Roan Mountain is a true gem of the southern Appalachian Mountains. Whether hiking the grassy balds or strolling through gardens of tree sized catawba rhododendron, this place has a special feeling. The air is thin here and the climate feels like Canada. The wind swept forest of spruce and fir lives like an island floating above the mixed hardwood forest below. While the highest parts of the mountain have a dark mossy forest, much of the highlands are lacking trees. The Appalachian balds of the Roan are meadows in the sky. Roan Mountain is the highest point in the area, peaking out around 6,300 ft(1920 m). The Tennessee - North Carolina state line runs across the Roan.
When the valleys are hazy with the heat and humidity of mid summer, the cool breezes of the Roan beckon like a pleasant dream. Spring provides an eruption of wildflowers. Fall offers clear skies and colorful views. Winter has a special beauty all it's own. Giant icicles form on the mountainsides and snow often blankets the hardy trees. When the snow is good, cross country skiing occurs on the mountain.
Many people visit Roan Mountain to see the brilliant expanse of purple pink Catawba rhododendron blooms around the third week in June. This species of rhododendron is found in clumps along some higher peaks of the Appalachians including the Blue Ridge. Catawba rhododendron thrive here on the highlands of the Roan massif. Besides the rhododendron gardens at the top, they grow scattered around the mountainside and along the balds. The more common pink-white rosebay rhododendron is also found on the Roan, throughout the surrounding mountains, and in Roan Mountain State Park at the base of the mountain. A rhododendron festival is held to coincide with the expected peak time for the big pink Catawba flowers. The rhododendron bloom of Roan Mountain was featured in an article in the June 1957 issue of National Geographic. The mountain in full bloom has a surreal beauty beyond description.
Roan Mountain is a big ridge of rock called a massif. It has several peaks and gaps. The Appalachians are among the oldest mountains on earth and the rocks here are geologically very old. The Roan has a long history and has inspired stories and songs. At one time the Coudland Hotel sat atop the Roan. People came to enjoy the mountain air and scenery. Nothing remains of the hotel today. It was located on a site by the modern paved parking lot on top. The great view from this high mountain meadow is still the same.
Strange things happen on Roan Mountain, especially as the weather changes. Sometimes the clouds are above, sometimes below, and sometimes where you are. Add a sunset or sunrise and anything is possible. On one summer day bright purple fog appeared after a rain shower. Rainbows, colorful sunrises/sunsets, and other unexpected phenomena are typical here. Some people have heard a buzzing or humming sound. I myself once heard it, or something, on Round Bald heading towards Carvers Gap on a sunny March day with a temperature inversion. It sounded like the corona crackle noise from high voltage power lines but none were in sight. The mountain was thawing from a long winter freeze. There were dead plants interacting with a slight wind and things sound different due to the altitude. So who knows. It is very quiet most of the time. Here are a few photos from that day
It's usually much cooler with altitude gain but on certain bright sunny days temperature inversions can occur. It may be as warm or warmer on the mountain than in the valley below. This is fairly unusual so always dress warmly in layers. Expect colder temperatures and wind.
Whenever visiting the Roan, take a few minutes and just sit quietly somewhere. Feel the breeze, smell the air, listen, touch, and observe nature. It is a great place for reflection, contemplation, meditation, or just to relax. This is a chance to shed some of the tensions of the modern world. Besides hiking, our favorite thing to do is take a blanket and picnic off in the bushes somewhere. It's an incredible place for resting or napping. Sweet dreams.
Hiking over the series of balds from Carver's Gap is an opportunity to enjoy incredible 360 degree views of ridge after ridge. Many wild flowering plants inhabit this unique area like the bright flame azalea, mountain ash, and the rare Gray's lily. This lily is found only in a few areas of the southern Appalachians.
The Appalachian Trail crosses Roan Mountain. To the west it traverses Unaka Mountain. To the northeast it crosses Hwy 19E near the state line and heads toward Watauga Lake. The trail passes near the paved parking lot on top of Roan Mountain and descends to Carvers Gap before heading up the balds. The trail over the balds continues past where the Appy Trail forks off. The Appalachian Trail heads over Yellow Mountain and Hump Mountain toward 19E. Hiking from Carver's Gap to 19E offers an enormous variety of wildflowers and scenic views. Start early in the day to make this particular hike. It could take anywhere from 6 to 10 hours depending on the pace.
For a less strenuous hike try the Cloudland Trail that runs from the paved parking lot on top, past the rhododendron gardens and on out to the Roan High Bluff. The view from Roan High Bluff is spectacular. Driving out to the end of the gravel road loop past the gardens offers the closest access point on the Cloudland Trail for walking to the high bluff. It's about a half mile walk from this point.
Parts of the rhododendron garden trails are paved and handicap accessible. The gardens have a picnic area and restrooms. The area at the top of the mountain, including the gardens, is a US Forest Service fee area.
For some mountain spring water, bring a container you can carry and stop at the Twin Springs picnic area part way up the mountain on the Tennessee side.
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