Roan Highlands / Roan Mountain State Park
Grassy Ridge, along the eastern flank of Roan Mountain, is the longest stretch of grassy bald in the Appalachian Mountains. For hikers this is a relatively easy destination for those starting from Carvers Gap, located on State Route TN-143 and NC-261, which connects the towns of Roan Mountain, Tennessee and Bakersville, North Carolina.
Due to the massive size of Roan Mountain, let me explain a little bit about the geography of the area.
First off, the Roan Highlands, which is traversed by the Appalachian Trail, is separate from Roan Mountain State Park, which is located roughly 8 miles north of Carvers Gap.
Roan Mountain comprises the greater part of the Roan Highlands, a 20-mile massif stretching from Big Rock Creek in the west, to U.S. Route 19 in the east. Most of the massif lies along the Tennessee-North Carolina border.
Roan Mountain itself contains five sub-peaks, and is divided into two sections by Carvers Gap. To the west of Carvers Gap are Roan High Bluff and Roan High Knob, with Tollhouse Gap and Rhododendron Gardens lying between the two peaks.
To the east of Carvers Gap is the section of Roan Mountain known as Grassy Ridge, which includes three peaks: Round Bald, Jane Bald, and Grassy Ridge Bald. The bald area, spanning roughly 7 miles and covering an area roughly equal to 1000 acres, includes the summits of all three peaks.
The Rhododendron Gardens:
Before hiking out to Grassy Ridge Bald my wife and I drove up the paved road to see the Rhododendron Gardens, the largest natural rhododendron garden in the world. We were fortunate to visit in June, just as the blooms were peaking.
This same road ultimately leads to a short 1.2-mile trail that takes you to an observation platform just below the summit of Roan High Bluff.
Near the Rhododendron Gardens is the site of the former Cloudland Hotel. Built in 1885, the luxurious inn boasted a guest list that included American politicians and European royalty. The hotel, however, was abandoned by 1910 and quickly fell into disrepair.
The Hike to Grassy Ridge Bald:
After visiting the gardens we drove back down to Carvers Gap and, given the time of year and the beautiful weather that day, we were pretty fortunate to find a parking spot.
Our hike began with a series of wooden steps that led up to the summit of Round Bald. Due to the awesome views and the short distance (roughly seven-tenths of a mile), the summit can be quite crowded at times. The farther you walk, however, the less crowded it becomes.
Continuing northbound along the Appalachian Trail for another seven-tenths of a mile (technically walking eastward) we reached our next destination, Jane Bald. In between Round and Jane we lost and regained about 200 feet before reaching the 5807-foot summit of Jane Bald.
Partially overgrown by rhododendron, the bald area atop Jane is much smaller than its two neighbors.
Local legend has it that the peak received its name after a woman by the name of "Jane" died of milk sickness while crossing the mountain. Milk sickness is poisoning by milk from cows that have eaten white snakeroot.
Coming off Jane Bald we descended about 100 feet before beginning the final climb of almost 500 feet to the summit of Grassy Ridge Bald.
At roughly 1.9 miles the Appalachian Trail takes a turn towards the left. At this junction you'll see a side trail that continues straight ahead. This spur will lead you to the summit of Grassy Ridge Bald.
After a relatively stiff climb we reached the huge grassy meadows atop the peak. The panoramic views from the summit area are absolutely stunning. Although it was somewhat hazy on the day of our hike, on a clear day you can see Grandfather, Beech and Sugar Mountains towards the east, and Mt. Mitchell and the Black Mountains towards the south.
Grassy Ridge Bald dominates the center of Grassy Ridge. At an elevation of 6189 feet, it's one of the highest grassy balds in the Appalachian Mountains.
Scattered throughout the meadows on the summit, as well as along most of the trail, you'll find beautiful specimens of rhododendron and flame azaleas. We also saw several wildflowers along the route, but didn't get a chance to see the rare Gray's Lily, which is indigenous to the area.
Many people say that this stretch of trail is the most beautiful section along the entire length of the Appalachian Trail. I can't speak for the trail north of Virginia, but I would certainly rate this as one of the best hikes in the Southern Appalachians.
Total roundtrip mileage for the hike is 5.1 miles, with a total elevation gain of 1150 feet.
Roan Mountain State Park:
Roan Mountain State Park encompasses 2006 acres of southern Appalachian forest at the base of 6285 foot Roan Mountain. Park elevation ranges from 3000 feet in the valley to around 3700 feet on surrounding ridges. The park is located on Highway 143 southeast of Johnson City, TN.
Roan Mountain State Park has roughly 12 miles of hiking trails (as well as 2.25 miles of mountain bike trails). Difficulty levels range from easy to strenuous. Hikers can take an easy stroll along the Doe River, or take a challenging hike up to a ridge that offers panoramic views.
The park is most famous for the annual Rhododendron Festival, which has been held each June since 1947. In celebration of the incredibly beautiful rhododendron blooms, the festival features handmade crafts, food, and a variety of traditional music, plus an array of old-time folkway demonstrations.