Mount Jefferson State Park, located in northwestern North Carolina, is known for its diverse vegetation, scenic hiking trails, and majestic views. Rising 1600 feet above neighboring farms and valleys, Mount Jefferson is the tallest mountain peak in the area and was named after Thomas Jefferson, who owned land nearby. The mountain is situated between the drainage divide of the New River, one of the oldest rivers in the world.
This area was designated as a national natural landmark in 1974. Because different kinds of trees are found at different altitudes and exposures, the botanical growth varies throughout the mountain. Oak and chestnut trees grow at altitudes above 4,000 feet, and Mount Jefferson has one of the best forests of this kind in the country. These trees grow on the southern, western, and eastern slopes of the mountain. Underneath stately oaks, mountain laurel, flame azalea, dogwood, and rhododendron flourish and add beauty to the virgin woodlands. Wildflowers, such as trillium, false lily of the valley, and pink lady slipper, thrive on the forest’s floor.
On the northern side of the mountain, other species of trees, such as basswood, yellow birch, red maple, tulip tree, provide canopies for prairie willow, mountain ash, mountain pepperbush, and huckleberry. Herbs and shrubs, such as mayapple, hobblebush, blue bead lily, cover the ground. Big-toothed aspen trees, usually found in the northern United States, grow on the slopes beneath Luther Rock. Because the harsh winter climate brings heavy ice and winds, trees on the northern slopes are small and gnarled.
American chestnuts, once valued for their sweet nuts and long-lasting timber, were plentiful in Ashe County until the early 1900s. Unfortunately, they were destroyed by the chestnut blight brought from Europe in 1910. Mount Jefferson is still home to the skeletons left behind. Although new trees grow from their roots, they die when they mature and fall victim to the blight.
Wildlife is plentiful on Mount Jefferson, and birdlife includes species not found at lower altitudes. Red-tailed hawks, warblers, rose-breasted grosbeaks, white-breasted nuthatches, grouse, and slate-colored juncos nest in the trees. Mammals, such as chipmunks, foxes, raccoon, and squirrels are, also, found in the dense woodlands. Smaller animals, including mice, shrew, and moles, frequent the middle altitudes while woodchucks and a few deer live on the forest’s fringes. Rotting logs and other secluded spots provide home to skinks, small snakes, and other reptiles.
Although the Works Progress Administration built a road in 1939 that provided access to the mountain, Mount Jefferson State Park did not become a state park until 1956 when local citizens donated enough money and land to reach the state’s requirements for a minimum of 400 acres. Today there is still only one main road leading to the top of the mountain. On clear days, however, visitors can see for miles from its summit and two overlooks.
Mount Jefferson State Park has two hiking trails known for their panoramic views and their botanical diversity: The Summit Trail and The Rhododendron Trail.
• The Summit Trail is a gentle jaunt that leads from the parking lot to the picnic area and then approximately .3 mile to Mount Jefferson’s peak for a view of the cities of Jefferson and West Jefferson and the countryside below.
• The Rhododendron Trail is a strenuous hike that covers 1.1 miles and requires a little over an hour. The self-guided hike along the southeastern ridge of the mountain leads from the peak to the black volcanic outcrop known as Luther Rock. This rock gives Mount Jefferson its dark appearance and is visible during winter months along the cliffs below the trail. The Rhododendron Trail is prized for its beauty in early June when the purple Catawba rhododendron blooms. The second leg of the hike descends to the southern portion of the mountain where warmer weather allows for the growth of larger trees and then stretches through one of the few untouched forests of huge northern red oaks and all that remains of the American chestnut.
Park rangers regularly schedule special events to educate visitors about the geographic and cultural history of Mount Jefferson State Park. Tours are, also, available for groups by request, and educational curriculum has been developed to incorporate into middle school lesson plans.
Mount Jefferson State Park is open all year except for Christmas Day. However, it may be closed during inclement weather. Covered picnic facilities may be reserved. Mount Jefferson State Park is located on US 221 Bypass between the towns of Jefferson and West Jefferson, in Ashe County. For general information, call or email the following:
(919) 733-4181 or