Soaring heights, black bears and cougars, rare flora and fauna, and a massive swinging bridge are all part of the incredible Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina, about 2.5 hours from Greenville, SC.
As we drove up the winding road to the Mile High Swinging Bridge at Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina, we could see for miles. One of the Rangers told us it was the clearest day he had seen up there in a long time. The peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains loomed in the distance and the Charlotte skyline, more than a two-hour drive, was visible from the top of the swinging bridge.
I couldn’t wait to explore the park – the swinging bridge, the trails, the sky-high vistas, the nature center, and to see the animals.
About Grandfather Mountain
Grandfather Mountain is an extraordinarily unique place, not only for the famous Mile High Swinging Bridge but for the diverse and fragile ecology systems that call the mountain home. At only 5,000 total acres, Grandfather Mountain is home to “16 distinct ecological communities and 72 rare or endangered species.” When we were hiking, there were signs everywhere blocking off parts of the path off trail because of the fragile ecosystems present. The United Nations even added Grandfather Mountain to its international network of Biosphere Reserves in 1992.
The mountain rises 5,946 feet above sea level and the Cherokee name for it is “Tanawha,” meaning “a fabulous hawk or eagle.” Its current name comes from the profile of a grandfather on the mountain. The Mile High Swinging Bridge was dedicated in 1952 and was owned by Hugh Morton. He ended up working with the state of North Carolina to preserve more than 4,000 acres of the park. You can read more about the long and interesting history of the park on the Grandfather Mountain website.
Wilson Center for Nature Discovery
This building is brand new and parts of it are still in construction. I was pretty excited to see it since I was planning to incorporate some homeschooling activities on our trip to Grandfather Mountain – I was not disappointed.
The Wilson Center for Nature Discovery is double the size of the previous building and houses multiple interactive exhibits on Grandfather Mountain’s flora, fauna, animals, ecology systems, and climate. It also has a gift shop and restaurant called Mildred’s Grill, classrooms, and restrooms. We got some ice cream at the grill after our hike and it was delicious.
We immediately picked up the Junior Naturalist booklet, which encourages kids to fill out the information about things that they learn about and see at the park. It’s the perfect homeschooling booklet I was looking for! We had a lot of fun filling out the information about plants we saw, things we checked out on our hike, and interesting plants, mushrooms, and minerals we learned about at the Nature Discovery center.
There are exhibits throughout the center that focus on the animals that live on the mountain and let you use sticks of birds behind a screen to show how they fly – it’s neat, kind of like using shadows.
The geological section is amazing. They have precious gems, stones, and minerals prevalent in the park and the surrounding region, including fluorescent ones that light up under black lights.
I had to pull my kids away from the wind machine that explored weather and climate. And we learned about the different mushrooms present as well as rare wildflowers. There’s an interactive topographical display of the mountain and trails you can hike as well. The whole place is just such a cool display of information that you can’t help but be drawn into it.
Be sure to check here for the events happening the day you go. I should have done that when we arrived and ended up missing some neat Ranger talks and information sessions!
Directly next to the Wilson Center for Nature Discovery is the Wildlife Habitat that houses black bears, otters, elk, cougars, and bald eagles. It’s not a huge area and while the paths are steep in places, they are paved. Dogs are not allowed in the Wildlife Habitat.
There are Animal Encounters on weekends at 2 pm and daily Keeper Talks April-October. We stumbled upon one at the elk enclosure when we were there and were so happy we did! We learned about elk through the cycle of their antlers and got to hold and touch one of the antlers that had dropped off of an elk out in Colorado. Since we were there during rutting (mating) season, we heard the amazing bugle sound the males make that time of year.
Be sure to look at the daily program schedule when you go to plan your visit.
Mile High Swinging Bridge
Grandfather Mountain’s most popular attraction is arguably the Mile High Swinging Bridge that rises, wait for it, a mile above sea level. The bridge is 228 feet long and while it is a swinging bridge, we didn’t feel much swinging so if you’re worried about that, don’t be too much! The views up there are just beautiful, especially since we went on a clear day. You can either drive up there or hike a 0.4 trail to the bridge.
There’s a gift shop at the bridge plus restrooms and an exhibit hall with photos through the decades of the park and bridge construction. Pretty neat.
Once you summon your courage and cross the bridge, you can continue trekking up the huge boulders to Linville Peak for an even crazier view of the valley and the bridge itself. It’s so gorgeous.
There are daily programs at 1 and 3 pm at the swinging bridge that lasts for about 15-20 minutes and anyone is welcome to attend.
I stood on the top of a ridge, more than 5,000 feet above sea level, overlooking the stunning valley below and wondering where the trail was. I couldn’t see it ahead and called out to one of my daughter’s who was ahead of me to slow down. It looked like the trail went right over a cliff. We are a very adventurous trio, my two daughters and I, but jumping off cliffs is not on our list of things to do. My daughter assured me the trail didn’t drop off the edge of the world but I had to see for myself. I was expecting another ladder on the side of the mountain, one where I realized I may have a fear of heights that I didn’t know existed.
Should we continue on or turn around and go back down the way we came? I thought long and hard and tried to stop my shaking legs. We were moving on and encompassing the two-mile loop thated parts of the stenuous Grandfather Trail and the Underwood Trail. I decided to go on and before I knew it, we were scaling ladders on the side of the mountain that I had only seen in photos before. The views were unreal and my kids were already planning on when we could come back to their new favorite trail.
There are miles and miles of trails at the park, many of which are rated as strenuous, and the views are unlike any other in the Southeast. The Woods Walk is only 0.4 miles and an easy one for families as is the walk up to the Swinging Bridge from the parking lot below if you’d rather hike and not drive up.
The stenuous trails are over rugged terrain and hikers will have to use cables and ladders, some on exposed cliffs and rocks, to summit peaks. These trails are not for inexperienced hikers and dogs. If you choose to hike these trails, make sure you have good shoes that have a decent grip and plenty of water. The trail we hiked was only two miles but it took us a little over two hours because of the terrain and the game of chutes and ladders we ended up playing. There are so many cool spots though, like caves and spectacular views. So if you want to go there on a day trip to hike plus do the other attractions at the park, leave plenty of time. I’d recommend starting in the morning since weather can quickly roll in and change fast. I asked the Ranger about injuries on trails and he said some people have been struck by lightning while on the ladders! So don’t go on the ladders during a storm. And watch the weather and be prepared for it to change fast.
Hiking trails close an hour before the park closes.
Other Things Not To Miss at Grandfather Mountain
When we were driving up to the bridge, we passed a sign that said Forrest Gump Ran This Curve. What?! I had no idea this part was in the movie. You won’t miss this as it’s on the way up to the swinging bridge. There’s a pretty picnic area at the bottom of the curve.
Also, don’t miss picnicking in the park. There are several beautiful overlooks with inviting picnic benches on the main road up to the swinging bridge. We stopped at the Forrest Gump spot and had lunch while watching butterflies and bees enjoy the sunflowers and zinnias next to the picnic bench.
There are all kinds of special events at Grandfather Mountain that any lover of the outdoors would be interested in. They have a Hawk Watch during the fall, Junior Naturalist events, ecology events, field courses, speaker presentations, and even night events. Some of these are free while others require an extra fee.
Visiting Grandfather Mountain
When you visit, you must reserve your tickets online. They do not take walk-ups except on weekdays and even then, tickets are limited. If you want to ensure entry, purchase your ticket online. Your ticket admission includes hiking trails, the Mile High Swinging Bridge, the Wilson Nature Discovery Center, Wildlife Habitat, ranger talks and some special programming.
People who do not need to reserve a time slot for entry to the park are Bridge Club Members, VIP pass holders, and those with pre-paid or complimentary tickets.
When you book your ticket, you have to choose a time slot, and you are allowed entry for up to an hour after your chosen time slot. Once you enter, you can spend all the time you want there. We ended up getting to the park around 9 am, checking out the swinging bridge, doing the two-mile strenuous hike, eating a picnic lunch, visiting the Wildlife Habitat, and checking out the Wilson Discovery Center. We didn’t leave until around 3 pm so it was a full day!
Admission rates are $24/adult, $10/kids ages 4-12, $22/age 60+. If you have AAA, you’ll pay $22/adult and $9/child (must present a valid AAA card). Annual passes, called Bridge Club, are $80/adult, $35/child or you can purchase a group pass that admits the member plus 5 people, which costs $250. Annual passes also include lots of perks like discounts at gift shops, free coffee/tea at Mildred’s Grill, plus discounts to other area parks like Chimney Rock and the Biltmore.
Current hours through September 5, 2022 are 8 am – 7 pm (last entry at 5:30 pm).
Hours from September 6-30, 2022 are 9 am – 6 pm (last entry at 4:30 pm).
Fall (October 1-31) hours are Monday – Friday 9 am – 6 pm (last entry is at 4:30 pm) and Saturday and Sunday 8 am – 7 pm (last entry at 5:30 pm).
Grandfather Mountain is open year-round depending on the weather, which can change very fast. It’s always a good idea to check the weather before you go and on the day you want to go. Visitors are encouraged to call the Entrance Gate at 828.733.4337 before making the trip. While tickets are non-refundable, they are honored up to a year after purchase date if you’re unable to make it or the weather impedes your visit.
Have you been to Grandfather Mountain?
2050 Blowing Rock Highway, Linville, NC 28646