Winter Hiking at Grandfather Mountain: The Beautiful Treachery of an Icy Exploration

Even on otherwise temperate days, Grandfather can be frigid and frosty
Even on otherwise temperate days, Grandfather can be frigid and frosty NC Orchid
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The wind just always seems to be blowing at the top of MacCrea Peak. The bare rock that caps the roughly chimney-shaped precipice offers no protection from the frigid gusts of the season. Just below, a ring of alpine forest (a biome common only in the Southeast at elevations of a mile high or greater) is dusted with bright white snow and shimmers under a sheen of ice. Far beyond the southern Appalachian spruce trees, valleys, and blue-hazed mountains seem to extend for eternity.

At once beautiful and treacherous, this is winter hiking at Grandfather Mountain State Park. Rugged rock scrambles, nerve-wracking high-altitude ladder climbs, and ice-slick chutes highlight the 12-mile trail system which laces its 2,500 acres.

Constant wind gives spruce trees and odd appearance of forward motion
Constant wind gives spruce trees and odd appearance of forward motion Paul Geist

Grandfather Mountain was, until 2008, a privately owned park. The state park system bought the land but many of the attractions—gift shop, restaurant, animal habitats—remain and are operated by a non-profit enterprise. The front gate at the main entrance to the park is a reminder of those private ownership days and continues to charge a per person fee. However, since taking over the trail system, the Park Service has stopped collecting fees at the two other trailheads. So beginning your exploration of Grandfather Mountain at the western trailhead allows you to avoid the entrance fee and puts you in position to enjoy one of the greatest treks in this amazing park.

Snow covered trails make traction and navigation a bit tricky
Snow covered trails make traction and navigation a bit tricky Lisa Firullo

A Deceptive Start

A brown sign on NC 105, about ¾ mile from the junction of NC 184, locates the Profile Trail parking lot. During summer this lot can overflow with eager trekkers, many of whom take on the more intermediate 7-mile  trek to Calloway Peak  and back, but that’s rare on a cold winter day. Eventual updates, according to the Park System, will allow for more parking and a bathroom.

The first mile and half or so of the 3.1-mile Profile Trail doesn't hint at the rugged terrain ahead. Mostly gentle climbs through a hardwood forest provide a good warm up though. The trail turns abruptly steep and rocky but offers a well-protected lunch spot and water source at Shanty Springs just past the 2.5-mile mark.

The next bit of travel opens up to the first views of the day and may require a bit of bear crawling over exposed rock. Turn left onto the Danial Boone Boy Scout Trail for a half-mile (each way) out and back hike to the top of Calloway Peak. The path near the top can become icy, and trekking poles offer a huge advantage.

Fir trees, bent by the constant onslaught of wind and fringed with icicles, frame the views from one of the highest peaks in the park.

Expansive views of Southern Appalachian Alpine Forest make the trek worthwhile
Expansive views of Southern Appalachian Alpine Forest make the trek worthwhile Lisa Furillo

Head back to the trail junction and continue straight to connect with the Grandfather Trail. Alpine Meadow, the open patch of grassy mountaintop about a half mile from the trail junction, is one of the best backcountry camping spots in North Carolina during warmer months.

Chutes and Ladders and “Batman-ing”

Another mile further on, the Underwood Trail splits to the right. Stay straight and you’ll soon come to a heavy wooden ladder, the first of several, which leads to the top of MacCrea Peak. Cresting the big rock is well worth the diversion to take in 360 degrees of Blue Ridge Mountain views.

Craggy rock faces create beautiful ice flows on the trail
Craggy rock faces create beautiful ice flows on the trail Paul Geist

After a visit to MacCrea, the next stretch of trail includes the chutes and ladders that make this trek famous. Shimmying, a la Batman from the campy 1960’s TV show, down bare rock faces requires a light grip on attached cables. Several more ladders—needed to avoid free climbing steep dropoffs of exposed rock—make this section particularly troublesome for dogs, although many can complete it with a little help. These craggy overhangs also produce some crazy-cool ice structures perfect for your next profile picture.

Mile High Bridge

The final turnaround point is the large parking area on the top of Grandfather. As this is also the stopping point for those driving up from the main entrance, the lot is often bustling with families who’ve come for a picture on the mile high swinging bridge. While plenty sturdy, the sway of the 228-foot pedestrian suspension bridge—the longest of its kind in the U.S.—can cause shaky knees in even mild acrophobics. The gift shop, restaurant, and bathroom facilities are here as well. Once you’ve had your fill, head back the way you came to the Profile Trail parking lot.

A frosted sheen of snow and ice brings a different look to Grandfather
A frosted sheen of snow and ice brings a different look to Grandfather Joe Giordano

Tips for your first winter hike at Grandfather


  • Plan plenty of time for your return hike. Grandfather is no place to be stuck after dark if you’re not camping.

  • The total hike to the main parking lot and back is 12 miles. Even experienced hikers rarely complete it during the reduced daylight hours of winter—many choosing to turn around at MacRae Peak or the Alpine Meadow. The shortened hike still offers an incredible variety of views and experiences.

  • While some hikers bring dogs to Grandfather, it’s probably a good idea to leave your four-legged pal at home on your first trip, especially in winter.

  • With the potential for slick ice spots and the guarantee of rugged rock, hiking poles are strongly suggested.

  • Wisteria Gastropub is conveniently located on the way back to Charlotte in Morganton. They offer a fantastic southern-spin on farm to table meals and a well-rounded beer list.

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