MT. MITCHELL, N.C. (WSPA) – You may not realize it, but some of the most extreme weather in the eastern U.S. happens right in our backyard.
Robert McGraw started as a park attendant almost 20 years ago, eventually leading to his current job: park superintendent of Mt. Mitchell State Park.
“I think this is the most amazing place on Earth. I fell in love with it in 2004, it’s a special place to drive to every day and interact with the visitors.”
“You never know what’s going to happen up here. No two days have ever been the same.”
Mt. Mitchell is the highest peak east of the Mississippi River, and with that elevation comes the potential for extreme weather. Robert has been there for some of it.
“Christmas Eve of last year, 2022 was the most extreme conditions I have seen in my career. The temperature was -21 degrees, the wind was gusting between 50 and 60 miles an hour and the wind chill was roughly -70 at the time I was up here that morning.”
He notes it can get worse.
“The all-time low temperature is -34 degrees, and the wind speeds have been recorded up to 178 mph here.”
Why all the cold and wind? It’s that elevation of 6,684 feet.
On average, every 1000-foot gain in elevation drops the air temperature 3.5 degrees.
“We will tell you to expect the temperature to at least be twenty degrees lower than it is in Asheville.”
Wind is more variable but is typically stronger at higher elevations due to less friction. Since the ground here is closer to high-speed atmospheric wind that accompanies stronger storm systems, extreme wind can result.
It’s winter weather can lead to park closure.
“We close to the public and vehicular traffic when a vehicle is not safe to operate here or on the Blue Ridge Parkway. It could be snow, in most cases it is ice.”
In 2018, Mount Mitchell recorded a state record of 139.94 inches of total precipitation, which is also the highest yearly total recorded anywhere east of the Cascade Mountains in the Pacific Northwest.
Robert said that when visiting, prepare for anything.
“It can be sunny in the morning and in can be sleeting in the afternoon. It can be forecasted to blow five miles an hour all day long in Asheville and we will have 40-50 mph gusts here. Just a simple thunderstorm at Mt. Mitchell can change the dynamic very quickly. At elevation with lightning and limited trees, it can be very dangerous up here in even the simplest of storms. We’re also extremely remote, so assistance when things go bad takes about an hour to get up here.”
He also points out that the climate here affects what plants and animals you see.
“This is a spruce-fir forest…the predominant trees you’ll see are the balsam fir and the red spruce. These trees that you’re seeing around us are more common in Canada, so it’s a very unique environment. Some of the animals here are only found here or in locations like Canada like a saw-whet owl.”
Whether it’s for the cool air or the great views of nature, many regularly visit this unique piece of the Carolinas. To Robert, this is one of the joys of the job.
“Every single week I see somebody here who was here the year before and the year before, and it turns into decades of families coming up here to enjoy the park.”