Hiking the backbone of Roan Mountain on the Tennessee-North Carolina line ranks among the high points—literally and figuratively—of outdoor recreation in the entire Appalachian chain. There are multiple hikes available on this 20-mile-long massif, but arguably the best sampling is the moderately challenging 5.1-mile round-trip outing between Carvers Gap and Grassy Ridge Bald.
Roan Mountain accounts for the bulk of a subrange of the Unaka Mountains known as the Roan Highlands. The Roans are the fifth highest range in the Southern Appalachians and in the eastern U.S. They top out on the highest of Roan Mountain’s five subpeaks: 6,285-foot Roan High Knob.
Besides their impressive elevation, the Roan Highlands—and Roan Mountain in particular—are renowned for their openness. The expansive feel comes courtesy of extensive rhododendron/azalea/blueberry shrublands (“heath balds”) well as the high meadows known as grass balds.
Carvers Gap, accessed by Highway 261, essentially splits Roan Mountain into two sections. To the west, Roan Mountain rises to its highest points on Roan High Knob and Roan High Bluff (6,267 feet).
To the east, three bald-crowned subpeaks lure the scenery-hungry hiker along the Appalachian Trail. That’s the hike we’re focused on, bracketed by Carvers Gap and the summit of Grassy Ridge Bald. It takes several hours—though the more time you can give it, the better, just for the views—and involves more than 1,000 feet of elevation gain.
You’ll mostly be following the Appalachian Trail. Many regard the A.T.’s traverse of the Roan Highlands as the single most beautiful section of this best-known of America’s long-distance trails.
Taking the Appalachian Trail east from Carvers Gap brings you in less than a mile to the top of 5,823-foot Round Bald. Its wide-open grassy summit affords stunning views. You could turn around here and still be dazzled by how whoppingly scenic the Roan Highlands are.
But keep going! Hiking eastward takes you through the shrubby saddle of Engine Gap, then to the top of 5,807-foot Jane Bald. Offering the smallest bald area of the three Roan Mountain subpeaks “bagged” on this hike, Jane Bald has some intriguing lore associated with it.
The name comes either from a woman who died of “milk sickness” on this bald, or who nursed her sister Harriett, struggling with that condition, here back in 1870. Little known these days, milk sickness was a significant concern in pioneer times. It could sicken and even kill people who drank the milk of cows that had ingested the plant white snakeweed.
Proceeding east from Jane Bald, the Appalachian Trail soon comes to a fork. The leftward, northern fork continues the tread of the A.T. itself off toward Low Gap, Yellow Mountain Gap, and the Overmountain Shelter. You want to take the straight-ahead path, which leads to the summit of Grassy Ridge Bald after passing through a rhodie tunnel.
This sprawling bald is the 6,189-foot high point of Grassy Ridge itself, which runs southward as a spur off Roan Mountain. These vast meadowland expanses, scattered with rhodies and other shrubs, constitute one of the highest-elevation grass balds in the Southern Appalachians.
They also deliver whopping, far-reaching views. Those include fine looks at the majestic expanse of Roan Mountain itself. In clear conditions, you can see much of the rest of the highest country in the Southern Appalachians and many landmark peaks. Eastward, look for the iconic profile of Grandfather Mountain, the loftiest summit on the Blue Ridge Escarpment.
To the southeast, Hawksbill and Table Rock mountains identify the rim of the Linville Gorge. Southward, the Black Mountains—the highest range in the eastern U.S.—can be seen, including their apex, Mount Mitchell (6,684 feet). The sightlines north extend into Virginia.
An outcrop at the summit of Grassy Ridge Bald bears a plaque honoring Cornelius Rex Peake, a high-country farmer who grazed cattle on the bald.
Once you’ve drunk up the views awhile, it’s time to retrace your steps back through the blowing grasses, rhododendron tangles, and scanty timber to Carvers Gap. Experiencing Roan Mountain’s top-of-the-world meadowlands is a special privilege, one you’re likely to want to enjoy more than once.
Especially if you’re tackling Roan Mountain in early summer, don’t neglect to add on a visit to the Rhododendron Gardens west of Carvers Gap. A paved path through this dazzling shrubland (also called the Roan or Cloudland Gardens) can be reached by foot or by car from the Gap. Seeing the June blooms of Catawba rhodies and other flowering shrubs here is a bucket-list sort of deal!