Mount Mitchell – Burnsville, North Carolina - Atlas Obscura

Mount Mitchell

The highest point in North Carolina and the United States east of the Mississippi River, Mount Mitchell is named after argumentative explorer Elisha Mitchell. 


Explorer Elisha Mitchell knew which mountain in these parts was the highest, and he was not backing down.  

Born in Connecticut and educated at Yale, Elisha Mitchell became a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1818. He would teach math, natural philosophy, and geology, as well as serve as the university’s accountant, chaplain, and even acting president. He would complete several geological studies of the Black Mountains, a range of the Appalachians in the western part of the state near the Smoky Mountains. He discovered that this mountain was the highest point in the young United States at 6,684 feet above sea level, rivaling New Hampshire’s Mount Washington by almost 400 feet.

However, a former student of his and Representative from Tennessee, Thomas Clingman, disagreed and claimed that the mountain known today as Mount Gibbs was even higher, immediately claiming credit for the true measurement of the highest mountain. Thus, Mitchell would return to the Black Mountains at the age of 62 to reconfirm his findings and defend his prior claim. This excursion would be his last, as he fell from the top of a waterfall and drowned in the pool below. Thereafter called Mitchell Falls, the waterfall is on private property near the park.

Elisha Mitchell’s tomb is at the summit of the mountain next to a new observation platform completed in 2009. Mount Mitchell State Park also has campgrounds, a restaurant, and a gift shop and snack bar (this writer recommends the cherry cider). From the parking lot off milepost 355 of the Blue Ridge Parkway, it’s a quick walk up a short paved trail to the summit. The Pisgah National Forest surrounds the mountain with dense spruce firs.

An explorer and scientist in his own right, Thomas Clingman would be the namesake of the nearby Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the Smoky Mountains and in Tennessee.

Know Before You Go

From the Blue Ridge Parkway near milepost 355, take State Route 128 to Mount Mitchell State Park's parking lot. Take the short paved trail to the summit.

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