11 Jul 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.
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.
Roan attracts hikers of all ages
We were thrilled to see hikers of all ages, including a family with three kids under the age of 5 who hiked merrily up the final climb to Grassy Ridge while we huffed and puffed and waved them by.
You’ll need a hat and sunscreen for this hike. Some 80 percent of the hike is across balds with full sun exposure. Footing is good and the trails are well maintained, but the 500-foot final climb from Jane’s Bald to Grassy Ridge Bald is steep in sections, with shale-type rock and several wet spots so we advise hiking boots and poles, particularly for baby boomer and senior readers. We’re advocates of hiking poles any time, believing they help prevent injury and extend the life of our joints.
This trail gets many repeat hikers, another testament to its beauty. We met many veteran trekkers along the way and chatted with Roan repeat hikers via social media. All agree that Roan Mountain is a destination to hike spring, summer, fall and winter. We’re especially intrigued by the descriptions of winter rime ice covering the trees and shrubs, creating a spectacular icy landscape and destination for cross country skiing.
Cumberland Gap to Grassy Ridge Bald trail description
The well-traveled trail is easy to find and follow. Begin hiking across from the parking lot where a sign marks the North Carolina/Tennessee state border. You’ll immediately ascend a meadow packed with rhododendron before entering a dense forest of spruce and fir (trees typically found in New England and Canada). The towering trees block the sunlight while needles cushion your steps. It feels like you’ve entered a new, enchanting land.
After navigating a series of switchbacks and gently ascending 400 feet in elevation, hikers emerge at Round Bald less than one mile from the trail start. This provides the first opportunity for 360-degree views of North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia mountains. For those with limited time or mobility, this is the end of the hike. We found picnickers and photographers enjoying Round Bald with others using this as a place to hang out while awaiting companions who hiked ahead. Leaving Round Bald, the trail wind through grassy gaps and over humps.
At 1.5 miles you encounter Jane Bald, smallest of the three described in this hike. Jane Bald includes a rocky outcropping that’s a great place for a drink, snack or time to reflect on the majesty that surrounds you. Flame azalea are prominent here. The day we visited plants were covered in orange blooms.
Just beyond Jane’s Bald, at 1.9 miles, the Appalachian Trail turns left, continuing its journey to Maine. An unmarked trail continues ahead to Grassy Ridge Bald, largest of the three summits. Your legs and lungs get a workout climbing 500 feet to the final bald. The trail here is in good shape, though steep and wet in places with the gravel surface changing over to shale. We had this section in mind earlier when recommending hiking shoes and poles to help prevent slips and injury.
On the way up to Grassy Ridge you’ll travel through a rhododendron tunnel that completely covers the trail. Once on top, you’ll want to linger, have lunch or a snack and explore the area. Multiple trails lead across the balds and through rhododendron thickets. It was clear the day of our visit, allowing great views of Beech, Sugar and Grandfather Mountains.
Fabulous facts about Roan Mountain:
- Gray’s Lily, first discovered at Roan Mountain, is a rare species suffering from a fungal disease that can be transmitted by humans. If you spot one, please do not touch the plants, or pick the flower.
- Some claim the mountain’s name refers to the roan or reddish color of the rhododendron blooms or mountain ash berries. Others say the name comes from Daniel Boone’s roan horse, because he was a frequent visitor.
- Theories abound about how the grass balds were formed. The trail info sign states that the balds date back to the time of dinosaurs. Our imaginations are soaring! Here is what it says: “Imagine a herd of elephant-sized mastodons grazing these mountain tops. Farmers later grazed their livestock on the same slopes. More recently, grazing and mowing have been used to maintain the balds.”
- Roan Mountain is one of the largest Appalachian grass and shrub balds on earth, dating back 2.6 million to 10,500 years.
- Roan High Knob Shelter is the highest back-country shelter on the entire 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail.
- About 20,000 years ago during the ice age, spruce and fir trees dominated the Southern Appalachian forest. As the climate warmed, the spruce-fir forests retreated north to New England and Canada. Today a few survive on the highest Appalachian Mountains, like Roan.