Hiking at Roan Mountain
Located on the North Carolina/Tennessee state line, Roan Mountain is actually more of a mountain range about 5 miles long - called a massif - than a single peak. Famous for its Catawba Rhododendron gardens with its brilliant purple flowers in spring, the Roan is a wonderful place to visit and hike any time of the year.
Cross country skiing is even popular here during the winter (owing to the fact that the Roan Massif gets more snow than almost any other location in Western NC). It is one of the highest ranges in the Southern Appalachians, with peaks topping out at over 6200'. The Appalachian Trail - which is the main hiking opportunity on the massif - traverses the ridgetops while a few other trails wind around the area, including one fully wheelchair-accessible trail through the main Gardens area.
Besides the rhodododendrons, which bloom in mid-June, you'll find the mountain interesting for a variety of other reasons. The massif's balds are probably the next-most interesting feature. These treeless mountaintops offer spectacular views, fields of grass waving in the winds, and an alpine-like hiking experience. In other places, a dense spruce-fir forest grows, some of the healthiest examples of this ecosystem left in the southern Appalachians (since being devastated over the last few decades by the Balsam Wooly Adelgid). A unique historical site, that of the Cloudland Hotel, offers a glimpse into the mountains' past while the mountain's name itself has been subject to legends of origin and historcal debate.
So what does "Roan" mean? It depends on who you ask. Some say the name refers to Daniel Boone's "roan" or reddish horse, which he supposedly rode into the area. It could also refer to the reddish appearance of the Rhododendron blooms or of various other wildflowers or berries (such as mountain ash) that grace the mountaintop. Whatever the origin, the name has stuck, and it's official now.
During the warmer months, the road to the Roan Mountain Recreation Area opens, providing easy access to points of interest on Roan Mountain. A fee is charged to access the recreation area. You can start hikes from within the recreation area or Carver's Gap. Here's an overview of what's available from both.
Once inside the recreation area, you can visit the ruins of the former Cloudland Hotel, a short walk from the main parking area. Interpretive signs explain the history of the area and provide a view into the past. Restrooms are available there.
A road travels southwest on the ridge, and provides access to parking at the Roan Mountain Gardens trail, a paved, accessible loop which winds around through a natural rhododendron garden area. The rhododendrons bloom in mid to late June, at which point you'll share the trail with scores of other visitors out to enjoy the view. But this trail does ensure that everyone - regardless of mobility - has access to the spectacular spruce and fir forests and heath gardens on the mountain.
The road ends at a picnic area, and parking there puts you a mere 0.5 mi. from Roan Mountain's highest point, Roan High Bluff, via the last part of the Cloudland Trail. So that's the easiest way to get to the top. The trail climbs very little from the picnic area (a litle over 100'), so nearly anyone can see the view.
If you're visiting the recreation area but still looking for a bit of a longer hike, we recommend parking at the first lot and hiking the entire Cloudland Trail to Roan High Bluff, about 3 miles round-trip.
The trail winds through spruce and fir forests, paralleling the road along the summit of the ridge. You can access the rhododendron gardens and hike through the picnic areaall the way to Roan High Bluff, the highest peak on the massif at 6286 ft. The total length is about 1.5 miles, or 3 miles round-trip (closer to 4 if you add in the gardens loop), and is suitable for families with children. The trail is well signed and easy to follow, with gentle climbs.
More Difficult Options
The Appalachian Trail, or segments of it, represents the longest trail for hiking in in the Roan Mountain area and presents the greatest challenges.
From Carver's Gap, you can hike up to the recreation area via the Appalachian Trail and connect to the Cloudland Trail, which adds a few more miles and nearly 1000 ft. of climb to reach the summit. This stretch of the A.T. passes through more spruce-fir forests and around Roan High Knob. If you're looking to "summit" Roan Mountain, fee-free and without parking right at the top, this would be the route we'd recommend.
Stretching northeast from Carver's Gap, the Appalachian Trail passes over a number of spectacular balds - including Round Bald, Jane Bald, Grassy Ridge Bald, Yellow Mountain, Little Hump and Big Hump, to name a few. Out-and-back hikes of just about any length are highly recommend, perhaps stopping at one of the balds or gaps in between. Overnight excursions toward US 19E and beyond can be made on this stretch of the A.T. as well.
The rhododendron gardens extend off and on all along this stretch of the A.T., so that's your best bet for a relatively crowd-free bloom experience. Don't forget your camera if you're hiking this stretch of trail in mid to late June!
Places to Stay
The closest place to stay to Roan Mountain is Roan Mountain State Park located at the bottom of the mountain on the Tennessee side. In addition to the camping and lodging options listed below, the State Park offers a variety of things to do including more walking and hiking trails (12 miles of them), a swimming pool, playgrounds, volleyball, horseshoes, ping-pong, basketball, softball, tennis, picnicking, a game room, and more. For more information, call 1-800-250-8620 or visit their web site.
Roan Mountain State Park Campground (TN)
There are 107 sites with grills and picnic tables. 87 are RV sites with water and electrical hookups; the rest are tent sites with community water spigots. The bathhouses have hot showers.
Roan Mountain State Park Cabins (TN)
Thirty AAA cabins are situated in the woods of Roan Mountain State Park. Each cabin has a front porch with rocking chairs, fully outfitted kitchen, full bath with tub/shower, wood burning stove and gas/electric heat. Firewood, bedding and towels are provided by the park.
There are a variety of (good) ways to get to Roan Mountain. Carvers Gap is located where NC Hwy. 261 and TN Hwy. 143 join on the NC/TN state line. Please use a map!
Straighter Route: This route is longer, but if you easily get car sick, this is the way you'll need to go. From I-240 in Asheville, follow I-26 west to Johnson City, Tennessee (about 50 miles). Take Exit 31 to Elizabethton - US 321. Follow US 321 to US 19E in Elizabethton. Turn right; follow US 19E for 17 miles to the town of Roan Mountain. Turn right on Tennessee State Road 143, following the signs for Roan Mountain State Park. Proceed through the park and up the mountain to Carvers Gap on the NC state line.
Scenic Route: This route is shorter, but much curvier with more intersections. But it also offers the chance to explore the NC mountain countryside and the charming, artistic towns of Bakersville and others along the way. From I-240, Follow I-26 west 18 miles to exit 9 for US Hwy. 19. Take US 19 north for just over 17 1/2 miles (this is under construction to become a 4-lane highway) and turn left on NC Hwy. 197 north. Follow NC 197 north for just over 11 miles. There are several turns along the way; follow the signs to stay on 197. 197 will join NC Hwy. 226; turn left onto 226 north and go 3 miles to Fork Mountain Road. (Continue straight on 226 north when 197 splits back off to the right). Turn right on Fork Mountain Road and go 4.2 miles to NC Hwy. 261 north. Turn left; it is 9.2 miles up the mountain to Carvers Gap on the TN state line.
Follow NC Hwy. 105 S to the intersection with NC 184. Turn right; proceed through Banner Elk on NC 184 to the intersection with NC 194. Turn left; follow NC 194 for about 6 miles to US-19E. Turn right; follow this to the town of Roan Mountain across the Tennessee state line. Turn left on Tennessee State Road 143, following the signs for Roan Mountain State Park. Proceed through the park and up the mountain to Carvers Gap on the NC state line.
Once you are at Carvers Gap, you can just park there for free to hike the Appalachian Trail, or turn up Roan Mountain Road and proceed 1.4 miles to the summit parking areas. There is a $3.00 fee per vehicle for parking at the summit.