the way to the summit.

This is by far the longest trail on this hike. The terrain changes quite a bit as you continue your climb up, including a few river crossings like this one:

This stream was pretty low in altitude as it wasn’t icy like many of the things higher in elevation were. As you cross this river, you’ll converge with Higgins Bald Trail. If you’re not careful, you’ll start to go down Higgins Bald Trail and not know it. If I had not been using the Alltrails app, I would have totally missed the correct route, as it’s not obvious. In fact, it looks like it’s the wrong way because the “trail” is covered in fallen tree branches, making you think you’re heading the wrong way:

Does that look like it’s a trail? I was very confused but I kept going through the debris, for about 1/4 mile.

As you continue on Mount Mitchel Trail, you’ll need to take a right to continue on this trail, or else you’ll run into Buncombe Horse Range Trail. Get ready for some ice, and some more ice!

As you can see in the video above, I wasn’t yet wearing crampons, which made hiking up Mount Mitchell incredibly difficult. You may be able to side-step some of the ice when it begins, but there will be a point when ice covers the entire trail, making it nearly impossible (and dangerous) to continue.

Once you throw your crampons on, you’ll see an unbelievable difference. I went from hiking scared and doubting I’d make it to the top to hiking up the ice with confidence.

Once you put on your crampons, you’ll hike like a champ up the final 1.5 miles of ice until finally you’ll approach the Mount Mitchell summit:

You would think that in the sun at the top of Mount Mitchell it would be warmer, but it is quite the opposite. It’s colder and windier at the top as you are exposed to the cold winter elements more than in the woods. But once you make it, you can take a nice photo of you next to the peak sign: “Mount Mitchell – Highest Peak East of Mississippi River – Elevation 6684 Ft.”

Mount Mitchell Summit in Snowy January

You can choose to go back down the way you came from, or take a loop by following these trails: Old Mitchell Trail to Camp Alice Trail to Commissary Trail to Buncombe Horse Range Trail. I decided to do the latter. It was relatively steep going down Old Mitchell Trail on the ice, but almost flat through the remaining trails mentioned above. It will take you on a large open gravel road covered in patches of weak ice:

After you reach the peak, the remaining 6 miles is almost entirely downhill. It will definitely take you less time to get back to your car than it took to climb to the peak, but your legs will be MUCH more tired, so be careful on your way down.

After Hike Dinner

After hiking Mount Mitchell, I went to Taco Bell, which I am quite embarrassed to admit. I hadn’t been here in 15+ years, so it was quite nostalgic. But wow did it get pricey!

About My Experience Hiking Mount Mitchell

Overall, hiking Mount Mitchell was great. It was a great hike to do in January as winter brought new elements to the experience. I’ll highlight my favorite parts and least favorite parts below.

Favorite Parts

Here are a few of my favorite parts of hiking Mount Mitchell:

The Struggle:

The sheer struggle of hiking 6 miles uphill can either be a negative if you’re a normal person, or a positive if you’re a little crazy like me. This hike definitely beat me up, and I savored the struggle while it lasted. I felt it worse in the morning, but I knew I gave it my best and that’s all that matters!

The Ice:

At first before pulling out my crampons / ice spikes, I was hating the ice. A thought went through my head of “I am not sure I can get to the top” with 1 mile still to go. I hadn’t put my ice spikes on because the terrain was alternating between giant ice patches and no ice. Finally after slipping around for 15 minutes I put the ice spikes on and… What a difference! I was loving hiking up ice stairs and ice hills with ease. I saw a few others without ice spikes, and they were STRUGGLING. I highly recommend bringing some, they don’t cost more than $20-30 dollars and are a gamechanger when ice or snow is present.

Mount Mitchell Peak:

In January, the peak of Mount Mitchell was snow-covered and quite beautiful. Again, you’re going to want ice spikes so that walking up the man-made spiral tower is easy work. It was windy, cold, but a beautiful experience knowing I had just hiked up the tallest mountain on the East Coast.

Least Favorite Parts

Here is my least favorite part of this hike:

Not Too Many Views:

One thing I was a little disappointed with was the lack of views, except for the very top. However, this trail had so many other interesting things that I didn’t count this too harshly against my experience.

Tree Branches Thrown in Trail:

You may enjoy a million tree branches thrown on the trail, but it confused me. It made me think I was on the wrong trail, but my Alltrails app told me I was on the right path.

Overall Score

Mount Mitchell is a beast of a hike if you start where I did. It is incredibly difficult, and beat my body to a pulp. If you’re into that sort of thing, you’ll love it! I give this trail a 8.5 / 10.

Final Thoughts on Hiking Mount Mitchell in North Carolina

Mount Mitchell was a hike I thoroughly enjoyed. What made it memorable to me was the added winter elements of snow and ice covered paths. The ice especially created a magical experience that I hope you get to have. While hiking Mount Mitchell in the spring, summer, or fall would certainly be worth it, there was something special about doing it in 10 degree weather when it’s covered in snow and ice.

Happy wandering to you!

Anthony Bart
Author: Anthony Bart

Hello! Welcome to HappyWanders! My name is Anthony, I'm on a mission to live a life full of adventure and to help you to do the same. As an ex-corporate worker and current entrepreneur, I've been working to design a life with more time for adventure and less time for the 9-5 grind. If you're ready for an adventure, you're my type of person!

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