Thinking about hiking the highest peaks in the Southeast? Here is the list of the highest mountains in the Southern Appalachians.
I have lived in the Carolinas for over 20 years, and have been backpacking the mountains of the south for just as long. After a recent trip my fellow adventurers were reminiscing about the most exciting and challenging trips we had embarked on.
When we discovered the South Beyond 6000 Ascent Record we had to see how many we had conquered. Listed below are the top 12 of those 40 mountain peaks (organized by elevation).
The backbone of eastern North America, the Appalachian Mountains, stretch some 1,500 miles from Alabama northeastward to Newfoundland – a pretty head-spinning span, to say the least.
While the Northern Appalachians have some magnificent and topographically imposing peaks – Maine’s Katahdin and New Hampshire’s White Mountains come foremost to mind – the chain reaches its elevational climax farther south.
The Southern Appalachians, often taken to encompass the chain south of the Potomac River, (and more specifically that high-country portion of the Blue Ridge Mountains along the North Carolina-Tennessee border) contain more than 50 peaks exceeding 6,000 feet. Depending on your definition of an individual peak, actually, the count – as Jesse Boyd at Blue Ridge Outdoors notes – could be reckoned beyond 100.
These awesome mountains rise into the shadowy, sweet-scented zone of Fraser fir and red spruce, which form the highest-elevation forest zone in the Southern Appalachians, and in some cases also include open balds and rocky outcrops, both of which deliver the knockout views that heavy conifer cover otherwise tends to prohibit.
When we decided to write this up, I was excited to finally post some of my old backpacking pictures! Many of the pics are from 2006 an older….well before Instagram and even before I really posted on my Facebook page.
The Southern Appalachians contain more than 50 peaks exceeding 6,000 feet. Depending on your definition of an individual peak the count could be reckoned beyond 100
These are the legendary “Southern Sixers,” which in fact account for all but one of the Appalachian’s 6,000-plus-foot summits, the exception being 6,288-foot Mount Washington in the Presidential Range of the White Mountains, which are the pinnacle of the Northeast.
As this RootsRated article notes, the Appalachians don’t hit 6,000 feet north of the northernmost Southern Sixer, the 6,285-foot Roan Mountain massif, for some 1,500 miles before Mount Washington makes its solitary nudge above that lofty contour.
On the Black Mountain Ridge Trail
In this article, we’ll explore the 12 highest peaks in the Southern Appalachians, which also happen to be the 12 highest of the eastern U.S. (Indeed, more than 20 Southern Appalachians peaks are higher than Mount Washington.) This isn’t mere geographic trivia; every peak on this list is, beyond its elevational superlatives, a special place, and well worth tracking down on an outdoor adventure. As you’ll see, some are much more difficult to access than others.
Before getting to the actual list of peaks, though, let’s set things in context by surveying the six Blue Ridge Province sub-ranges where all of the Southern Sixers reside.
The Highest Ranges of the Southern Appalachians
All of the 50-plus Southern Sixers are found within the following Southern Appalachian ranges (presented in order of their highest respective peaks):
The Black Mountains (North Carolina)
The Black Mountains, which include the two highest peaks in the East and a number of other Southern Sixers, are a fairly small but towering range northeast of Asheville, North Carolina. They get their name from the dark look of their crowning spruce-fir forest.
The Blacks make a sort of J-shape, with the main north-south crest stretching from 6,327-foot Celo Knob south to 6,400-foot Potato Knob, from which the divide swings west and northwest through 6,320-foot Blackstock Knob and 5,400-foot Balsam Gap.
The Great Smoky Mountains (Tennessee-North Carolina)
Best-known of the Southern Appalachian ranges, the Great Smokies also account for the greatest mass of high country, forming a hefty block of tall, rugged peaks and connecting ridges. Their name stems from the natural haze created by terpene aerosols given off by the range’s heavy forest; the indigenous Cherokee label for the Great Smokies is Shaconage, the “Place of the Blue Smoke.” (The same misty look explains the broader name for the Blue Ridge Mountains themselves.)
Most of the range falls within the boundaries of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which besides being the most-visited national park in the U.S., includes some of the East’s most extensive backcountry and acreage of old-growth forest.
The Great Balsam Mountains (North Carolina)
The Blue Ridge Parkway reaches its highest elevation crossing over the Great Balsams, which lie southwest of Asheville. (In the Southern Appalachians, “balsam” is a colloquial name used for both Fraser fir and red spruce: The fir is “she-balsam,” the spruce “he-balsam.”
You’ll see “balsam” show up in a lot of placenames in the Blue Ridge Province – including the next range on this list.) Though far from the highest of the Great Balsam peaks, 6,030-foot Cold Mountain in the Shining Rock Wilderness is the only one well-known outside the region, as a result of the Civil War novel by Charles Frazier (and the movie adaptation) named for it.
The Plott Balsam Mountains (North Carolina)
Set between the Great Smokies to the northwest and the Great Balsams to the southeast, the Plott Balsams – also traversed by the Blue Ridge Parkway – include five Southern Sixers, the highest being 6,292-foot Waterrock Knob.
The Roan Highlands (Tennessee-North Carolina)
The Roan Highlands of the Unaka Mountains harbor the farthest north Southern Sixers: 6,285-foot Roan High Knob, 6,267-foot Roan High Bluff, and 6,184-foot Grassy Ridge Bald, all of them subpeaks of Roan Mountain, the massif that accounts for most of the Highlands. The Roans are famous for their rhododendron “heaths” and grass balds.
The Great Craggy Mountains (North Carolina)
The Great Craggies extend southwestward from Balsam Gap in the Black Mountains as a rough, high ridge ending as the Four Brothers Knobs overlooking the Swannanoa River.
Some people consider the Craggies basically a southwesterly spur of the Blacks. Among the range’s major peaks, including Bearpen Knob, Craggy Pinnacle, and Snowball Mountain, only one is a Sixer: 6,105-foot Craggy Dome.
The 12 Highest Peaks in the Southern Appalachians and the Eastern U.S.
Now that we’ve sketched out the broader geography of the highest ranges in the Southern Appalachians, let’s drill down on those 10 highest peaks! Some caveats are in order, though, given the multiple ways one could compile this list.
There are numerous instances where mountaintops of significant elevation rise within just a short distance of a higher peak, and off what could be considered its flanks.
For example, two prominences off the spur ridges of Clingmans Dome in the Great Smokies – 6,580-foot Mount Buckley and 6,420-foot Mount Love – rank comfortably among the highest Southern Sixers, but are essentially subpeaks of the Dome.
It’s this subpeak issue the Carolina Mountain Club attempts to deal with in its more refined list of 40 peaks out of the 50-plus Southern Sixers by adding (besides the strict 6,000-foot minimum elevational cutoff) the following requirement:
“There is a drop of 200 or more feet to a saddle between one peak and another qualifying peak or, there is a distance between the peaks of .75 miles.”
Our list mostly follows the Carolina Mountain Club’s list (viewable at Summitpost) with one exception in the Black Mountains, which we’ll explain when we get there. So, here goes!
(1) Mount Mitchell (Black Mountains): 6,684 feet
Mount Mitchell is not only the high point of the Appalachians and the highest U.S. mountain east of the Mississippi River, it’s also the highest summit of mainland eastern North America.
The only loftier peaks in eastern North America are those of the Arctic Cordillera on islands of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. The Arctic Cordillera’s mainland North America portion, the Torngat Mountains, are lower than the Southern Appalachians.
Mount Mitchell is also one of the most topographically isolated mountains on the continent, a measure of the great distance from it to the nearest comparable elevations (in the American West). In fact, it’s among the top 35 most topographically isolated in the world.
Centerpiece of Mount Mitchell State Park, the oldest in North Carolina, the peak – once called Black Dome – gets its name from University of North Carolina professor Elisha Mitchell, who established in the mid-19th century that the Black Mountains were taller than what at the time was considered the East’s king peak: New Hampshire’s aforementioned Mount Washington.
In 1857, Mitchell fell to his death in the range and was buried at the Mount Mitchell summit.
Mount Mitchell’s top is accessible by car, with a paved Summit Trail offering far-reaching vistas. Once you reach the top you will see a raised circular structure offering incredible views of the surrounding ranges.
In this picture you will see me in front of a tower, that tower was torn down 3 years after we went there and replaced it with the new lookout.
(2) Mount Craig (Black Mountains): 6,647 feet
Just north-northeast along the Black Mountain crest from Mount Mitchell rises the East’s second-highest peak. Mount Craig – named for North Carolina Governor Locke Craig, who helped establish Mount Mitchell State Park in 1915 – is reachable from the Mount Mitchell summit via a short hike on the Deep Gap Trail (aka the Black Mountain Crest Trail).
Immediately northeast of Mount Craig is 6,560-foot Big Tom, a subpeak sometimes treated as its own Southern Sixer cracking the Top 10 list. (Side note: As North Carolina State Parks explains, Big Tom gets its name from Thomas Wilson, the bear hunter who found Elisha Mitchell’s body.)
(3) Clingmans Dome (Great Smoky Mountains): 6,643 feet
Crown of the Great Smokies, Clingmans Dome is the highest mountain in Tennessee and also the loftiest point along the entire Appalachian Trail. The Cherokee, who traditionally know the mountain as Kuwahi (“Mulberry Place”), consider it mythologically an important council site for black bears.
Initially called Smoky Dome by Euro-American settlers, the peak was formally named after Thomas L. Clingman, a U.S. senator who contended against Elisha Mitchell that Smoky Dome was higher than Mount Mitchell (Black Dome) – an issue settled in the latter peak’s favor by the Swiss-born geographer Arnold Guyot.
An observation tower atop Clingmans Dome provides one of the defining views of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s reachable by a steep half-mile hike on a paved path from the parking area.
(4) Mount Guyot (Great Smoky Mountains): 6,621 feet
Named for the geographer we just mentioned who conducted many important topographic measurements in the region, Mount Guyot is a much more far flung giant than Clingmans Dome, being located in the backcountry of eastern Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The Appalachian Trail runs along its shoulders about 16 miles east of Newfound Gap. The heavily forested summit itself is trail-less, accessible only to cross-country hikers.
(5) Balsam Cone (Black Mountains): 6,611 feet
Here’s another of the “skyscraping” (relatively speaking) peaks of the main Black Mountain divide reached by the exceptional Black Mountain Crest Trail.
Balsam Cone, which falls within Mount Mitchell State Park, lies between Mount Craig to the south and Cattail Peak to the north in what’s essentially the heart of the range. It’s buttressed on the west by Timber Ridge.
Despite its middle placement on this list, Mount LeConte is unquestionably one of the most impressive mountains in the Southern Appalachians.
This great American Geophysical Union article by Philip S. Prince, focused on the eastern U.S.’s most topographically prominent peaks, notes that LeConte looms some 5,300 feet above the Pigeon River lowlands of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, only about six miles away. In the Appalachians, only Mount Washington really rivals Mount LeConte in this prominence department.
Multiple trails, including some of the most popular in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, access Mount LeConte. It’s a massif, with an ultimate summit at High Top and subpeaks at West Point, Cliff Top, and Myrtle Point that are sought out for their vantages.
The long ridge, called the Boulevard, connects Mount LeConte to the main Smoky Mountain divide to the southeast at Mount Kephart.
(7) Cattail Peak (Black Mountains): 6,583 feet
Cattail Peak doesn’t make every list of the 10 highest Southern Sixers, as some count it as a satellite peak of the Balsam Cone eminence. We’re including it because it’s somewhat removed from that higher neighbor to the south, and because it’s got significant topographic muscle.
In his AGU writeup, Prince suggests Cattail can be considered the most prominent peak in the Black Mountains given its 3,700-foot rise above Rock Creek along the range’s eastern base.
We’ll also note here that a peak immediately northeast of Cattail, 6,475-foot Potato Hill, could easily be counted on this list (and, indeed, is No. 8 on the Carolina Mountain Club Southern Sixers roundup, which doesn’t include Cattail Peak). We’re omitting it only because of its very close proximity to Cattail, despite the fact that a decent saddle exists between the two.
(8) Mount Gibbes (Black Mountains): 6,571 feet
Compared with the above peaks in the Black Mountains, lined up in close proximity and “bagged” one after the other along the Black Mountain Crest Trail, remote Mount Gibbes is less visited, more off-the-radar.
Its thickly timbered summit – still in Mount Mitchell State Park – lies at the southern end of the north-south crest of the Blacks, basically at the crook of the range’s “J.”
(9) Mount Chapman (Great Smoky Mountains): 6,417 feet
This is another big peak of Great Smoky Mountain National Park’s remote eastern sector. Mount Chapman – named for Knoxville businessman David Chapman, an important advocate for creating a national park in the Great Smokies – sits to the south-southwest of Mount Guyot, and similarly, there’s no trail to the summit, though the AT skirts its flanks.
(10) Richland Balsam (Great Balsam Mountains): 6,410 feet
The only Southern Sixer outside of the Black and Great Smoky mountains on our list, Richland Balsam caps the Great Balsams and marks the highest elevation on the Pisgah National Forest.
A trail less than a mile long reaches the summit from the Blue Ridge Parkway: a good excuse for stretching your legs on a scenic drive, and gaining a bit more immersive feel for the wonderful Great Balsams.
(11) Old Black (Great Smoky Mountains) 6,370 feet
This Mountain shares its neighborhood with Mount Guyot; its trail system connects the Eastern smokies to the Cosby trail system.
Old Black was given its name because of the Southern Appalachian spruce-fir forest that blankets the mountain, especially at the summit. From a distance the mountain has a very dark green/grey appearance, particularly in the colder months.
(12) Celo Knob (Black Mountains) 6,327 feet
This peak is the northmost mountain of the Black Mountains. Located in the Pisgah National Forest. This mountain will be the first you encounter when hiking from Bowlens Creek.
As a hiker you must use some outdoor intuition if you want to reach the top. The trail does not take you to the summit (it skirts around it) but careful observation will reveal some animal paths that can take you to the top.
The Southern Appalachians: Rooftop of the East
We’ll close by noting that there are so many other Southern Sixers besides these surmounting titans to seek out: from the wide-open sightlines of Grassy Ridge Bald in the Roans to the thrilling wilderness ambience of Tricorner Knob in the eastern Smokies. After all, height alone isn’t everything!
Blair Witkowski is an avid watch nut, loves pocket knives and flashlights and when he is not trying to be a good dad to his nine kids, you will find him running or posting pics on Instagram. Besides writing articles for Tech Writer EDC he is also the founder of Lowcountry Style & Living. In addition to writing, he is focused on improving his clients websites for his other passion, Search Engine Optimization. His wife Jennifer and he live in coastal South Carolina.