Blue Ridge to Appalachians: The Highest Mountains in North Carolina

What’s in a name? Just ask the highest mountains in North Carolina. They have quite the story to tell.

Travel and Exploration
12 January 2024

The 28th largest state in the US, North Carolina is generally divided into three geophysical areas. The largest of these, taking up roughly 45% of the state, is the coastal plain in the east. This transitions to the hilly region known as the Piedmont plateau. However, it’s in the west that elevations climb. It’s here that one finds the Appalachians, and the highest mountains in North Carolina.

We’re exploring these lofty peaks, starting with an overview of the Appalachians before cataloguing North Carolina’s highest mountains.

The Appalachians

Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Credit: Tony Barber via Getty Images)

As the Rockies rise in the west of North America, the Appalachian Mountains do so in the east. Extending more than 1,500 miles from Canada to the centre of the US state of Alabama, these are among the oldest mountains on the planet. This is reflected in their worn appearance, which is characterised more by curves and domes than the rugged Rockies.

North Carolina is located in the range’s southern region, also known as the “new” Appalachians. And within this region are several subranges. Of these, the biggest mountains of North Carolina are found mainly in the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains. Also known as the “Smokies,” this latter range lies along the North Carolina-Tennessee border. But we’re starting our Appalachian trail adventure in the Blue Ridge Mountains, specifically in the Black Mountains subrange.

Mount Mitchell

Mount Mitchell near Asheville, North Carolina. (Credit: Frederik Flagstad via Getty Images)

In 1835, a science professor from the University of North Carolina used a mix of maths and barometric pressure readings to determine that the highest elevation of the Black Mountains was 6,476 feet. In doing so, Dr Elisha Mitchell overturned the then dominant belief that Grandfather Mountain of the Blue Ridge range was the highest mountain in North Carolina. It was, instead, in the Black Mountains. The highest peak here was known to the Cherokee people as Attakulla, and to the first European settlers as the Black Dome. Critics disputed his findings, especially US senator Thomas Clingman. Clingman, a former student of Mitchell’s, argued that Smoky Dome was higher.

Dr Mitchell would spend years refining his measurements. In fact, he was on an expedition doing just that in 1857 when he fell 40 feet from a waterfall and drowned. Dr Mitchell’s final recorded figure for the mountain was remarkably close to the modern one. While he put it at 6,672 feet high, nowadays the accepted elevation is 6,684 feet above sea level. Another thing that’s changed is the name of the Black Dome, now known as Mount Mitchell and recognised as the highest US peak east of the Mississippi River. What’s more, Dr Mitchell’s tomb stands on the mountain’s summit, alongside a circular viewing platform.

In 1915, Mount Mitchell State Park became the first of its kind in North Carolina. Famed for its covering of pine, spruce, and balsam trees, the mountain is also within Pisgah National Forest.

Mount Craig

Mount Mitchell State Park (Credit: Chelsie Perdue / 500px via Getty Images)

Less than a mile north of Mitchell, Mount Craig rises to 6,647 feet, making it second among the highest mountains in North Carolina. Its namesake, Locke Craig, was the state governor from 1913 to 1917. At that time, logging was causing extensive damage in the Black Mountains. It was under Craig that Mount Mitchell State Park was established, protecting the area.

Clingmans Dome - Kuwahi

View from Clingmans Dome inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. (Credit: carlosalvarez via Getty Images)

Third of the tallest mountains in North Carolina is the first of the Smoky Mountains on our list. Indeed, at 6,643 feet high, it’s also the highest mountain in neighbouring Tennessee, its crest straddling the two states.

As to its name, that’s a story in and of itself. The Cherokee called it Kuwahi, or “mulberry place,” a sacred site. Later, American settlers named it Smoky Dome. But in 1859, it was changed to its current official name, Clingmans Dome.

The Clingman in question is the same senator who disputed the height of what is now Mount Mitchell. He believed that the then Smoky Dome was the taller of the two. The story goes that it was Princeton professor Arnold Guyot who chose the name because of this dispute. In 2022, a campaign was launched to revert the mountain to its Cherokee name of Kuwahi. At the time of writing, this is ongoing.

Nowadays, the mountain is protected within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Its summit is carpeted with a forest of spruce–fir trees and its slopes form the headwaters of Little River as well as two tributaries of the Tuckasegee River.

Mount Guyot

Mount Guyot with a frozen lake and snow covered mountain. (Credit: Pugalenthi via Getty Images)

On the Tennessee-North Carolina border, Mount Guyot rises 6,621 feet above sea level, fourth among North Carolina’s highest mountains. Like Clingmans Dome – Kuwahi, it’s a member of the Smokies and covered in spruce-fir forest. However, Guyot is considered one of the most remote and unspoiled mountains in the range. It is named after Arnold Guyot.

Balsam Cone

Mount Mitchell and the Black Mountains of North Carolina (Credit: digidreamgrafix via Getty Images)

At around 6,596 feet in elevation, Balsam Cone is fifth highest of the tallest mountains in North Carolina. Located along the crest of the Black Mountains, it’s a close neighbour of Mount Mitchell. Its name is a reference to the balsam trees on its summit.

The Biggest Mountains of North Carolina

Sunrise over the Appalachian Mountains (Credit: KenCanning via Getty Images)

And so, the stories of North Carolina’s highest mountains are much more than facts and figures. They tell of sacred sites, professional pride, and a determination to preserve the state’s natural wonders.


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