In the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, northeast of Linville, sits one of the state’s most popular tourist destinations. Grandfather Mountain, with its peak at 5,946 feet above sea level, is a true North Carolina gem. It contains some of the oldest geologic formations on earth and has nearly unmatched biodiversity.
Since 2009, one-third of Grandfather Mountain, the third that includes the most frequented attractions, has been operated by the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation. The nonprofit foundation uses all funds generated by admission fees and souvenir sales to pay their 95 employees as well as preserve the mountain itself.
Thousands of visitors flock to Grandfather Mountain each year, frequently in numbers well over 250,000. This year was to be one of the mountain’s busiest yet, with projected visitors over 300,000. Then the COVID-19 outbreak hit hard, upending all potential forecasts.
Frank Ruggiero, Director of Marketing and Communications for the Stewardship Foundation “knew [they] were going to have to brace for impact.” The sudden financial obstacles weren’t the only problems the foundation faced. “We knew this would have a direct impact…to the health and safety of our guests and staff,” he says.
Facing an immediately changed world, the foundation sprang into action, temporarily closing Grandfather Mountain to public in March. “We remained busy as ever behind the scenes, developing a plan for reopening,” says Ruggiero. “We spoke with colleagues at other area parks and destinations, met with our extraordinarily supportive board of directors, closely monitored the news, took into account advice of top experts in the health and scientific communities.”
Implementing Safety Changes
Before the pandemic, Grandfather Mountain offered what Ruggiero calls a “choose your own adventure” experience. Guests could drive up to overlooks, scale MacRae Peak, or walk across the Mile High Swinging Bridge without hindrance. As a result, one of the first changes implemented by the foundation was one-way pedestrian traffic.
“Guests will also notice social distancing markers throughout the park,” says Ruggiero, “so people won’t cross paths when visiting these locations.” Furthermore, the foundation added signage encouraging safe behavior.
Additionally, the foundation added several sanitization stations throughout the park and fitted all point-of-sale areas with protective barriers.
As for masking, “we’re fully complying with the state’s mask mandate,” says Ruggiero. He specifies that guests must wear when inside any of the mountain park’s indoor facilities. “They’re also required outdoors,” he adds, “but only when a safe social distance cannot be maintained between one guest or group and another.”
Perhaps the biggest change, however, comes in how the foundation takes admission to the mountain. Guests must now make reservations for their visit through the park’s website. By requiring a date and time-slot, the foundation can adhere to the state’s capacity regulations. Therefore, visitors will still get their Grandfather Mountain experience without worrying about too much person-to-person contact.
Furthermore, the reservations are fully refundable. So if bad weather or scheduling conflicts happen, travelers can easily arrange a future visit.
Since their reopening in May, Ruggiero says guests have been very receptive to the changes. “The reservation system,” he says, “helps reduce lines and traffic during our busier days like summer and fall.”
And with a reduced capacity, Ruggiero asserts that “folks are enjoying having more of the park to themselves.” Going forward, he says the foundation will keep some form of the reservation system in place.
Looking to the Future for Grandfather Mountain
The foundation has further plans for bringing the park into the future. Through the creation of the Conservation Campus, the foundation will double the size of the current Nature Museum. Ruggiero says the foundation will be “adding all new, state-of-the-art exhibits, classrooms, a revamped auditorium, an outdoor pavilion, botanical garden, [and] expanded kitchen facilities to help better cater special events.”
Because the pandemic is still ongoing, Ruggiero doesn’t offer a specific timeline for when safety precautions will end. It hasn’t, however, kept the foundation from providing a safe and fun alternative to endless days at home.
“After reopening,” he says, “we continued to find new ways to refine our operating procedures and enhance our safety protocols.” He advises other parks to do research, consult the science, and above all, have a flexible plan in place for a safe and successful reopening.
All-in-all, Ruggiero attributes the success of the safety measures to the deep love North Carolinians have for Grandfather Mountain. “By and large, I think people are eager and excited to be back, getting close to nature and away from everything else,” he says.
A North Carolina Tradition
Grandfather Mountain’s everlasting appeal comes from its near-peerless environment. “It affords guests a one-of-a-kind experience with the natural world,” says Ruggiero.
A home to 16 distinct ecological communities, the mountain has incredible biodiversity at which visitors can marvel and engage. It’s a beacon of conservation, as the mountain provides a home for 73 rare species including 32 endangered species. Furthermore, the foundation is a champion of sustainability, housing many environmentally conscious projects and practices.
“We like to say that on Grandfather Mountain, wonders never cease,” says Ruggiero. “And I think that’s why we see people come back year after year, month after month, purchasing annual passes, participating in our special programming. It’s always a new experience. Things are a little different at a mile high.”
Ruggiero grew up in Greensboro and spent many years visiting and exploring the mountain with his parents. It’s a tradition he keeps alive to this day. “Years later,” he says, “I was married there, and now my wife and I take our son up there.”
True to its name, Ruggiero believes the lasting appeal of Grandfather Mountain is simple — family.