Experiencing winter wonder at Grandfather Mountain
Experiencing winter wonder at Grandfather Mountain
Grandfather Mountain, the not-for-profit nature park run by the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation, provides a unique experience for guests visiting in the winter months. While the rugged mountain is known for its wild weather this time of year, there are many magical moments to be had during what is often a quieter season. Plan ahead to make the most of your winter visit to the park – whether you relish the brisk temperatures and crystal-clear views, or would rather spend some time connecting with the natural world from the comfort of Grandfather’s indoor spaces.
Though mild days certainly occur at Grandfather during winter, it’s always a good idea to bundle up and bring extra layers of clothing for any fast-changing conditions while exploring the mountain. Here are some highlights of what to expect.
Winter brings many clear days with deep blue skies without the haze of summertime. On especially clear days, you might catch a glimpse of the Charlotte skyline more than 80 miles away. At times, you may even get to witness postcard scenes of trees covered in ice and snow. Take it all in from the Mile High Swinging Bridge, where you will often find fewer fellow onlookers during this season.
Snow especially brings out the animals’ personalities in Grandfather’s wildlife habitats. The cougars frolic in the fluffy flakes; the elk look particularly regal against a backdrop of snow; and the mountain’s river otters really steal the show as they’re known to frolic, slide around on their bellies, burrow and even make tunnels. Did you know? Black bears are not true hibernators. Grandfather’s bears go into a state of torpor, or light sleep, in the winter. Since those who reside at Grandfather Mountain are fed by keepers, the habitat staff simulate feeding patterns that the bears would experience in the wild to enable their innate instinct to go into a wintertime slumber. However, on warmer winter days, it’s not unusual to see them sleepily wandering around their habitat.
Interested in watching our feathered friends? Many of the birds that are spotted on Grandfather are transient, but around 40 to 50 species call the mountain home year-round. A good starting point is the bird feeders on the deck of the Wilson Center. Find more about winter birding on Grandfather Mountain at www.grandfather.com/winter-birding.
Surprising to some, Grandfather does have milder days in wintertime that make for perfect hiking weather, with more of the trail to yourself. Be sure to start your hike earlier given the shorter days (Grandfather’s trails close at 4 p.m. in the winter); familiarize yourself with the trail in advance; check the weather forecast; tell someone your plan; dress appropriately; and bring plenty of water and snacks. Hikers should be prepared to encounter ice any time the trails are open during the winter months and even into early spring. At times, trails may be closed for safety. Read more winter hiking tips at www.grandfather.com/winter-hiking.
For those looking to warm up with some time inside, the park has plenty of offerings. Wilson Center for Nature Discovery The Wilson Center for Nature Discovery – located about halfway up the mountain, adjacent to the habitats – was thoughtfully designed to optimize Grandfather’s natural surroundings and bring the great outdoors inside. The new space, which opened in the summer of 2022, features a dozen state-of-the-art interactive exhibits showcasing the natural history, flora, fauna, geology and weather of the mountain. Guests can also check out a documentary about Grandfather that plays every half hour in the ADA-accessible Hodges Theater.
Hugh Morton Photo Exhibit
This winter, Grandfather’s Wilson Center is also welcoming the traveling exhibition, “Photographs by Hugh Morton: An Uncommon Retrospective,” to the mountain, courtesy of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's North Carolina Collection. The exhibit, which goes through spring, provides a deeper look into the work of Grandfather Mountain founder Hugh Morton, one of North Carolina’s most important photographers, and covers various aspects of his eight decades as a prominent businessman, political figure, tourism booster, conservationist, environmental activist, sports fan and prolific photographer. The exhibition is now on display daily in the Classroom in the Clouds through March 16. It will then be available to view on weekends, March 18 through May 14. From May 15 to Memorial Day, the exhibit will be on display every day before coming to a close. Access is included with the price of admission.
From presents for those back home to something special for yourself, find plenty of unique items and collectibles in the gift shops located inside the Wilson Center and Top Shop. Both shops carry a variety of artisan crafts and goods, as well as signature Grandfather Mountain souvenirs, from apparel to hiking gear to drinkware and all things in between. All proceeds from the shops support the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation.
Savor lunch favorites at Mildred’s Grill inside the Wilson Center with homemade soups, salads and sandwiches and treats like fudge, a slice of pie or hot cocoa. While you dine, you’ll have an ideal vantage point to observe the winter birds outside at the feeders. (Grandfather’s picnic areas remain open for those warmer days, and you can always get your meal to-go.)