I ran into an old camping acquaintance Sunday in the Wilson Creek area Sunday and we spent a few minutes updating one another on our travels. Among her recent exploits: a February visit to Roan Mountain.
Roan Mountain in February? I thought. Risky business being above 6,000 feet in the dead of winter. A better time, I thought, would be … right now.
Massive Roan Mountain straddles the North Carolina/Tennessee line, and is popular for many reasons: its vast balds, sweeping views, and endless skies. What it’s best known for outside hiking circles are its expansive rhododendron gardens. These effusive pink blooms have come and gone in other parts of the state, but because of the higher elevation at Roan Mountain, the rhododendron are just now exploding — and just in time for the July 4 holiday weekend now upon us.
There are multiple ways to explore Roan beyond the traditional two-mile drive to the top ($3 entrance fee) and short walk to the actual gardens.
Here are four adventurous ways to celebrate the Fourth in Roan Highlands.
1. Hike to the gardens. Park in the lot atop Carver’s Gap, (elevation 5,500 feet) and hike south on the Appalachian Trail 1.5 miles to Roan High Knob. This is a more intimate, tree-enveloped hike: you won’t experience Roan’s great views on the way up, but you will, cloud-cover permitting, from 6,285-foot Roan High Knob. Between the elevation and the tree cover, this is an especially good hike option on a hot day. 3 miles out-and-back, moderate to strenuous.
2. Hike the balds. Also starting from Carver’s Gap, hike north on the AT. You’ll gain elevation quickly, passing through an isolated spruce-fir stand, then emerge into vast grassy balds offering 360-views of a who’s who of Southeast peaks. Round Bald (5,826 feet: 300-foot vertical gain in three-quarters of a mile) is your first stop, and you’d be justified if you wanted to plop down and spend the day here, marveling. Jane Bald (5,807 feet) beckons, just three-quarters of a mile beyond (a stretch where rhododendrons and flame azalea will be ablaze). Continue on to Grassy Bald (hanging a right turn off the AT) and top out at 6,189 feet. Now, you can kick back and settle in (though keep an eye on the sky; the weather here can change in an instant). 5 miles out-and-back, moderate.
3. Long hump to Hump Mountain. The Roan Highlands is defined as the ridge running from Roan Mountain north to 5,587-foot Hump Mountain, another stellar bald offering panoramic views. This option is for the hiker who wants to put in more mileage: 11 miles total. Start from the modest AT access point off US 19E and hike the AT north, gradually gaining elevation through a mellow draw. About four miles in, the trail gets rocky for a half mile or so, then emerges into open meadow for the climb up Hump Mountain. Return the way you came. 11 miles out-and-back, moderate to strenuous.
4. Short hump to Little Hump. Like the idea of experiencing a less-visited stretch of the Roan Highlands, but not so much the idea of hiking nearly 11 miles? From US 19E in North Carolina take the entertaining and ever-dwindling Roaring Creek Road north for about five miles to the Yellow Mountain Gap Trailhead. From there, it’s a quarter mile up an old dirt road to the AT. Go right (north) on the AT, initially through tight vegetation then emerging into yet another grassy expanse and the climb to 5,460-foot Little Hump Mountain. You’ve hiked about two miles so far (four miles roundtrip), another two gets you to Hump Mountain (eight miles roundtrip). Return the way you came. 4 miles out-and-back, moderate to strenuous.
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If you go: I’ve never had the good timing to be on Roan Mountain at peak rhododendron bloom. If you go, help the rest of us live vicariously and share a photo or two on our Facebook page.