At 6,030 feet, Cold Mountain is not the highest peak in the North Carolina mountains (that honor belongs to Mt. Mitchell at 6,684 feet, the tallest peak in the Eastern U.S.), but it is now easily the most recognizable by name. Located in the Shining Rock Wilderness, part of the Pisgah National Forest, Cold Mountain serves as the real setting for its namesake story based loosely on the historical past of its author’s kin.
Here are a few suggestions for walking in the footsteps of Inman and Ada:
The easiest place to see the actual Cold Mountain is along the Blue Ridge Parkway just past Wagon Road Gap (mentioned in the book). From Asheville, drive south along the Parkway past Mt. Pisgah to milepost 411. There visitors will find a large, weathered, wooden National Park Service sign, not unlike those found at all of the other Parkway overlooks. The exception is that this spot is now easily one of the more photographed along the Blue Ridge Parkway, with visitors strategically placing themselves next to the sign with the now-famous mountain looming in the distance.
This section of the Blue Ridge Parkway is closed during winter, depending on the weather. Call 828-298-0398 for weather and road closure information. Even when the Parkway is closed, the Cold Mountain overlook is accessible by taking U.S. 276 to the entrance of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
There is no town of Cold Mountain. A few small hamlets at various points along the base of the mountain might well have been the inspiration for the fictionalized town. From the Parkway, a drive south along U.S. 276 leads to the base of the mountain and Cruso, a small settlement along the East Fork of the Pigeon River. A little further north, at Bethel, the road intersects with State Road 215 which heads south, providing views of the west side of the mountain and passing by scenic Lake Logan, the Sunburst Trout Farm and a roadside swimming hole and picnic area, before eventually reconnecting to the Parkway.
Just as Ada struggles to take on the challenge of a new life, only the most intrepid hikers will want to face the daunting climb to the summit of Cold Mountain in the Pisgah National Forest. The nearly 11-mile round-trip hike is strenuous, with an elevation climb of more than 2,800 feet in a wilderness area with no trail markers. Along the way, late summer hikers will find a nice crop of huckleberries. The Art Loeb trail to the Cold Mountain summit begins to the left from the parking area just after the last building in the Daniel Boone Scout Camp. Leaving the roadside, the trail switchbacks north to round a ridgeline at 1.1 miles, according to Randy Johnson in his book “Hiking the Blue Ridge Parkway.” At 2 miles, the trail crosses tumbling Sorrell Creek at the first good campsites. The trail continues to rise across the richly forested flank of the Shining Rock Ledge. At 3.8 miles, take a left at Deep Gap. The peak is 1.5 miles north. Johnson warns that a good map and compass are recommended before embarking on this hike.
Music is part of the underpinning of the Cold Mountain story just as it was for 19th century Appalachian mountain life. Families and friends gathered on the front porches in coves and hollers, trading ballads and sharing the music of their Celtic roots. That tradition is played out each summer during Shindig on the Green, an old-time mountain jam session that takes place on City/County Plaza in Asheville most Saturdays between July 4th and Labor Day. On most Wednesdays and Thursday evenings, the strains of a fiddle or banjo can often be heard at places like Jack of the Wood Pub in downtown Asheville. Many churches still hold shape-note singing gatherings where old-time melodies such as Angel Band (more recently popularized by Emmylou Harris) are sung in the manner reminiscent of a bygone era.
Referred to in the story of Cold Mountain as “Catalucci,” this region of the mountains extends into the North Carolina section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This isolated valley was the largest and most prosperous settlement in what is now the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Once a thriving settlement, the families of Cataloochee sold their homes to the government for the establishment of the Park. Today, several of those structures still stand offering a glimpse into a simpler way of life. The region is also home to a growing herd of newly re-introduced elk as well as bear, wild boar, turkey and deer which can often be seen at dusk and dawn in the fields and woodlands bordering the gravel roads. Once known for its farms and orchards, today’s Cataloochee is one of the most picturesque areas of the park.
About 20 minutes from downtown Asheville stands the family pioneer homestead of North Carolina’s Civil War Governor Zebulon Vance. Open to the public, the large two-story structure of hewn pine logs, has been reconstructed around the original chimney and contains furnishings and household items from the early 18th century including a few pieces original to the home. Clustered about the grounds are six log outbuildings: the corn crib, springhouse, smokehouse, loom house, slave house, and toolhouse. Demonstrations of pioneer skills such as soap making, butter churning and tanning can be seen during special events at various times throughout the year.
Inman encounters the goat woman near Grandfather Mountain (Inman looked at the big grandfather mountain and then he looked beyond it to the lesser mountains as they faded off into the southwest horizon). Today, visitors can explore Grandfather Mountain, hike its many trails, see mountain lions, bears and other animals in a natural habitat and traverse a mile-high swinging bridge. Closer to Cold Mountain, the rushing waters of the actual Pigeon River provide thrilling whitewater rafting during the summer months. A variety of rafting companies provide guided trips along the Pigeon.
While you're exploring the real Cold Mountain and some of the places mentioned in the book and movie, try discovering Asheville’s great literary legacy that includes Thomas Wolfe, O. Henry and Gail Godwin, and Asheville's unique attractions, culture and restaurants.