Rising to nearly 6,000 feet above sea level, Grandfather Mountain is a distinctive natural landmark in a region that features the highest mountains east of the Mississippi River. Depending on the angle that you view the summit, it can either appear like the most Rocky Mountain-looking of the peaks found in this region when seen from the west, or the face of the old man it is named for appears when you view it from the north.
Privately owned for many years, Grandfather Mountain is now a state park. For an entrance fee, there is much to explore on this unique and ancient precipice. The views from the top of Grandfather Mountain overlook Wilson Creek Gorge, many other peaks found in this Blue Ridge Mountain chain including Mount Mitchell, the tallest mountain east of the Rockies; and you can even see the skyline of Charlotte on the horizon 90 miles away on a clear day.
Grandfather Mountain State Park, however, provides much more than just panoramic views as it seeks to sustain a unique eco-system. A trip to the top of the mountain features a wild animal zoo, trails to hike, a gift shop, a restaurant and the famous Mile High Bridge to walk across.
The wildlife habitats on the mountain feature live black bear, mountain lion, bald eagles, otters, elk and more. The park also houses a Nature Museum that offers an opportunity to learn about the diverse and sometimes rare aspects of nature found in the park. The museum displays range from 60-plus examples of gems and crystals found in this mineral-rich region to native plant life displays created by the late artist Paul Marchand. Many wildlife movies have been filmed on Grandfather Mountain and the park’s Nature Museum Theatre plays these productions on a regular basis throughout the day.
As with most aspects of life in recent months, Grandfather Mountain State Park was closed in the spring due to the coronavirus pandemic. But as society slowly opens up more and more, so will the park.
“In March, we decided to temporarily close Grandfather Mountain to help reduce the spread of COVID-19,” said Frank Ruggiero, director of Marketing and Communications for the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation. “We tried to make the best of the situation by performing maintenance that we otherwise couldn’t have done if guests were in the park. Meanwhile, our animal keepers continued to care for the resident animals who call Grandfather Mountain their home. We reopened on May 15, with mountains of safety measures and procedures in place.”
Some of the changes are listed below, however, be sure to look for updates and park news at grandfather.com or (800) 468-7325.
“Now, rather than purchasing tickets at our entrance gate, visitors must do so online at www.grandfather.com by placing a reservation for a set date and time of entry,” said Ruggiero. “This measure aims to help limit the number of guests in the park at one time, in accordance with the state of North Carolina’s social gathering guidelines. As such, tickets will not be sold or available at the gate as visitors must book online in advance. Here’s a quote from Jesse Pope, our president and executive director; ‘The safety of our guests and staff comes first and foremost. We will continue to follow the situation closely, while implementing a phased reopening plan closely correlated with Gov. Roy Cooper.’”
With each new re-opening phase that is expected to happen within the state of North Carolina, changes are sure to come. Here is where we are at presstime in May.
“We have enacted operational measures to discourage crowds and encourage social distancing,” said Ruggiero. “High-traffic pedestrian areas such as the Mile High Swinging Bridge and wildlife habitats will implement a one-way directional system to ensure that guests do not come within six feet of each other. The number of guests allowed to visit such areas at one time will be limited, based on state social gathering recommendations, while a time limit will ensure that others can participate in turn. However, guests are welcome to revisit such areas during the same trip. Time limits will be not be enforced for the park’s less crowded, lower-traffic areas. We’ve also enhanced our already stringent cleaning procedures and placed additional sanitization stations in key areas, while boosting staff presence to direct traffic flow and encourage safe social distancing.”
Sadly, the highly-anticipated Grandfather Mountain Highland Games that usually take place in July have been canceled. Still, there is much to do at Grandfather Mountain State Park and some new and impressive improvements are in the works.
“Despite the pandemic, construction continues on our new Conservation Campus, which will include a major renovation to our Nature Museum, nearly doubling it in size,” said Ruggiero. “It will feature 10,000 square feet of new educational space, three classrooms for smaller groups and increased capacity for larger groups, restoration of the ADA-accessible auditorium, new outdoor learning spaces including an amphitheater with terraced seating and a pavilion, new office space on-site for park educators and animal habitats staff members to prepare and support new and enhanced educational programs, larger, modernized food service facilities for catering and serving educational groups, expanded capacity for hosting conferences, seminars, receptions and community events and more.”
Exciting and new modern technologies are being conceptualized for the park.
“The Nature Museum’s expansion will also include a dozen all-new, interactive exhibits,” said Ruggiero. “Designed by PGAV Destinations, a recognized leader in the design of innovative museums, zoos, aquariums, resorts and brand destinations, these exhibits will focus on the biodiversity and preservation of the high-elevation forests of the Southern Appalachian region. They will include an interactive 3D map of Grandfather Mountain, a geology/mineral display, flora and fauna walls, an interactive field guide and depictions of the physical evolution of Grandfather Mountain, its climate and its important role in migration paths for birds and animals. We hope to open the new Conservation Campus in 2021.”