Hike to Mount Mitchell’s stunning summit views, and follow the connecting Balsam Nature Trail through a gorgeous, lush, high-elevation forest.
OFFICIAL MAP: Nat Geo 779 Trails Illustrated Map
It’s a mile-high hike that’s unlike any other in North Carolina. At 6684 ft, Mount Mitchell stands as the highest peak east of the Mississippi River, and the highest mountain in the Appalachian Mountains. The clear-day views from the summit are just outstanding, offering sweeping panoramic vistas in every direction. And the high-elevation forest surrounding the summit’s bald is exceptional, too, filled with sweet-scented, aromatic balsam, moss and fern set in a dense spruce-fir forest.
This hike climbs to the mountain’s summit by way of a paved trail, catching incredible views from Mt Mitchell’s tallest elevations. Departing the summit, the hike loops through the summit’s high-elevation spruce-fir forest, exploring the forest’s rocky, gorgeous terrain on the Balsam Nature Trail. At one mile, total, it’s a family friendly hike that’s filled with a whole lot of exceptional natural beauty. And thanks to easy access off the Blue Ridge Parkway, it’s a hike that’s easily accessible from Asheville via a gorgeous Parkway drive.
Mount Mitchell Summit & Balsam Nature Trail: the hike
The adventure departs from the summit parking area (view maps and driving directions), trailing south and climbing elevation on a wide paved trail. The trail meanders to the southeast, then due south, as it approaches the summit. The trail is bordered by tall grasses and evergreen fir as it gently, but steadily, climbs elevation.
The hike arcs to the northwest, climbing to a modern observation platform at the summit. Views extend in every direction, and the vistas are simply breathtaking. Sunrise and early morning are especially beautiful on the summit as the sun rises over the rolling mountain terrain to the east, painting the sky in warm hues of yellow and orange.
After taking some time to soak up the views, the hike backtracks from the summit on the paved trail. At .3 mile, the hike hangs a right at the signed trailhead of the Balsam Nature Trail, veering onto the unpaved trail and diving into the balsam fir forest.
The trail descends, hiking through a landscape of extraordinary, high-elevation varieties of plants. The elements near the summit are raw, dominated by wind, ice, snow and fog, and usually-cold temperatures (often 10-20 degrees lower than in nearby Asheville). Many plant varieties that thrive here near the summit are only found in northern states and Canada; informational signs along the trail educate on the forest’s unique plants and ecosystems.
The hike loops to the northeast at .55 mile, continuing to follow the Balsam Nature Trail. The hike arcs to the northwest, beginning a short, moderate climb back toward the mountain’s summit. Wildflowers and fern stretch to reach sunlight under the dense evergreen tree canopy.
The hike reaches a trail intersection at .85 mile, veering right to explore a trickling spring near the summit. Backtracking from the spring, the hike turns right on the Balsam Nature Trail, making the final climb to the summit parking area and completing the adventure at 1 mile.
More Mount Mitchell hiking adventures
If you’ve got some time and energy to spare, hike a moderate 2 miler on the Deep Gap Trail to Mount Craig and Big Tom Mountain, visiting two neighboring mountain summits (and the second highest mountain on the East Coast). Or hike a scenic 4 mile loop on the Mount Mitchell High Loop, climbing to the mountain’s summit on the Old Mitchell Trail before looping to a small, tumbling waterfall and through abundant wildflowers and wild berries on the Camp Alice and Commissary Trails.
When to hike?
Thanks to the mountain’s exceptionally high elevation, wind, ice, snow and fog are common at the summit. While summit views may be limited, hiking the Balsam Nature Trail in the fog is a surreal, beautiful experience: fog rolls over the mountain quickly, dramatically changing the landscape.
And in winter, while park generally remains open (check the park’s website for winter information), the Blue Ridge Parkway closes south of the park during snowy winter months, so you’ll need to access the park via NC 80 to the north.
This map is not a substitute for official trail maps or topographic maps.
Free parking is available at the park, located north of Asheville on the Blue Ridge Parkway at MP 355. (Before you go, check for trail updates and parkway closures on the official Blue Ridge Parkway website.)
35.766600, -82.265233 // N35 45.996 W82 15.914