#19  Mount Mitchell, North Carolina (6,684 ft.)

Yes, it's the highest point east of the Mississippi, but where is the love for poor Mount Mitchell? There is no especially scenic trail up it, and the AT doesn't cross it.


There is a snack vendor, of course, and a shop, but the tower, if you'll pardon a quick detour into LOTR trivia, recalls in no small way the ruins of Weathertop, the long-abandoned watchtower on which Frodo was fatefully stabbed by the blade of the most powerful of the ring wraiths, the Witch-King of Angmar. Really, it does. Ahem; anyway…

One might argue that there is a real wraith on the summit of Mitchell: that of the Reverend Elisha Mitchell (1793-1857, shown below), for whom the mountain is named, an educator and geologist who confirmed it as the highest peak east of the Mississippi in the mid-nineteenth century (the previous candidate for the region had been nearby Grandfather Mountain). Mitchell fell to his death from a nearby waterfall while attempting to verify his earlier measurements, which had been challenged by his rival and former student Thomas Clingman, of Clingman's Dome fame. In 188182 the USGS confirmed Mitchell's findings and named the mountain after him. His grave was subsequently moved to the summit. In the collections of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is the pocket watch Mitchell was wearing when he fell; it stopped working upon his fall, forever marking the precise moment when the great man was knocked unconscious and thereby drowned in the pool. 


I wish Mitchell's tomb were the only man-made structure on the summit. That would be a fitting tribute to a prominent figure in North Carolina history. But then there is the tower, or really just the latest iteration in what grew into an apostolic successsion of towers. I can't think of another highpoint that has seen such a continuing evolution of towers and tower design. Unlike the Flying Saucer at Clingman's Dome, which has a certain camp cachet (of the Sontag variety, not the Coleman), the latest incarnation of the Mount Mitchell summit tower can be quite underwhelming in its massive blandness. I can't put my finger on it, but you'll know what I mean when you visit. It's like Mount Rushmore: where once there was a quaint National Park Service lodge from the Brady Bunch era the visitor is now treated to a jingoistic monstrosity worthy of Albert Speer. Part of me wishes that one of the earlier structures on Mitchell remained, even if crumbling down. That's what mountains do anyway, right?

Both times I visited Mount Mitchell I drove up Route 80 from Marion, NC: a truly hellish little mountain road, especially in the fog, which was a veritable pea soup on my 2013 trip. I should have turned back! Summit fever, I guess. Nothing like driving the Blue Ridge Parkway in dense mist, one hand filming a video and the other hand keeping the car from plunging into the valley below. Miraculously, the summit area was above the maelstrom, and I got decent video footage as well as some decent stills.

Dolley Shot: Foggy Mountain Breakdown

The view of the roiling fog was quite dramatic, in fact. The next day, when I climbed Mount LeConte, the fog stayed away, but the signature "smoke" of the Great Smoky Mountains soon returned when I paid my last respects to Clingman's Dome.

In the end Mount Mitchell was dramatic enough, though not necessarily for being the highest point east of the Mississippi. In truth, it's preeminence reaches even farther: all the way Lone Butte, Colorado, more than 1,100 miles west.

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