Roan Mountain: World’s largest display of rhododendron, grassy balds with 3-state views

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Best place to view June rhododendron bloom

For years we’ve aspired to visit Roan Mountain in late June, hoping to catch the world’s largest natural rhododendron garden at its peak. This year we finally made it. Arriving with lofty expectations, and just a little fear that we might be disappointed after all the wait, Roan Mountain exceeded our very high hopes. One moment you are walking through dense spruce forests that conjure up visions of Harry Potter, when suddenly the trail opens up to miles of grassy high mountain balds with views of the Blue Ridge Mountains for miles. Famous for its rhododendron, the area also boasts big swaths of orange flame azalea and numerous wildflowers, including the rare Gray’s Lillie first discovered at Roan Mountain. We’ve heard Roan compared to the treeless highlands of Scotland. For us, the treeless expanses conjure up visions of the movie Sound of Music (probably because we visited the site in Austria where the movie was filmed in October). Many say Roan Mountain is the most beautiful section of the entire 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail.[/vc_column_text][vc_empty_space][vc_single_image image="4155" img_size="large" add_caption="yes" alignment="center" qode_css_animation=""][vc_empty_space][vc_single_image image="4153" img_size="large" add_caption="yes" alignment="center" qode_css_animation=""][vc_empty_space][vc_column_text]

Roan Mountain is actually a series of five summits

Straddling the North Carolina/Tennessee border, Roan Mountain is actually a series of five summits extending several miles rather than a single peak. We started our hike at Carver’s Gap, the lowest elevation of the area, but still lofty by Appalachian Mountain standards at 5,512 feet. Grassy Ridge Bald at the end of our journey stands at 6,189 feet. Because of the high elevation, hikers should prepare for windy and cooler weather. Parking is limited and the hike is popular. The lot was full when we arrived at 10:30 a.m. Fortunately we found a gravel pull-out a few hundred yards away. There’s a pit toilet at the parking area. If that’s not your thing, the Roan Mountain State Park visitor’s center on Tennessee Highway 143 en route to Carvers Gap has toilets, though when we visited toilets were closed because of COVID-19 precautions. Traveling east from Carver's Gap we hiked to Round Bald, Jane’s Bald and Grassy Ridge Bald, following the Appalachian Trail most of the route. Carver’s Gap sits in the middle of five Roan Mountain peaks. Hiking west from the parking area leads you to Roan High Knob and Roan High Bluff. There is parking available near these peaks for shorter hike options ($3 fee with flush toilets), and the popular Rhododendron Gardens and Cloudland Trails. There was such a mob of people and limited parking during our June visit that we skipped this section, planning to visit next time we come. Ours was a day-trip (what I now call a day-cation), preferring our own beds during COVID-19. You could easily justify more time here. Camping sites and cabin rentals (which we hear are superb) are nearby in Roan Mountain State Park. We’re steady but slow hikers and a hike of this length typically takes 2.5 to 3 hours. Allow more time for this one. With so much to see and so many pictures we were on the trail 4 hours, including lunch and a lot of roaming atop Grassy Ridge Bald. The 6-mile hike is spectacular (guidebooks rate it at just over 5 miles, but we added one mile wandering Grassy Ridge Bald) and very popular. We hiked in June 2020, when COVID-19 cases are setting record high numbers, so a face mask is advisable. We were pleased to see hikers acting responsibly, pulling well off the trail to maintain social distance while other hikers passed.

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