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Up On Grandfather Mountain
Hikers on Grandfather Mountain
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Up On Grandfather Mountain
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Up On Grandfather Mountain
Gerry the Bear
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Up On Grandfather Mountain
Mile High Swinging Bridge
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Up On Grandfather Mountain
Hikers on Grandfather Mountain
Early morning sunlight streams through the huge windows in the restaurant in Grandfather Mountain's nature museum. The room's only occupant is an older man in a navy blue V-neck sweater. Spread out on the table in front of him are a dozen large color photographs of the mountain in the brilliant reds and oranges of autumn.
The photographs are destined for newspapers across the Southeast, and the man contemplating them is Hugh Morton -- owner of Grandfather Mountain, photographic chronicler of its glories, and preserver of its future.
Morton is perhaps his mountain's most frequent visitor. Surely he's its most ardent admirer. He learned to love it as a child, inherited it when the family divided its holdings in 1952, and has since turned it into one of North Carolina's best known attractions. More often than not when you visit Grandfather, you run into him somewhere -- at a favorite overlook squinting through a long-lensed camera, eating a sandwich in the museum, crossing the swinging bridge. He probably rubs elbows with a goodly number of the quarter million visitors who come to the mountain annually, though few recognize him.
It's Morton's vision that has made Grandfather Mountain one of the North Carolina High Country's oldest attractions and one of its most tasteful. That it will remain so is now virtually assured. The Nature Conservancy has accepted control of more than 2,700 acres of Grandfather's back country.
"That means it will perpetually remain in a wild, natural state, used only for hiking and for scientific study," Morton says with satisfaction.
Grandfather's "paying operation" is limited to 500 acres, and includes a road to the top, the famed "Mile High Swinging Bridge," the summit visitor center, the nature museum, animal habitats, and McRae Meadows, where the Highland Games, and Singing on the Mountain draw huge crowds every year. Even the developed portion has been designed not to mar the mountain's natural beauty.
"We may add a habitat or two, and have visiting exhibits at the museum, but I don't anticipate many more man-made additions. We've tried to make the mountain inoffensively accessible, but not commercial," Morton says.
When he inherited the mountain, a rough, single-lane dirt road ran part way up the slope to a rickety wooden platform at "Cliffside," now an overlook and picnic area. A hiking trail provided access to the top. Morton's first step was to extend the road to the top of the mountain -- something he'd been urging the family to do -- and to add the summit parking lot, swinging bridge and summit visitor center.
"I was criticized by some for building the bridge," he says. "But my grandmother, who lived to be 93, was 90 when the bridge went in. She was able to walk across it to stand again on Linville Peak, a place she'd hiked to as a young lady. She burst into tears as she stood there -- said she'd believed she would never again have a chance to visit that peak. Her tears made the whole thing worthwhile, as far as I'm concerned."
It wasn't easy to borrow the money to begin development of what Morton was convinced could become a paying proposition.
"No one had loaned money on a mountain before," he says.
He plowed whatever he could of his profits back into the project. Eventually he was able to widen the road to the top to two lanes, and then to pave it.
Morton says he envied the Great Smoky Mountains for one of their wildlife draws -- the bears you nearly always caught sight of on drives from Cherokee to Gatlinburg. When the Wildlife Commission, which was trying to bring back the black bear population, asked him to buy a couple of bears for release, he dispatched an employee to the Atlanta Zoo to pick out a male and a female.
Unbeknownst to the employee, the female he chose had been raised on a bottle by the zoo's office staff. When the bears were released on the slopes of Grandfather, the male took off but the female "wanted to hang out." They shooed her off, and she made her way down to Linville and Pineola, where she ambled amiably up to golfers, stuck her head in kitchen windows and created general pandemonium. Wildlife officers recaptured her and returned her to Morton.
"They told me to let her get her picture made with my visitors during the day, but to put her up at night," he says. "That's how we got into the habitat business, because that bear was Mildred," the mountain's beloved mascot until she died a few years ago at the ripe old age of 26.
There's a bear on the mountain now named Gerry, who Morton swears is nice enough to be Mildred II. She came to Grandfather from Minnesota, where she was the subject of years of research by black bear expert Lynn Rogers. According to Morton, Gerry became imprinted on Rogers, sleeping next to him when he camped out. When research funds ran out, authorities suggested she be destroyed to keep her from bothering people. Instead, Rogers arranged to have Gerry sent to Grandfather Mountain.
Habitats for white-tailed deer, golden and bald eagles and panthers were added after the bear habitat was built for Mildred in 1973. The most recent habitat addition is a sign designating a rock wall and environs in the deer habitat as the "groundhog or woodchuck habitat," after the opportunistic feeders began helping themselves to visitors' peanuts the deer missed. The other new wildlife you're likely to encounter -- not in a habitat, but along the road to the summit -- is a flock of wild turkeys. Grandfather personnel moved them there from the highway near the entrance to protect them from hunters.
When Morton decided "we weren't doing a very good job of interpreting the mountain for visitors," he built the nature museum. Now five years old, its exhibits were designed by Rolland Hower, former chief of natural history exhibits for the Smithsonian Institution. The museum contains the finest collection of North Carolina rocks and minerals on display in the state; cases full of exquisite artificial plants; and exhibits on the mountain's rare and endangered flora and fauna, its geology, and on the effects of air pollution on the mountains. A life-size statue of Mildred and cubs that children love to climb upon and parents love to photograph stands just inside the entrance.
Since the museum opened, additions have been made to the exhibits. A new Bill Chrisman carving of a red-tailed hawk landing on a branch is so realistic, Morton set off a chorus of shrill protests from blue jays and squirrels when he set it outside to photograph in natural light before adding it to the museum's display of North Carolina birds.
Hower will return to Grandfather this winter to build exhibits in three empty display cases on the second floor of the summit visitor center. The displays, which will be finished by spring, will feature the Highland Games, Singing on the Mountain, and celebrities who have visited Grandfather Mountain -- Billy Graham, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, Tom Hanks, Walter Cronkite, Johnny Cash "and goodness knows who all," Morton says.
Grandfather Mountain's ability to lure important visitors predates Morton's promotion of it -- by better than 150 years. August, 1994, marked the 200th anniversary of the visit to its summit by Andre Michaux, one of the early explorer/naturalists who found a botanical treasure trove in the Southern Appalachians. A new exhibit in the museum lobby includes photographs of many of the flora Michaux discovered, named and described -- large-flowered trillium, ironweed and umbrella leaf among them.
Michaux was under the impression he had reached the top of the highest mountain in North America at the end of his four-day climb to Grandfather's peak. At 5,964 feet, Grandfather isn't even the tallest mountain in North Carolina, though it's an arresting presence, rising majestically from the valley floor, the crown of the Blue Ridge. Rocky and wild, its 700-million-year-old blocky, green-tinged rock faces are shot through with milky quartz veins and lenses. Its slopes are clad in rhododendron, pink shell and flame azalea, mountain ash and maple, each of which transforms Grandfather for a brief spell of gorgeous bloom or flamboyant fall color. Often on winter days, the spruce/fir forest at the summit -- a remnant of an ecosystem driven south 10,000 years ago when ice sheets covered most of North America -- is encased in rime ice.
Morton rightly recognized long ago that Grandfather Mountain's scenic beauty -- in all kinds of weather and in every season -- was its number-one attraction. His decision to help his beloved mountain reveal its awesome wonders -- and his recent efforts to secure its preservation -- insure its continued appeal to visitors of every stripe.
Grandfather as a United Nations Biosphere Reserve
Of the 324 biosphere reserves that exist in 82 countries around the world, Grandfather Mountain is the only one on privately owned land.
"We hope Grandfather Mountain won't be the last privately owned biosphere reserve, but we're very proud to be the first," says mountain owner Hugh Morton.
The mountain received the designation in November, 1992, sometime after Morton hired Dr. Robert Bruck, an NC State University plant pathologist who has made a name for himself researching the spruce/fir tree dieback on Grandfather, Mt. Mitchell and other Southern Appalachian peaks, to fill out the lengthy and detailed application.
What exactly is a biosphere reserve? It's "a habitat so important to the biodiversity of the planet that the world community recognizes it, and in so doing, says 'thank you' for protecting it even while using it," says Dr. Frank Talbot, former chairman of the U.S. Man and Biosphere Committee.
The United Nations created the biosphere reserve program in 1971 to provide a framework for global cooperation in finding solutions to environmental problems like air and water pollution, biodiversity and sustainable economic growth.
In order to receive the biosphere reserve designation, a property must be a unique biological resource representative of a larger region, and a resource that is permanently protected from unrestricted development. It must have a history of scientific study; be actively engaged in ecological research and monitoring; be involved in education and training of resource management professionals; and provide educational exhibits for the general public.
Those characteristics fit both Grandfather Mountain and nearby Mt. Mitchell State Park, which received similar designation in May 1993.
Hiking on Grandfather
In 1996 you'll be able to look at Grandfather Mountain's Mile-High Bridge from the bottom up, thanks to a short new trail designed and constructed by Jim Morton and a couple of helpers in the fall of 1995. The footpath links the Black Rock Trail parking lot to the summit parking lot, winding under the swinging bridge in the process.
Trails on Grandfather Mountain range from the relatively flat 1-mile Black Rock Trail, a self-guided nature trail, to the strenuous-but-spectacular 2.3-mile Grandfather Trail that traces Grandfather's rocky backbone from the mountaintop parking area to Watauga View, via occasional cables and ladders.
Two trails -- the Daniel Boone Scout Trail and the Grandfather Trail -- have been designated National Recreation Trails by the National Park Service; the Daniel Boone and Nuwati trails link with the park service's own 13.5-mile Tanawha Trail, which parallels the Blue Ridge Parkway.
But what Hugh Morton calls "the Cadillac of all hiking trails" is the Profile Trail, a 2.7-mile trek from N.C. 105 to Shanty Springs, high on the western slope of the mountain. Built by Jim Morton and a small crew at the same time the park service was constructing the Tanawha, the Profile is a triumph of trail design.
It begins with a mile-long, nearly flat ramble along a clear creek, then starts its uphill climb via a series of switchbacks through a hardwood forest. At 1.7 miles, Foscoe View gives the hiker a look north up the valley toward distant mountains; at 2.3 miles, there's a marvelous view of the Grandfather Profile. (The day I last hiked the Profile Trail, grandfather's cheek was rouged by a patch of fall foliage, and a Christmas tree seemed to be growing on his nose.)
Between the two views is some of the finest rock work you'll find on any trail -- beautifully fitted stone steps, walkways and low walls, and a rock cave with a floor that's a mosaic of smooth slabs. There's a level stretch I've come to think of as "the patio" -- more suited to a 19th-century estate's wilderness garden than to the side of a mountain -- along which the hiker positively saunters after the pull uphill.
"The Profile Trail cost me three times what I thought it would to build," Hugh Morton says. "But Jim and his crew were taking such pride in their work I didn't want to stop them. They didn't use any dynamite on those rocks. it was all done by brute force, with chains and come-alongs.
Use of Grandfather Mountain's 12-mile network of trails is increasing, despite its permit fees. Trails are patrolled regularly. Hiking is free to those paying the attraction's gate admission; otherwise it's $4.50/day for adults, $2.50 for kids 4-12; group and season passes are available. Permit proceeds go toward trail maintenance; the excellent trail map is free. Permits are sold at outlets near trailheads; for information, call 704/733-2013.
Keeping the Precious Species Alive
In addition to the 20 imperiled species, 62 species recognized as rare by the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program are known to exist on Grandfather Mountain. Among the rare and endangered animals are the Virginia Big-Eared Bat and the North Carolina Flying Squirrel.
During the summer of 1995, Appalachian State University researchers found the first naturally occurring Saw-whet Owl nest south of Pennsylvania, in a cavity in a large yellow birch in Grandfather's backcountry. The Saw-whet is currently listed as "a bird of special concern." (Other Saw-whets known to nest in the Southern Appalachians have been found using nest boxes set out for flying squirrels.)