The county is home to the "Mineral City of the World", Spruce Pine and Roan Mountain which includes the world's largest natural rhododendron garden, and the longest stretch of grassy bald in the Appalachian range. Throughout the year such festivals as North Carolina Mineral and Gem Festival and North Carolina Rhododendron Festival bring many people to the area. Mitchell County was one of the three dry counties in North Carolina, along with Graham and Yancey, but in March, 2009, after much controversy, the Town of Spruce Pine approved beer, wine, and ABC store sales.
The county was formed in 1861 from parts of Burke County, Caldwell County, McDowell County, Watauga County, and Yancey County. It was named for Elisha Mitchell, professor of mathematics, chemistry, geology, and mineralogy at the University of North Carolina from 1818 until his death in 1857. Dr. Mitchell was the first scientist to argue that a nearby peak in the Black Mountains was the highest point east of the Mississippi River. He measured the mountain's height and climbed and explored it. In 1857 he fell to his death on a waterfall on the side of the mountain. The mountain was subsequently named Mount Mitchell in his honor.
The county took a direct hit from "The Storm of the Century", also known as the "’93 Superstorm", or "The (Great) Blizzard of 1993". This storm event was similar in nature to a hurricane. The storm occurred between March 12–13, 1993, on the East Coast of North America. Parts of Cuba, Gulf Coast States, Eastern United States and Eastern Canada were greatly impacted.
The county suffered a tragic event on the evening of Friday, May 3, 2002 when a fire broke out at the Mitchell County jail in Bakersville, North Carolina. As a result of the fire 8 men lost their lives.