grandfather mountain

In the Mountains: Growing with Grandfather Mountain

The multi-part series “In the Mountains” delves into the history of the area surrounding Lees-McRae College. This article explores the history of Grandfather Mountain and its impact on the local communities. 

Towering over the intersection of Avery, Watauga, and Caldwell counties stands an ecological wonderland that has fascinated scientists, explorers, residents, and tourists for centuries.

Grandfather Mountain, named “Tanawha” by the Cherokee, rises 5,946 feet in elevation, making it the highest peak of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Its steep incline and jutting peaks make it seem taller than it is, leading to French botanist Andre Michaux declaring it the “highest summit in all of North America” in 1794. While that claim was not accurate, Grandfather Mountain is remarkable for its extreme biodiversity and has become a prime tourist destination. Around 300,000 visitors come to Grandfather Mountain annually to take in the sights, and the mountain serves as an anchor point that draws in revenue for other businesses and attractions in the area. 


An environmental marvel

Grandfather Mountain is above all else an intriguing natural environment. It is a temperate rainforest, much like the forests of the Pacific Northwest, and in 1992 was designated as a Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. More than 200 bird species have been spotted on the mountain and the mountain is home to more plant species than all of northern Europe. Because of its location and rapidly changing elevation, the mountain houses a variety of different ecosystems.

“When you’re at the bottom of Grandfather Mountain, you’re going to see tree and plant species that you would see in the piedmont area of North Carolina and maybe even in South Carolina,” said Jesse Pope ’02, executive director of the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation. “By the time you get to the top, you’re seeing species you would find in Canada. A 12 mi hike up Grandfather Mountain is the same experience ecologically as getting in your car in Charlotte and driving to Maine.”

The mountain is also essential for the conservation of multiple species that are imperiled or rare. Some species, like the Blue Ridge goldenrod and the spruce fir moss spider, can only be found in the Southern Appalachians. By carefully monitoring the populations and protecting their natural environment, the biologists and ecologists working at Grandfather Mountain can protect these species from extinction.

During the latter half of the 20th century, Grandfather Mountain also helped with repopulation efforts for black bears and otters. River otters were prized by fur trappers in the 19th century for their pelts, and they were all but wiped out in the mountain regions of North Carolina. They have since made a comeback. Black bears too experienced a population dropped as they lost territory and were hunted. Grandfather Mountain participated in a breeding program to introduce more bears into the wild, and the sustainability program was successful in bringing the numbers back up. Once acceptable levels were reached, the breeding program ended and the bears were retired.

New discoveries are still being made on the mountain as well. In 2019, researchers officially confirmed that synchronous fireflies live on Grandfather Mountain. It was previously believed that the rare firefly species, whose individual members can flash their lights in unison, existed only in the Great Smokey Mountains.

“There’s always new stuff being discovered,” said Pope. “It’s a place where biologists come often to explore and do inventories and surveys. It’s really exciting to be a part of gaining a better understanding of the natural world.”

Because of Grandfather Mountain’s unique ecology, it has a reputation both nationally and internationally. According to Pope, it’s one of the top tourist destinations in North Carolina, and visiting the mountain is “almost a rite of passage” for those who grow up in the area. Grandfather Mountain now brings people to the area and is vital to the local economy. But considerable work was required to get to that point.

Linville Peak


Development of Linville

Although Grandfather Mountain now connects the High Country to the rest of the world, prior to the 1880s the mountains made life difficult for residents. People were disconnected from other cities and towns and had to survive with little outside assistance. Margaret Tufts Neal, in her book “And Set Aglow a Sacred Flame,” described the area as “isolated, geographically speaking…Physically, it was cut off from the rest of North Carolina on the east and from Tennessee on the west.” The nearest foothill town, Lenoir, was a day’s journey away, and almost impossible to reach in the winter.

“Prior to 1885 there were just a handful of mountain families that lived here,” said Pope.

Despite the hard living conditions, individuals like the Rev. Edgar Tufts, the Rev. R.P. Pell, and Elizabeth McRae saw in these mountain communities an opportunity to make a difference and provide some much-needed services. Among the transplants who took an interest in the High Country was Samuel T. Kelsey, a developer from Kansas.

In 1875, Kelsey purchased land in western North Carolina to found the town of Highlands, believing it would be on the next great trade route through the United States. While spending time in the mountains he recognized the potential of the area.

“From horseback he rode to McDowell County up past Linville Falls and into the Linville River Valley,” said Pope. “At the top of the valley sits Grandfather, and Kelsey just thought, ‘Wow, what a great place for the next tourism opportunity.’”

Kelsey proposed the plan to Wilmington native Donald MacRae as an investor, and the MacRae family purchased 16,000 acres of land, including all of Grandfather Mountain and the area that is now Linville. Another MacRae, Donald’s brother Alexander, eventually married Elizabeth Harllee McNair, who was the renowned teacher that lent her name to the Lees-McRae Institute, and eventually Lees-McRae College. 

Much of the land was purchased from Capt. Walter W. Lenoir, who the city of Lenoir is named after. Kelsey and the MacRaes began developing the land, creating roads to connect Linville and the surrounding area to the rest of the state and building new homes for out-of-state visitors. These summer residents boosted the economy significantly, enabling the growth to continue.

“The summer residents from the very beginning have really sustained Lees-McRae and Crossnore School and Grandfather, so that summer community became really important to the sustainability of the mountain people that lived here,” Pope said. “Men like Edgar Tufts came to the southern Appalachians to provide literacy, community, and support to the few families that lived here at that time, and the summer community provided the funds.”

The towns surrounding Grandfather grew throughout the decades, but the mountain remained a backdrop to the development until Donald MacRae’s grandson, Hugh MacRae Morton, took ownership.


The new face of Grandfather

In 1952, the Linville Improvement Company dissolved and Morton became the sole owner. He turned his attention to the mountain itself. Shortly after taking responsibility, Morton supervised the construction of the Mile-High Swinging Bridge. As the name says, the bridge stands at a mile above sea level, making it the highest suspension footbridge in the United States. It spans 228 feet across an 80-foot gorge and was originally constructed of wooden boards. In 1999, the bridge received a facelift. The original cables, floor boards, and side rails were replaced with galvanized steel.

Since its construction, the Mile-High Swinging Bridge has remained one of the highlights of a trip to Grandfather Mountain. The bridge is free to bounce and sway slightly in the wind, and although the movement is minimal, the experience can still be disorienting. In times of high wind, the bridge almost sounds musical, which has led Grandfather Mountain employees to refer to it as the “Mile-High Singing Bridge.”

Modern visitors can drive or hike up to the bridge, and an elevator was recently added to improve accessibility. Crossing the bridge brings visitors to Linville Peak, a rocky outcropping that provides stunning views of the valley.

In 1968, Morton purchased one male and one female black bear cub to release on the mountain in the hopes of increasing the dwindling black bear population. The male cub adapted to the forest immediately, but the female cub, Mildred, had already grown too used to humans to thrive in the wild.

“Within a few days of being in the wild, the wildlife commission basically said she had to go back into captivity,” said Pope. “Mr. Morton had fallen in love with her and just couldn’t send her somewhere else, so that’s the reason we have a zoo.”

The zoo, which is actually referred to by the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation as an environmental habitat because it only features species native to the mountain, now includes bears, cougars, elk, otters, and bald eagles. The majority of the current inhabitants were injured or orphaned and were brought to Grandfather Mountain for care.

During Morton’s tenure, the mountain also leaned into the MacRae family’s Scottish roots. Morton’s mother—Donald MacRae’s daughter—Agnes MacRae Morton visited Scotland in the 1950s and attended a Highland Games event.

“They were just doing it out on a flat field somewhere, and she thought, ‘Well, Grandfather Mountain is a much better backdrop,’” Pope said.

The first Grandfather Mountain Highland Games took place in 1956 in the MacRae Meadows, which are actually named for Alexander MacRae, also known as Alick, a farmer and bagpiper who was not related to the MacRae family that owned the mountain. He emigrated from Scotland in the 1800s and was hired by Capt. Lenoir to run a boarding house and a sheep farm in the meadow. Although he had long since passed by the time the games began, this additional connection between Scotland and Grandfather Mountain lends extra authenticity to the event. Local legend even says that if you stay until dark on the final night of the annual Highland Games, you can hear Alick playing a ghostly bagpipe.

Morton kept adding enticements to Grandfather Mountain, inviting tourists to watch Mildred the Bear in daily shows, hang-glide from the mountaintop, and learn about the ecology of the area in the nature museum. He built a store called the “Top Shop” near the foot of the swinging bridge, which now holds a gift shop, elevator to the bridge, and collection of photographs detailing the history of Grandfather Mountain. Morton also oversaw the preservation of 1,400 acres of wilderness land on the back side of the mountain and Grandfather Mountain’s selection as a member of the international network of Biosphere Reserves.

Grandfather after Hugh

Morton kept the park running until his death in 2006.

“Hugh Morton was a larger-than-life person and a community leader here,” Pope said. “If you wanted something done locally, he was the go-to person. He was connected, he had the influence, he had the money. This community relied on him. Nobody ever worried about Grandfather Mountain because Hugh Morton was going to take care of that. He was never going to let anything happen to grandfather.

“When he passed away in 2006,” Pope continued, “that really changed the game for Grandfather Mountain. When we lost our influencer, our person that kept everything going, it took our organization a while to figure out what was next.”

Morton’s children and grandchildren made the decision to split ownership of the mountain.

Linville Peak

They sold the backcountry with its miles of hiking trails to the state of North Carolina to become a state park. The tourist attractions—the bridge, the environmental habitats, the museum—were to be maintained by a new nonprofit called the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation.

The mission of the nonprofit is “to inspire conservation of the natural world by helping guests explore, understand and value the wonders of Grandfather Mountain.” The leadership works closely with other conservation and sustainability groups to protect the natural environment and raise awareness of current problems. 

“As a nonprofit, we’ve tried to take advantage of the popularity and name recognition for conservation education,” said Pope. “Guests may come to cross the swinging bridge or see a bear, but while they’re here they’re going to get this educational experience that’s second to none.”

Sustainability efforts at the mountain include building an earth-friendly fudge shop using solar panels and bamboo flooring, installing recycling containers throughout the park, working towards using only compostable and biodegradable dishware at Mildred’s Grill, and serving bird-friendly coffee. The park is also in the process of building a new conservation campus that will house a nature discovery center.

Since Morton’s death, collaboration between Grandfather Mountain and the surrounding communities has become more important than ever.

“What I and our board learned is that it takes more than one person,” Pope said. “There’s not some superhero out there, like Hugh was. It takes a whole community. I’m someone who likes to bring people together around common interests and I want Grandfather Mountain to be a part of that. There’s a symbiotic relationship between Grandfather Mountain and the community. Grandfather Mountain needs the community to be sustainable, and the community needs Grandfather Mountain.”

Grandfather Mountain and other attractions like Tweetsie Railroad and Biltmore Estate bring millions of dollars of tourism revenue into the community each year. The park also has a strong connection to Lees-McRae College, beyond sharing a common history. Many students from the Wildlife Biology and Biology programs find jobs and internships at Grandfather Mountain, including Pope himself. Pope, who majored in Biology with the Naturalist concentration, started working as a zookeeper in May of 2002, before even officially graduating.

“Lees-McRae is the reason that I’m at Grandfather Mountain doing what I’m doing,” he said. “I have a major passion and love for Lees-McRae and the Wildlife Biology program.

To Lees-McRae students interested in Grandfather Mountain, he says, “It's a great place to work and a great place to be introduced to the natural world close to campus. The Lees-McRae motto—In the Mountains, Of the Mountains, For the Mountains—very much fits us. That motto has stuck with me since I was 17 and it applies to many of the things that I do today.”

Grandfather Mountain continues to thrive as a tourist destination, historical landmark, ecological preserve, and source of employment and income for the community. In addition to the bridge, the museum and restaurant, and the wildlife habitats, visitors can participate in guided hikes, educational lectures, adult field courses, and behind-the-scenes tours. Whether you’re visiting for a few days or have lived in the area all your life, there’s always more to explore at Grandfather Mountain.

Grandfather Mountain
Pink-shell azalea
Split Rock
Mildred the Bear Environmental Habitat
Forrest Gump Curve
Top Shop
Mile-High Swinging Bridge
View from Linville Peak
By Emily WebbMay 07, 2021