The Appalachian Mountains of the United States are known for their remarkable beauty, lush vegetation and rich history. With all of this being said, they can also be quite unforgiving to the unprepared traveler – especially in the frigid winter months of the year.
Spanning from Northern Alabama to Southern Canada, it should go without saying that the weather throughout this chain of mountains can lend itself to great extremes.
This past autumn, we set out to locate the coldest single acre in all of Appalachia – not necessarily because we desired to go there, but more to provide our warm-weather desiring readers with knowledge of the 4,840-square yard area they should avoid at all costs on a chilly winter’s evening.
To aid us in our unusual search, we reached out to the incredible scientists who serve in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and much to our appreciation, they were quick to offer assistance, compiling a list of three candidates for us to consider.
Mount Mitchell, North Carolina
Average Lowest Annual Temperature: 17°F (January)
Record Lowest Temperature: – 34°F (January 21, 1985)
Average Annual Snowfall: 91 inches
Elevation: 6,684 ft.
Unsurprisingly, all three locations provided on the list by the meteorological scientists were atop mountain summits, with the first being Mount Mitchell, North Carolina.
Despite being located roughly on the same latitude as Oklahoma City and being well south of both Las Vegas and San Francisco, the high altitude of North Carolina’s Mount Mitchell (standing 6,684 ft. above sea level) places this highest point east of the Mississippi River directly into the cold weather column.
The summit area of Mount Mitchell experiences mild summers and long, moderately cold winters, being more similar to southeastern Canada than the southeastern United States.
The monthly daily average temperature atop this frigid North Carolina acre range from 25.2 °F in January to 59.1 °F in July; however, on January 21, 1985, the coldest temperature ever recorded in the entire state was registered on the top of this mountain when the thermometer fell to −34 °F.
Unlike the lower elevations in the surrounding regions, heavy snows often fall from December to March, with five and a half feet falling in a single setting during the January 2016 blizzard.
Despite the visitors to the mountain summit who have reported snow flurries in the summer months of June, July, and August, and given the extreme cold of the mountain, Mount Mitchell, North Carolina, does not enjoy a claim to the title, “Coldest Acre in all of Appalachia.”
Snowshoe, West Virginia
Average Lowest Annual Temperature: 13.5°F (January)
Record Lowest Temperature: – 36°F (January 21, 1985)
Average Annual Snowfall: 161 inches
Elevation: 4,848 ft.
Our next stop in finding the coldest acre in Appalachia is Snowshoe, West Virginia. Though not nearly as high as North Carolina’s Mount Mitchell, Snowshoe still rises 4,848 ft. above sea level and beats out Carolina’s coldest location thanks to the surrounding mountainside and a more northern setting.
From 1905 to 1960, the mountain area had been logged and was then abandoned being largely seen as useless land to the timbering companies.
However, a North Carolina dentist named Thomas “Doc” Brigham found the property and decided the mountain located not far from the Virginia border would be the ideal home for a West Virginia ski resort.
Following construction and heavy investment, Snowshoe Mountain opened to skiers on December 13, 1974.
Today, the resort has expanded its recreation opportunities from being strictly winter-focused to include warm-weather activities such as mountain biking, golfing, ATV trails and water fun.
Still, as the name suggests, Snowshoe will forever be known for being the winter wonderland it is today, bragging of a winter season that lasts more than 130 days and providing weather conditions that closely resemble the winters of Northern New England.
The massive horseshoe formed by the mountain rage creates its own micro-climate which often results in massive snowfalls for the resort, averaging more than 13 feet of natural snow each year.
Mount Washington, New Hampshire
Photo: Mount Washington Observatory, courtesy of Michael Davidson
Average Lowest Annual Temperature: – 4.1°F (January)
Record Lowest Temperature: – 50°F (January 22, 1885)
Average Annual Snowfall: 281 inches
Elevation: 6,267 ft.
Combine a mountain elevation that is just a few hundred feet lower than North Carolina’s Mount Mitchell, coupled with a latitude that is farther north than Toronto, Canada, as well as parts of Nova Scotia, and you have finally arrived at the coldest acre in all of Appalachia: the summit of Mount Washington in the state of New Hampshire.
After taking us on a chilly tour through the Appalachian mountain chain, beginning in North Carolina and into West Virginia, our guides at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration concluded their highlight reel with a truly unforgettable place:
“The coldest spot with the most extreme weather would be Mount Washington in New Hampshire. It also has the wildest weather since it is located along several storm tracks associated with the northern and southern jet streams,” they stated.
It’s not just the cold that makes this uninhabited acre of solitude so dangerous, however, as Mount Washington held the record for nearly sixty-two years as having the fastest wind gust (non-tornadic/non-tropical cyclone) ever recorded on the surface of the Earth: 231 miles per hour, recorded April 12, 1934 by Mount Washington Observatory staff – just to put this into perspective, the National Weather Service classifies winds in excess of 75 mph as hurricane force, stating that they have potential to create “Severe and extensive damage. Roofs can be peeled off. Windows broken. Trees uprooted. RVs and small mobile homes overturned. Moving automobiles can be pushed off the roadways.”
So extreme is Mount Washington’s weather, various indigenous peoples called the mountain “The Place of the Great Spirit”, believing it to be the home of gods.
The Abenaki people, who inhabited the region at the time of European contact believed that the tops of mountains were the dwelling place of the gods, and so among other reasons did not climb them out of religious deference to their sanctity.
Darby Field, an Englishman tasked with negotiating with the native peoples, reportedly climbed the mountain in June 1642 to demonstrate to the Abenaki chief Passaconaway that the Europeans bargaining for tribal land were not subject to the gods believed to inhabit the summit, a primarily political move that facilitated colonists’ northern expansion.
In 1821, Ethan Allen Crawford built a house on the summit, however, the house was destroyed by a storm five years later.
It would not be until 1852 when The Summit House, a 64-foot-long stone hotel anchored by four heavy chains over its roof, that another building would be constructed atop the summit.
In 1853, the Tip-Top House was erected nearby to compete.
Rebuilt of wood with 91 rooms in 1872–1873, the Summit House burned in 1908, then was replaced in granite in 1915. The Tip-Top House alone survived the fire; today it is a state historic site, recently renovated for exhibits.
For forty years, an intermittent daily newspaper, called Among the Clouds, was published by Henry M. Burt at the summit each summer, until 1917.
This article is featured in the Winter 2019-2020 edition of the print version of Appalachian Magazine. Click here to learn more about receiving a year’s subscription of the print edition of Appalachian Magazine!
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