Hiking This Popular North Carolina Mountain Trail Is Not For Amateurs

Grandfather Mountain, a 5,946 ft. peak in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, is not just any old mountain. It's one with magnificent vistas, striking geological formations, and several ecological zones with a rich diversity of plants and animals, including elk, black bears, river otters, bald eagles, and an endangered species of flying squirrel. In addition, it's home to the renowned Mile High Swinging Bridge, a 228-foot suspension bridge spanning a deep chasm that gives visitors 360-degree views of the peak.

Grandfather Mountain is also a place where the splendor of nature and the thrill of outdoor adventure converge. A haven for hikers, it's crisscrossed by a network of well-marked trails. But its namesake Grandfather Trail — arguably the most popular on the mountain — is the one that truly puts a hiker's skills to the test. This insanely beautiful but grueling route packs a mean punch in its relatively short 2.4 miles from the swinging bridge to the top of Calloway Peak. Some sections are so steep that serious rock scrambling is required in some areas.

Ladders and cables and cliffs, oh my

The thing that freaks people out about the Grandfather Trail is the sheer ruggedness of the terrain. The route winds in and out of spruce-fir forests, around rock pinnacles and outcroppings, and traverses two other peaks on its way to the Calloway summit. While the hike is non-technical — meaning you can complete it without ropes, harnesses, or other traditional rock-climbing equipment — relying on built-in ladders and cables is necessary at a few points. Hikers must use a hand-over-hand approach to navigate these areas. This requires some courage and agility and can be intimidating for those who lack previous climbing experience. It also makes the trail unsuitable for certain groups, including young children, people with an intense fear of heights, and dogs.

But unless you're in one of these groups, there's no reason to miss out on hiking this amazing trail. You just need to be prepared. First, wear comfortable, moisture-wicking clothing and the right shoes (no flip-flops). Whatever footwear you choose should completely cover your feet and be durable enough to withstand bumps and scrapes. It should also have good to excellent traction. Next, bring a buddy or two on this hike, especially if it's your first time. This way, if anyone runs into problems — like a sprained ankle or a bit of ladder panic — there's a helpful hand available to assist. Finally, know your own physical and psychological limitations. It's okay to rest or even turn around if you need to. Really.

Expsosure to the elements

The other reason the Grandfather Trail is so formidable is that its ridgelines are exposed to the elements. Monitor the weather in the days before your hike and consider postponing your trip if heavy rain is predicted, as ladders and other sections of the trail can get slippery in wet conditions. If thunderstorms are imminent, get off the summit and ridgelines immediately and head to lower elevations to avoid getting struck by lightning – which has happened to hikers on this mountain, unfortunately.

Regardless of the forecast, know that weather conditions can be unpredictable on any mountain. It's not unusual for hikers to experience all four seasons in one day on a mountain, with balmy temperatures at lower elevations and cold howling winds at the summit. To be prepared for sudden and unexpected weather changes, carry warm layers and waterproof rain gear in your backpack, no matter how pleasant it is when you start your adventure. Overexposure to sunlight can be a problem on the exposed sections of this hike too, so make sure to wear sunscreen, sunglasses, and a sun hat on bright days. Finally, always carry plenty of water in your pack — and the key is to actually drink it throughout the day — to remain cool and hydrated during your trek. Unpredictable weather conditions and rugged terrain can make the Grandfather Trail a tough hike. But with a little preparation and the right mindset, you're sure to have a peak experience.