Appalachian Trail Hiking - The Roan Highlands

Roan Mountain is a large mountain with multiple peaks (a massif) along the crest of the Appalachian Mountains located on the border between North Carolina and Tennessee. The famed Appalachian Trail traverses Roan Mountain, tracking from one crest to the next. Most of these crests are treeless "balds," as they are called in the Southeast, providing opportunities for beautiful, sweeping views of the mountains. I've wanted to hike Roan Mountain for at least 20 years if not more so finally I made the effort to plan a trip. Since the balds are completely exposed to weather literally being open space on top of mountains that rise thousands of feet above the surrounding terrain, it was necessary to find a day when the weather forecast showed no chance at all of thunderstorms. Happily this coincided with my 10 day vacation before and leading up to the Labor Day holiday in the United States.

The easiest access to the Roan Highlands is at the very high, seasonally open Carvers Gap on the Tennesee-North Carolina state line. From here Tennessee is to the left and North Carolina to the right. As you can see, the elevation is higher than Denver, Colorado at more than a mile above sea level. Note the sub-alpine meadow in the background.
Since it was about a 4 hour drive from my home in Ringgold, Georgia, I made reservations (at the last minute) and camped at Roan Mountain State Park at the foot of the mountain on the Tennessee side. It's a nice park with a well organized campground and has it's own unique features worthy of a day or two, but my sights were set on the Appalachian Trail farther up the mountain. I camped on a Saturday night and then Sunday morning headed up the mountain, arriving around 9:30 am. I had hoped it would have warmed up by then but it was cold and blustery, despite being August 26th. I put on a synthetic fleece pullover and hit the trail as soon as I could get organized, heading to the North from Carvers Gap to hike several miles of mountain meadow from there.

The Appalachian Trail winds up the nearest bald through a few switchbacks and finally emerges from some firs and low undergrowth to views like this. It's an amazing place. This view is looking into a sea of mountains in North Carolina.

The balds are covered with a combination of hardy grasses and heath that consists of prickly bushes with waxy leaves that resist the harsh conditions. I arrived early to make sure I had ample time to explore the area but a side effect of that was that the weather had clouded up during the cool night at high elevation and the wind had picked up to what must have been sustained 20 to 25 mph with higher gusts. It was unbelievably windy, cool, and blustery! I could see my breath condensing in the air. I forgot to take a photo of the thermometer at the trail head but I'm sure it was in the upper 50s or low 60s Fahrenheit with a driving wind, and this in the normally steamy southern August.

Looking back at Carver's Gap. My blue truck is on the left in the row of cars below. You can clearly see the topography of the pass here, with land dropping away to Tennessee on the right, and North Carolina on the left. The huge mountain in the background is Roan High Knob, the high point of the massif that makes up Roan Mountain. This view is from the slopes of Round Bald. Note the barbed wire fence, intended I suspect to prevent people from damaging the meadow.

By the time I reached the crest of the first bald (Round Bald 5,826 ft above sea level) I developed a giddy feeling. Big country does that to me and it's a feeling I seek out consciously and aggressively. I had to stifle agoraphobic impulses and just take in the scenery, the clouds, and the elements. Exposed on a treeless mountain top like that it's easy to feel like you are going to fall into the sky. A young couple with a small child asked me to take a family photo and in return the mother took a picture of me. I hope they keep and cherish the photo forever and for my part, I hope to look back on this photo for years to come to bring back the feeling I had on top of that mountain.

The author on top of Round Bald along the Appalachian Trail, 5,826 feet above sea level.

The trail continues northward from there, amazingly over still more open ground and a huge vista opens up with sub-alpine meadow running off into the distance over the spine of the Appalachians. It's jaw dropping and stopped me in my tracks several times. It was hard to avoid thinking of The Sound of Music. I'm annoyed at the thought but it's what popped into my head immediately.

The view from the northern side of Round Bald, looking towards Jane Bald and Grassy Ridge, obscured by the low cloud layer and glare. I was caught up at this point in a reverie, not having seen the like since my last trip to Colorado in 2011. In the foreground you can see some evidence of work being done to maintain the balds. Apparently they have used goats to keep back the heath a bit on some of these lower balds. I'm not sure what to make of that but the views are hard to argue with.
The AT continues on until the trail crosses a small saddle and ascends the next bald, occasionally passing through small stands of wind-twisted firs and over heavily weathered rock outcroppings.

The view back towards Carver's Gap from Jane Bald. The Appalachian Trail can be seen below.

After the Appalachian Trail drops off Jane Bald, it begins ascending to the peak of Grassy Ridge, first arriving on another small bald on the shoulder of the mountain. I haven't been able to find a name for it. Here the AT heads off to the left and begins dropping down to lower elevation. A sign indicates a choice to either continue following the balds up to the high ground or to stay on the AT. Not being a through-hiker, naturally I chose to ascend for the best view available. Since I had arrived, the top of the mountain had been obscured by cloud but I doggedly began marching uphill, hoping things would clear off. The higher I got, the colder, windier, and cloudier it got.

Finally I got to the top to enjoy cloud and fog racing over the ground, whipping past like smoke from a fire. It was a surreal scene. I found the absolute apex of the mountain where a plaque was set in the rock commemorating someone who had been buried somewhere on the slopes of the mountain. I settled into the lee of the boulder to stay warm and eat lunch and waited for almost an hour but the weather just would not clear off. It was a strange place to be, hunkering in the lee of a rock on a grassy mountain top, surrounded by cloud fogged oblivion, aware of the huge open space around the peak but not being able to see anything. I got a few photos of meadow with nothing in the background before giving up and deciding to go back down and hike the Appalachian Trail to lower elevation and hoped that the skies would clear before I had to turn back to my car.

A view into oblivion from the top of Grassy Ridge. Believe it or not, this is actually looking downhill into clouds. Taken during a brief moment of clearing. Most of the time there was a heavy fog that obscured even the trees in the foreground.

Hiking downhill on the AT I dropped out of the weather and enjoyed some nice views of the Appalachians. The trail continued to drop and I hiked further passing some hikers and backpackers until the trail dropped down into warmer elevations and I started to overheat. The forest changed from meadow, to dense fir forest, to stunted hardwood deciduous forest, and finally to lovely verdant hardwood forest. I decided that meant I had descended too much and turned around and started back up the mountain to have another crack at the high country. On the way back I noticed through the trees that the clouds had lifted. I could see the peak of the mountain! I hurried, hoping that it would remain clear. It took me a good hour to get back up there but when I finally arrived I was ecstatic, the cloud deck was well above the top of the mountain and there were mind-boggling views in every direction.

After the clouds cleared: the view from near the crest of Grassy Ridge back towards my start.
Yeah. More balds in the distance.

The Sound of Music.
That craggy looking thing in the distance is Grandfather Mountain, one of the few mountains in the Appalachians that looks like it belongs in some other mountain range, like the Rockies maybe.

Afternoon snack. Do the Dew!
After staying as long as I could possible justify, I finally realized I needed to head back down the mountain to my truck, if for no other reason than I was down to my last 8 or 10 ounces of water and I had at least a couple of miles and many hundreds of vertical feet to get back, all above 5,500 feet altitude. Definitely one of the best hikes I've ever done. It's fresh in my mind right now but I think I would rate it as second place just behind my hike in Rocky Mountain National Park from Bear Lake to Dream Lake but just ahead of the Charlies Bunion Hike in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Amazing place. If you live in North American and you like to hike at all then I would recommend doing it before you die.

And now for a photo dump.

A look back at Grassy Ridge, this time in clear weather.

A photo over the heather.

Yeah again. The entire hike looks like this.

The Appalachian Trail is so heavily traveled on Round Bald (because it is near the highway) that it has been fortified with gravel and other trail building accessories. Oh, you weren't looking at the gravel were you? That's the crest of Grassy Ridge in the upper right, so I hiked all the way up there as well as the detour around the far side of the mountain at lower elevations (around the left side of the mountain from this point of view).


  1. Nice. I have been up there three times. Roan is one of those places I could visit hundreds of times. Hoping to visit this winter and do some skiing or snowshoeing!


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