With challenging terrains and epic views, McDowell County is quickly becoming known as a home to some of the best running and cycling events on the East Coast. As home to Mount Mitchell, the highest mountain east of the Mississippi, the sky-high elevation offers plenty of opportunities to enjoy unique races that test the endurance, both physically and mentally in the North Carolina mountains.
You don’t have to be a world-class athlete to take part in some of the area’s races. Even couch potatoes and beginner runners can find at least one or two events to enjoy during the year.
Whether you are an experienced marathoner or just entering the world of competitive racing, these sporting events showcase the region’s stunning scenery while encouraging conservation and continued preservation of trails and byways.
Mount Mitchell Heartbreaker 50M/55K The highest 50 miler east of the Mississippi, this race takes runners over three 6,000 feet+ peaks, including Mount Mitchell. Not for the faint of heart, this grueling challenge includes 12,000 feet of elevation gain and loss but the views are worth it!
Starting in Old Fort at Camp Grier, the 50 miler has three major climbs and descents, including Snooks Nose, Green Knob, Mount Mitchell, the famed Black Mountain Crest Trail and Heartbreak Ridge. The 55K has two major ascents and descents but does not include Mount Mitchell.
This challenging race explores “the other Pisgah,” an area in the shadow of Mount Mitchell with trails rewarding runners with stunning mountain peak views and immersion through the boreal forest.
Both races will be held on March 23, 2024.
Ridge to Rails Half & 10K A beginner-friendly running event in McDowell County is the Ridge to Rails Half & 10K. The shorter courses are perfect for those interested in running or just getting started in competitive racing.
Held in June to coincide with the Old Fort Trails and Trains Festival, the courses are a great way to enjoy the recreational areas and learn more about the local train history.
The half marathon is a net downhill point-to-point race from the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains to Old Fort. The course combines well-loved trails and more recent additions, including the infamous Kitsuma Trail, Copper Ridge Trail with its long range views and the brand new Old Fort Gateway Trails.
The 10K route is entirely on the new Old Fort Gateway Trail System, a scenic network of beginner-friendly trails.
Lane and Lakes Relay This relay race on March 2 is the perfect option when you want to enjoy a team event with friends or family while exploring the area.
Starting at Warren Wilson College in East Asheville, 60 teams will run legs through Swannanoa, Black Mountain, Lake Tomahawk, Old Fort, downtown Marion and the Lake James area.
Participants will enjoy celebrating at the finishing line at Fonta Flora Brewery at Whippoorwhill Farm in Nebo with a post race party with free beer.
Rock ‘n’ Roller Cycling Event With a course for almost everyone, the popular Rock ‘n’ Roller Cycling Event is returning to Old Fort on April 27 for the third year. This fundraiser benefits the McDowell Trails Association to continue to develop, build and support more greenways, “blueways” (water ways) and trails in the region.
Four different courses are available, from beginner to advanced. The “Off the Couch” fun ride, led by an experienced cyclist, is a great beginner course of 10 miles with 570 feet of climbing.
A Soft Rock course is 20 to 25 miles, and the most challenging is the Hard Rock, a 65-mile course with 5,000 feet of climbing and an additional 10-mile option to Andrews Geyser, a man-made fountain geyser named after one of the men responsible for constructing the area’s railroad.
Hellbender One Hundred This ultra-race for distance running is a scenic hundred-miler that goes through the Black Mountains and reaches the summit of Mount Mitchell, boasting an impressive elevation change of around 48,000 feet along the mountain tops and forest valleys. There are five ascents and descents of 3,000 feet or more along the trails.
The competition is held May 10 and starts at Camp Grier in Old Fort.
When gearing up for an early morning start with the races, you definitely don’t want to stay too far away from the action. After exploring the scenery on the trails, we are sure you will want to stay and explore the area in a more leisurely fashion afterwards.
There are a variety of lodging accommodations in McDowell County, from rustic cabins and camping to B&B inns and luxury rentals. Check out our "Stay" section of the Blue Ridge Traveler website for a list of all accommodations in the county.
Many of the sporting events in McDowell County start at or go through Camp Grier, a 655-acre summer camp for kids, adults and families that is surrounded by National Forest.When not in use as a summer camp, Camp Grier is the perfect base camp for adventure seekers.
Accommodations include cabins, bunk lodges with shared rooms, as well as tent camping, small RV/van camping and primitive camping for equestrians traveling with their horse.
An equestrian center, with fall and winter horse rides, is open to guests when camp is not in session. The facility also has a farm, beehives and livestock that supply local foods, as well as a greenhouse that provides produce for area restaurants.
The Inn on Mill Creek Bed & Breakfast near historic Old Fort provides the perfect balance between a secluded getaway destination and close proximity to hiking and mountain biking trails, excellent birding locations, locally-owned shops and restaurants, art galleries, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and more. Located on seven private, wooded acres inside Pisgah National Forest, you have plenty of space to relax in one of six comfortable guest rooms and on the large property, which includes a two-and-a-half story Great Room, decks overlooking a pond, a walking labyrinth, and an organic orchard. Accepts pets.
The Mountain Appalachian Inn is a Victorian home, c. 1880, located in picturesque, downtown Old Fort, NC. Private rooms/bath within walking distance of Mountain Gateway Museum, Mill Creek, Hillman Beer, and the Arrowhead Gallery and Studios in Old Fort. Minutes away from most Camp Grier events and only half an hour from Black Mountain and Asheville.
-by Kimberly Button