Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation Celebrates Swinging Bridge 70th Anniversary


Joshua Walters

The Mile High Swinging Bridge basks in the sun on its 70th anniversary, 2022. Reconstructed with galvanized steel in 1999, this feat of engineering is often endearingly referred to as the ‘singing’ bridge due to the sound of the metal shifting in the wind.

Briley Turpin, A&C Editor

The unmistakable ridged peak of Grandfather Mountain towers above the High Country. Standing at 5,946 feet above sea level, the mountain is home to diverse wildlife and plant species and brings in thousands of visitors each year, according to the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation website

 Writer and member of the Grandfather Mountain State Park Advisory Committee Randy Johnson has dedicated many years to preserving, studying and writing about the mountain. He has a book titled “Grandfather Mountain: The History and Guide to an Appalachian Icon,” where he describes the entire history of the mountain by making both historical and personal connections. 

Johnson became involved with the mountain in graduate school. 

“I love mountains. I love cold, snowy weather. So when I was in graduate school, I started exploring the Appalachians,” Johnson said. 

Johnson started going camping on Grandfather for weeks at a time in the winter, until one day he returned to the mountain to find the backcountry closed. 

He reached out to Hugh Morton, the owner of the mountain at the time, and persuaded him not to close the mountain by suggesting the mountain open a safety registration program for hikers. This kept the mountain open until the state took ownership in 2009.

According to an article Johnson wrote, the mountain has been drawing people in for centuries. Before the creation of the Mile High Swinging Bridge, explorers, such as John Muir, flocked to the mountain. Johnson claims this is because of the mountain’s biodiversity. 

“Grandfather Mountain is the most ecologically significant mountain in all of Eastern America,” Johnson said. “Grandfather is the southernmost part of the North, and the northernmost part of the South.” 

According to Johnson, the mountain is home to a Canadian forest, a forest consisting of Eastern Hemlocks and other species, according to the Stewardship Foundation. Johnson believes the mountain is special for many reasons, but what makes it so unique to the area is the dramatic drop off into the Carolina Piedmont providing a “breathtaking view for everyone.”

“The cool thing about the Stewardship Foundation is that the road to the Swinging Bridge literally permits people who are not capable of hiking to the high peaks a chance to be amazed by the scenery,” Johnson said.

Paige Folk, right, an environmental educator at Grandfather Mountain, teaches a group about the natural communities surrounding the Mile High Swinging Bridge.
(Joshua Walters)

Grandfather Mountain has split ownership between the state of North Carolina and the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation Inc. One third of the mountain belongs to the foundation, according to their website. The foundation was formed in 2009 with the intention of maintaining the 750 acres of semi-developed land on the mountain, including the famous swinging footbridge, that offers 360-degree panoramic views. 

John Caveny, director of Education and Natural Resources of the foundation, said it is a non profit organization with a strong focus on education, conservation and research. 

“We try to reach a broad audience, but also kind of focus on what our normal everyday clientele is to make sure they’re getting the conservation message of what the Stewardship Foundation is doing to protect the mountain,” Caveny said. 

Like Johnson, Caveny believes the mountain is a very special place. What makes it special varies from person to person, Caveny said, but to him, it’s the generational traditions that tend to follow the mountain. 

“People remember coming to Grandfather Mountain when they were children and now they get to do it with their kids, and that makes it real special,” Caveny said. 

The Stewardship Foundation celebrated the 70th anniversary of the Mile High Swinging Bridge Sept. 2. There were several special events held throughout the day, including nature talks at the bridge itself, as well as activities geared toward children, such as building their very own suspension bridge out of various art supplies.

A child experiments with weather recording instruments at the Grandfather mountain top shop in a hands-on learning event. Weather data has been recorded at Grandfather Mountain since 1955 and the mountain frequently experiences weather extremes, including hurricane force winds as recently as 2019. (Joshua Walters)

There were also cupcakes and a special exhibit in the new Wilson Center for Nature Discovery, as well as golden 70th anniversary decorations to set the tone for the events of the day.

Elizabeth Trott, an employee at the Stewardship Foundation, said each event seemed to have quite a bit of turnout. “The things going on at the museum seem to be engaging,” she said. 

Erin Smith, another employee at the foundation, led a nature talk titled the Peaks and Profiles talk. This is an event they have at the mountain seasonally, but Smith mentioned this talk was particularly special.
“We’re kicking off the bridge celebration with a raptor migration of Red Tail Hawks,” she said. 

Both Smith and Trott agreed the mountain is a special place worth being celebrated. 

“When I come to work at the park, I feel most at home with how amazing and beautiful and biodiverse this place is,” Smith said.