By Mike Williams
The tallest mountain in the East has gone Digital.
More than a century after a scientist used one of his era’s most advanced instruments to determine Mt. Mitchell’s elevation, a group of hikers outfitted with the latest in video and GPS technology has captured stunning, 360-degree views from the mountain’s summit and the 11-mile Black Mountain Crest Trail.
Thanks to Google Maps, The Conservation Fund and volunteers from Yancey County’s N.C. High Peaks Trail Association, hikers can now climb the 6,684-foot peak without leaving the comfort of their favorite chair. With nothing more than the touch of a mouse, they can drink in spectacular scenery from every step along the highest-elevation hiking path in the Eastern U.S.
“The Black Mountain Crest Trail takes hikers across a dozen peaks topping 6,000-feet, immersing them in a climate and forest similar to what they would find more than 1,000 miles to the north in Canada,” said High Peaks Board Member Jake Blood. “Now anybody can get a feel for the experience of hiking this unique natural treasure with just a few keystrokes on their laptop or smart phone.”
Mt. Mitchell was put on the map as the tallest peak in the Eastern U.S. by Chapel Hill professor Elisha Mitchell, who undertook several expeditions up the mountain that now bears his name beginning in the 1830s. To make his measurements, Mitchell hauled a barometer up the rugged peak, only to die in a tragic slip above a waterfall as he descended the mountain’s steep western slopes in 1857.
A team of Yancey hikers took considerably lower risks last fall when they joined with Conservation Fund volunteers and staffers to hike from Mitchell’s summit along the Crest Trail and down 3,500 feet to the Bolen’s Creek trailhead, just south of Burnsville.
Instead of a barometer, they hauled the Google Trekker, a 40-pound rig outfitted with 15 cameras, GPS, a large battery and a huge-capacity computer drive. Complete with an aluminum frame topped by a green metallic sphere housing the camera lenses, the Trekker looks something like a Star Wars backpack.
“It was really fun,” said Duke Rose, one of the High Peaks volunteers who participated. “We did get some surprised looks from hikers we encountered along the trail. One of our hikers joked that he was about to hit the blast-off button.”
The cameras each snap an image every 2.5 seconds, and Google technicians later “stitch” together the imagery, creating a document that computer-users can explore, panning left or right, tilting their view up or down, seeing in all directions from every step along the way.
Google developed the Trekker as an off-shoot of its popular “Street View” program, which uses vehicles outfitted with similar camera rigs to give 360-degree views of nearly every street in the country. The Trekker takes that technology off-road, and has been used to film a number of the nation’s most spectacular natural areas.
The Black Mountain footage can be viewed by clicking on a link on the High Peaks website, which is www.nchighpeaks.org.
The Conservation Fund, which has acquired more than 7 million acres in all 50 states since its founding in 1985, has worked with the State of North Carolina to assemble over 2,700 acres adjacent to Mt. Mitchell and down into the Cane River valley. This property protects nearly a mile of frontage along the Cane River and over 2.5 miles of frontage along its named tributaries, and will also provide a new, more accessible northern terminus for the Black Mountain Crest Trail.
Google makes the Trekker available to non-profits, and the Fund has teamed with the high-tech firm to film a number of its projects, including Chimney Rock and Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina.
“Through this partnership with Google, we are able to share the experience of visiting these significant places with everyone, wherever you live,” said Larry Selzer, the Fund’s president and CEO. “This is especially important as we help connect children and nature by providing a springboard for personal exploration of the great outdoors and America’s natural heritage.”
Google Maps Program Manager Deanna Yick said loaning the Trekker to the Conservation Fund to make imagery of the Black Mountain Crest Trail available to the world was “a true honor.”
"We hope it inspires people to learn more about the tallest peak in the Appalachian Mountains and visit it in person one day,” she said. “Until then, the stunning new 360-degree imagery can be explored – and even navigated to – directly from the Google Maps for Mobile app.”
High Peaks is a hiking club based in Burnsville that works with the U.S. Forest Service to maintain the area’s hiking trails and also serves as the official “Friends of Mt. Mitchell State Park” organization.
Club volunteers contribute hundreds of hours of hard work each year, including hauling chainsaws and weed eaters up 3,000 feet to trim the fallen trees and heavy vegetation that can block the Black Mountain Crest Trail if left untended.
Yancey volunteers who helped carry the Trekker over the Blacks included Tal Galton, Micah Galton, Shane Walsh, Matt Riley, Randy Raskin, Bob Williams, Dennis Smith, Duke Rose, Jake Blood and Mike Williams.
“We are so excited to have been part of making this happen,” Blood said. “The Google Trekker footage should help draw attention to Mt. Mitchell, North Carolina’s first state park, which will celebrate its 100th Anniversary with events at the park and in Burnsville this summer.”