Steep ladders with sheer drops on all sides. Cable-assisted climbs along narrow ledges. Rock scrambles down 100-foot-long chutes. Hiking Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina’s High Country isn’t for the faint of heart.
Hikers brave the obstacles to reach the views from two summits — Macrae Peak and Calloway Peak. Plus, there’s a swinging bridge, plenty of other viewpoints, and some of the most beautifully secluded backcountry campsites you’ll find east of the Mississippi.
I’ve hiked nearly every trail in Grandfather Mountain State Park. I’ve watched the sunset and climbed down ladders in the dark. I have scrambled the cliffs with a 25-pound pack on my back. In this post, I’ll walk you through everything you need to know to add this mountain to your NC mountains bucket list.
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Orientation for hiking Grandfather Mountain
Grandfather Mountain is composed of two areas: the private park you can drive up to, and the state park encompassing two of the three trails to the peaks. You can hike between them to cover all the trails in the park.
The private park is most famous for the Mile-High Swinging Bridge, and is the way most visitors experience the mountaintop. The suspension bridge offers sweeping views of Blowing Rock, Sugar Mountain, and all the way to the Grayson Highlands in Virginia. It’s a popular tourist attraction and an accessible option for anyone, hiker or not, to explore the mountain. Mobility-impaired visitors can take an elevator to the bridge and are able to cross.
However, the private park is not a great destination for hikers. The entrance fee is absurdly steep — $22 for adults, $9 for children. And if you want to visit on a weekend, you have to book tickets in advance. (A small number of drive-up tickets are available on weekdays but it’s a safer bet to book in advance then too.)
Instead, it’s best to take one of two backcountry trails to the summits when hiking Grandfather Mountain. The trails start on opposite sides of the mountain, so the only way to do both is by backpacking them with a shuttle. The two trails are called the Profile Trail (trailhead just outside Linville) and the Daniel Boone Scout Trail (trailhead at Boone Fork Parking Area on the Blue Ridge Parkway).
Parking at both trailheads is free and plentiful. You can only leave your car overnight if you have a backpacking permit.
Who should attempt the Grandfather Mountain hiking trails?
If you’ve used social media to research your trip to Grandfather Mountain, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s an accessible, family-friendly hiking destination. And indeed, you will see families with children and very newbie hikers on the trails.
However, the backcountry trails are steep, long and difficult. The weather can be treacherous even when the forecast is clear. Hiking Grandfather Mountain is best suited for experienced hikers.
If you plan to catch big views, you have three options: Go to the swinging bridge only, start at the swinging bridge and go 2 miles up the first set of ladders, or take on an 8+ mile day hike with 3,000+ feet of elevation gain and multiple stretches of ladders, exposed scrambles, and cable-climbs. The first two options both require entering through the private park and paying admission.
Additionally, while you will see people attempting it, it’s not a good idea to bring pets unless they fit into your backpack. Even if you can get your pup up the ladders, you’d put the people around you at risk — many ladders end on very narrow rock faces with little room to pass and big lines waiting to go down.
Is hiking Grandfather Mountain safe?
This is the #1 question most hikers worry about with a Grandfather Mountain hike. After all, hear “ladders” and you may picture “rickety devices rigged up by the Forest Service 30 years ago and never checked on since.” And, honestly, based on my experience elsewhere in the Carolina mountains, that would be a reasonable concern.
But the ladders and cables at Grandfather Mountain are extremely well-maintained. Like, big, sturdy wooden ladders that don’t jiggle at all, even with 20 people on them at a time. Weatherproof cables bolted into the rock. Everything looks nearly new.
The most comparable hike I’ve done was Angels Landing in Zion National Park. I found Grandfather Mountain a little scarier, mainly because I was hiking with a backpacking pack. The ladders are very exposed, particularly on the Grandfather Trail. One of the ladders on the Daniel Boone Scout Trail is uncomfortably narrow. There are a few exposed scrambles — no big deal going up, but pretty scary going down.
So, is it safe? Eh, you’d probably get seriously injured in a fall. But I researched extensively and couldn’t find more than a tiny handful of examples of hikers falling. In other words, Grandfather Mountain is safer than many of Western North Carolina’s waterfalls and most popular trails.
One caveat: it is absolutely not safe to hike Grandfather Mountain when the weather is bad. “Bad” could mean lightning, extreme cold, fog or ice. This past summer, four hikers were injured when a freak storm blew in and trapped them on the rock faces. Winter temperatures routinely drop into the teens, and the summits can be icy from October-April. Fog = condensation, and condensation = wet ladders and rock faces. It can be hard to get an accurate forecast until you’re on the mountain, so when in doubt, turn around.
Route options for hiking Grandfather Mountain
There are three main Grandfather Mountain trails to the peaks: the Grandfather Trail, Profile Trail, and Daniel Boone Scout Trail. If you’re only visiting for a day, you’ll need to pick one — or, if you’re a very fit hiker, two.
The three trails run to the two summits: Macrae and Calloway. Both are in the backcountry — the swinging bridge is nearly 1,000 feet below them. Calloway is further east above the “profile” of the grandfather, while Macrae is a rocky summit atop the ridge.
Macrae is accessed up an exposed ladder and has a 360-degree view. Calloway is more of a scramble to the summit, with just a couple small ladders, and has a 180-degree view from the peak itself — but you can see a 180 in the other direction from a few feet away.
Personally I like the views from Calloway better. Macrae is the more popular peak. It’s possible to see both in a day if you can hike 12 strenuous miles, but most people choose one.
In the trail descriptions below, I’ve estimated the hiking time for the average hiker — someone who hikes a few times a month at home but isn’t accustomed to mountain terrain. More experienced hikers should assume a 1-mile-an-hour pace along the ridge, mainly due to choke points at the ladders with long lines.
The Grandfather Trail to Macrae Peak
Distance: Just under 2 miles
Elevation gain: 1,500 feet
Ladders/cables/obstacles: The steepest, most exposed, longest ladders in the park, lots of cables
Difficulty rating: 8/10
Fun rating: 6/10
Time needed to hike: 3 hours
The most intimidating, and most scenic, hike in Grandfather Mountain State Park is along the Grandfather Trail. This trail starts from the Mile High Swinging Bridge and runs to Calloway Peak, but most hikers stop at Macrae Peak.
The defining feature of this hike is an average elevation gain of nearly 1,000 feet per mile. How does it accomplish that, you ask?
Through ladders that ascend directly up the cliff faces for about 200 feet.
After an initial easy climb from the swinging bridge, the trail relentlessly gains elevation on a series of rock traverses with cable assists. Then, you’ll scramble through a narrow cave. The cave drops you at the base of the steepest set of ladders in the entire park — where you’ll often have to wait in quite a long line for hikers to pass in the opposite direction.
Once you’re on top of the ladders, the trail follows the ridge and keeps climbing. Your thighs will be burning when you finally hit the last ladder to Macrae Peak, which also has crowding issues.
When you’re done soaking in the views, return the way you came. And yep, the ladders are worse going down.
This trail would get a higher fun rating if it weren’t for the massive overcrowding. Because it starts from the swinging bridge and it’s not very long, the Grandfather Trail gets the tourist crowds in full force. Couple huge crowds with choke-points that only one hiker can pass through at a time, and you have lots of standing around waiting.
If you decide to do this trail and want solitude, backpack into the park and stay at Attic Window. Start hiking from the campsite to the swinging bridge as soon as the sun comes up and you’ll make it back before the worst of the crowds set in. I set out from the campsite below Calloway Peak at 9 am and made it to the meadow above the swinging bridge before it got crazy-crowded, but it was a foggy morning with no views. The crowds going back were terrible.
If you want to avoid the worst of the ladders and still see Macrae Peak, you can take the Underwood Trail, which runs below the ridge. You’ll need to double back a little to reach the summit.
The Profile Trail to Macrae Peak (with Calloway option)
Distance: 8.6 miles
Elevation gain: 2,800 feet
Ladders/cables/obstacles: Tough scramble down a 100-foot chute. Long, exposed rock traverses. One major ladder and a few small ones.
Difficulty rating: 8/10
Fun rating: 8/10
Time needed to hike: 8 hours
The Profile Trail is the perfect option for hikers who want a little adventure, but aren’t the best with heights. This hike allows you to see both peaks with minimal obstacles.
The trail starts from a large parking lot outside the town of Linville. You’ll climb — gradually at first, then up a set of steep stone steps. About 2 miles in, you’ll reach a lovely view of the profile of the Grandfather. It’s marked with a sign.
The Profile Trail ends at the gap between Macrae and Calloway Peaks. If you want a longer hike with maximum views, start by taking a left and doing the quick half-mile out-and-back to Calloway Peak. There are a few small ladders and several places to take in panoramic views.
To reach Macrae Peak, take a right at the junction. The trail meanders along the ridge for awhile. After half a mile, you’ll reach a long, exposed rock traverse with fabulous views to your right. Next you’ll pass a cave, shortly before this trail’s biggest obstacle — a 100-foot-long, steep chute.
Going down the chute is pretty nerve-wracking. I can’t emphasize enough how much better it is if you arrive at this spot by 9 am (requiring a 6:30 am start from the trailhead if you’re a quick hiker) — you’ll be able to take your time and there won’t be traffic coming in the opposite direction. It’s much easier going up after the crowds arrive, I promise!
Finally, a set of ropes helps you navigate the cliff right below Macrae Peak. Then it’s a short climb up a steep, exposed ladder to the top, with 360-degree views. Return the way you came.
Daniel Boone Scout Trail to Calloway Peak (with Macrae Peak option)
Distance: 11 miles to Calloway; 13 miles if you go all the way to Macrae
Elevation gain: 3,600 feet
Ladders/cables/obstacles: A couple very steep ladders just below Calloway Peak
Difficulty rating: 8/10
Fun rating: 10/10
Time needed to hike: 10 hours to Calloway; 12 hours if you go all the way to Macrae
Daniel Boone Scout Trail is the hidden gem of the Grandfather Mountain Stake Park hikes. It’s the best Calloway Peak hike, offering gorgeous views and a beautiful old-growth forest on the way up. Plus, the length deters most day-hikers, so crowds are lighter than elsewhere in the park. But it’s actually an easier hike than the Profile Trail if you’re able to do the length.
The hike starts from the Boone Fork Parking Area on the Blue Ridge Parkway. There are two route options: you can stay on the Daniel Boone Scout Trail the whole way, or take the Nuwati Trail for the first two miles. They’re the same distance and elevation profile, but the latter has nicer views.
Once you start climbing, you’ll pass through several microclimates with distinguishable plant life. First you’ll see mostly hardwoods, then spruces start to mix in, and eventually you’ll be in pine forest with rhododendron bushes in the exposed areas.
The last 0.25 miles to Calloway Peak require a couple ladder climbs. One of them is long and narrow. When you reach the summit, you’ll come to the least impressive view first — walk around the entire area to find other viewpoints.
If you want to continue to Macrae Peak, simply follow the Grandfather Trail to the gap and follow the directions above under the Profile Trail from there. It’s a long, tough day to try to do both peaks from the Daniel Boone Scout Trail, and you have little chance of beating the crowds to the section between peaks.
Backcountry Camping: The best option for hiking Grandfather Mountain
Grandfather Mountain isn’t the most accessible destination for day-hikers. Cost deters people from starting at the Swinging Bridge, while distance and difficulty make long day hikes in the backcountry unrealistic for many.
But there is another option. Grandfather Mountain State Park operates 13 backcountry campsites on the slopes and ridge. Each site has remarkable privacy, good tent and hammock space, and access to a peak for sunrise/sunset views.
You have to reserve campsites in advance, and they book out quickly from May-October. I’d recommend booking at least a month ahead of your trip. Small-group sites cost $15/night, while group sites cost $32. You aren’t allowed to book a group campsite unless you have 6 or more people.
You might be wondering how the heck you carry all your gear into the backcountry when there are so many ladders and scrambles. The good news is, many campsites are accessible without navigating technical terrain. So you’ll need to decide your comfort level for climbing (and especially descending) ladders with a pack — and choose your campsite wisely.
The sites on the ridge all require at least one technical section, while the ones along Daniel Boone Scout Trail and the Profile Site do not. Attic Window would be especially difficult for anyone nervous about ladders with their pack, as would Cliffside if you plan to descend the Daniel Boone Scout Trail.
A few other random tips for hiking Grandfather Mountain
- If you plan to visit between November and March, microspikes are essential.
- The parking lots for the Profile Trail and the Swinging Bridge close before sunset — and if you leave your car there without a backcountry permit, rangers initiate rescues as soon as the gates close. In other words, the only way to watch the sunset is backcountry camping.
- If you use trekking poles, bring collapsible ones. It’s not easy climbing down ladders and holding onto your poles at the same time! (Speaking from experience.)
- High Country is foggy, especially in the mornings. Macrae Peak is often socked in until 10 am or later.
- Have a little more time in this area? Hike Rough Ridge, visit the Linn Cove Viaduct, and check out Linville Falls.
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