Ascent of Grandfather Mountain on 2015-12-12

Climber: Tom Layton

Date:Saturday, December 12, 2015
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Grandfather Mountain
    Location:USA-North Carolina
    Elevation:5946 ft / 1812 m

Ascent Trip Report

There are two knobs atop Grandfather Mountain's Calloway Peak, and county high-pointers should climb them both. I'm confident that the eastern knob is the Caldwell COHP and the western knob is the Watauga COHP.

I've attached 5-foot contour maps from the Caldwell and Watauga county GIS departments. These show that Caldwell County does not reach the western knob, and that Watauga County barely misses the highest contour on the eastern knob. (Both knobs top out in the 5920 contour.)

If these maps are correct, it doesn't matter which of the knobs is actually higher, because neither county can claim both of them.

However, there are reasons to doubt the maps. The county corners appear to be misplaced on both the Caldwell and Watauga GIS sites, especially in comparison to the USGS quad. On both GIS maps, the corners seem to be randomly located west of the peaks. This looks like a datum disparity to me.

There is more discrepancy between the GIS maps and the 2009 survey that was done to verify elevations on Grandfather Mountain, which had been listed since 1917 as 5,964 feet. The 2009 survey reduced that to 5,946. But according to the GIS maps, neither knob reaches 5,925.

If you are planning to climb Grandfather, bag both knobs to make sure you can claim credit for both county high points. Even if you are not a county high-pointer, don't forsake the eastern knob, which may be slightly lower but has a spectacular view. The knobs are only about 100 yards apart and separated by a 15-foot-deep notch that is so steep that you'll need to use a ladder on the traverse. Trees around the western knob prevent visual leveling.

And if you have already claimed both COHPs without climbing both knobs, your secret is safe with me. As far as I am concerned, you are "grandfathered" in.

This was my third time up Grandfather, which lives up to its reputation as the most rugged mountain in the Southeast.

I have previously climbed the Grandfather Trail from the Mile High Swinging Bridge and the Profile Trail from NC 105. This was my first time all the way up the Daniel Boone Scout Trail from the Blue Ridge Parkway. This trail was built in the 1940s by Boy Scouts from Blowing Rock and has been re-routed in several places. It is one of the hardest hikes I have done--all rocks and roots and ledges. There are three ladders near the top. It's 7 miles roundtrip with 2000 feet of climbing. Every step demands concentration.

Park at the Boone Fork Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway, milepost 299.9. Follow the Tanawha Trail westbound. After crossing a bridge over Boone Fork, stop at the state park kiosk to register and pick up a map. Permits are free for hiking and backcountry camping.

Here are details of my hike. Mileage is from the Parkway trailhead, which adds 0.6 miles to the mileposts along the Daniel Boone Scout Trail:

0.0 miles/3909 feet: Trailhead.

0.4 miles/4000 feet: Note the Nuwati Trail on the right. If you like Class 3 scrambling, this is an alternative to the first half of the Daniel Boone Scout Trail. You would take the Nuwati along an old logging road and then turn left up the aptly named Cragway Trail. This climbs steeply and rejoins the Scout Trail at Flat Rock. I have climbed the Cragway previously but avoided it this time. Instead, I continued along the Tanawha Trail.

0.6 miles/4100 feet: As you approach Green Mountain Creek, there is a well-marked junction where the Daniel Boone Scout Trail turns uphill to the right, generally following the Eastern Continental Divide. Much of this section has been re-routed out of the eroded old holloway, which makes it about 0.4 longer than it used to be.

2.0 miles/4900 feet: Daniel Boone Scout Trail reaches Flat Rock and rejoins the Cragway Trail.

3.0 miles/5500 feet: Historic Hi-Balsam camping shelter is on the left. (see

3.2 miles/5600 feet: Airplane wreckage is in the woods to the right of the trail. This Cessna 182 crashed May 12, 1978, killing the pilot. He took off from Asheville intending to fly to Panama City but got disoriented in a whiteout and was headed northeast instead of south.

3.3 miles/5700 feet: The first of three ladders mark the final ascent. The first two are each about 20 feet, and the last one is 5 feet. If you climb down with your back to the ladder, be careful--one of the steps picked my butt pocket and I nearly lost my wallet.

3.4 miles/5920 feet: Eastern summit overlooks the Linn Cove Viaduct on the Blue Ridge Parkway. French botanist Andre Michaux stood here on Aug. 30, 1794, and wrote in his journal: “Reached the summit of the highest mountain in all of North America, and with my companion and guide, sang the Marseillaise and shouted ‘Long live America and the Republic of France, long live liberty!'” It may have been hard for Michaux to see from here, but Mount Mitchell on the western horizon is over 700 feet higher.

3.5 miles/5920 feet: After climbing down a ladder and hiking up the ridge beyond, reach the western summit on a boulder to the right of the trail.

There is one treacherous point worth noting. I did not record the mileage, but I think it was just below Hi-Balsam, about 3 miles up from the trailhead. The trail climbs directly over a 20-foot ledge where the footing is dangerously slippery and there is no safety cable. This can be bypassed by going around the right side of the ledge (right side when you're climbing, left side on the descent). You have to climb over a couple of 3-foot high boulders and rejoin the trail on the other side. For me, this was a much safer route.
Click on photo for original larger-size version.
This map from the Caldwell County GIS site shows the double summit of Calloway Peak. Contours are 5 feet, so both summits are 5920. Only the eastern knob is in Caldwell County, whose borders are shown as the wedge on the right. The western knob is the corner of Watauga and Avery counties, whose borders are not shown on this image (2015-12-12). Photo by Tom Layton.
Click here for larger-size photo.
Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:2037 ft / 620 m
    Round-Trip Distance:7 mi / 11.3 km
    Route:Tanawha Trail to Daniel Boone Scout Trail
    Trailhead:Boone Fork trailhead on Blue Ridge Pkwy  3909 ft / 1191 m
    Quality:10 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Maintained Trail
    Weather:Pleasant, Calm, Partly Cloudy
Ascent Statistics
    Time:3 Hours 20 Minutes
Descent Statistics
    Time:2 Hours 

Other Photos

Click on photo for original larger-size version.
The Watauga GIS map (with unlabeled 5-foot contours) shows the Watauga-Avery corner west of the summit contours, which is almost certainly incorrect. Note that the line crosses the 5920 contour on the western knob but only the 5915 contour on the eastern knob. (2015-12-12). Photo by Tom Layton.
Click here for larger-size photo.

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