Roan Mountain is not one mountain, but a high ridge about five miles long that ranges in elevation from a lofty 6,286 feet at Roan High Knob to a low of 5,500 feet at Carver’s Gap. The Appalachian Trail crosses the grassy summits and affords wonderful panoramic mountain views. There are two distinct sections to visit at Roan. For the best hiking, park at Carver's Gap near the North Carolina / Tennessee state line and hike east (across the road) atop the grassy summits of Grassy Ridge. This is the longest stretch (seven miles) of grassy bald in the Appalachian Mountains! Or drive two miles from Carver's Gap into the Roan Mountain Recreation Area ($3/car fee) for a picnic area, restrooms, paved half-mile trail through rhododendron gardens and a hike to Roan High Bluff. (Read about 2011 renovations.) The Carver's Gap parking area is open year-round (receives a lot of snow each winter). The Recreation Area is open April to November. Bring a jacket even on hot summer days in the valley. The summits are always cooler, especially if covered in clouds. The winter is long with a lot of snow. Weather can change rapidly.
View from Appalachian Trail on Round Bald, looking toward Roan High Knob.
See more rhododendron photos!
Famous for its spectacular natural gardens of Catawba rhododendrons, Roan Mountain shelters a rich diversity of life, from spruce-fir forests to vast grassy balds. Every June thousands of people flock to Roan Mountain to walk among the magnificent mounds of rhododendrons. (See Rhododendron Festival.) In a good year, these dense shrubs, standing taller than a person, create a spectacular display with thousands of blooms. The peak blooming is usually around mid June. Take a half mile walk through the Rhododendron Gardens in the Recreation Area. Or see plenty of blooms on Round Bald - the summit that rises from Carver's Gap.
Hiking the Appalachian Trail across Round Bald
Best Roan Mountain Hikes
You can either start your hike at the small parking area at Carver's Gap, or drive into the Roan Mountain Recreation Area (turn at Carver's Gap and drive past the parking area).
Carver's Gap: From the parking area, cross the road to hike on the Appalachian Trail for several miles across Round Bald, Jane Bald and Grassy Ridge, featuring rare and beautiful ecosystems. Or go the other direction on the Appalachian Trail south 1.5 miles to Roan High Knob.
The Roan High Knob Shelter is the highest backcountry shelter on the entire AT. Beward! The weather can be much cooler here and change quickly. Clouds often cover the summits. So be prepared. This is not a good place to be during a thunderstorm!
Recreation Area: There are three hikes up the two-mile road into the Roan Mountain Recreation Area (turn at Carver's Gap - see park map below). At the picnic area, an easy concrete trail starts at the information cabin and winds through rhododendrons to an overlook. You can choose between a short, 0.3-mile loop or continue on a longer, figure-eight loop. The Cloudland Trail is a moderate, 1.2-mile hike from the end of the Cloudland parking area to the dramatic Roan High Bluff Overlook. The 1000-foot drop can make this spot the wettest and coldest on the mountain. You can drive out farther (to the end of the loop) and catch the trail for only a half-mile hike to the Bluff. This area is open April through November.
Hiking the Appalachian Trail on Round Bald, heading toward Jane Bald and Grassy Ridge Bald.
No one knows the origin of the mountain’s name. Some claim the name refers to the roan or reddish color of the mountain when rhododendrons bloom in June or the mountain ash berries appear in September. Others say the name comes from Daniel Boone’s roan horse, because he and his horse were frequent visitors.
During the ice age, about 20,000 years ago, spruces and firs dominated the Southern Appalachian forest. Then as the climate warmed, the spruce-fir forests gradually retreated north to Canada, eventually remaining only on the tops of the highest southern mountains, like Roan Mountain. Along with the red spruce and Fraser fir, other unusual plants and animals were isolated in cool, Canada-like climate above 5,000 feet. Roan Mountain’s forests were logged in the 1920’s and 1930’s. In 1941, Roan Mountain became part of the Pisgah and Cherokee National Forests and the forest returned.
The origin of the balds is not clearly understood. In the last century, cattle and sheep, as well as goats, horses, mules, and hogs extensively grazed the mountain. Some scientists speculate that continuous grazing by prehistoric animals, followed by elk and bison, maintained the balds for millennia. Grassy balds are regarded as natural communities, although shrubs and trees will invade the open areas if left alone. The Forest Service maintains the balds by mowing and grazing.
The first human visitors to Roan Mountain were Native Americans, who lived at the base of the mountain and traveled across its gaps. Around 1870, General John T. Wilder bought 7,000 acres along the top and sides of Roan Mountain, built the road to Carver's Gap and constructed a 20-room log inn near the summit of Roan High Knob in 1877, then replaced it with the luxurious Cloudland Hotel. For about 20 years guests enjoyed the “pure air, the delightful temperature, the clear, cold spring water, and the perfume-laden woodlands.” Today little evidence remains of the once grand hotel.
Roan Mountain is beautiful year-round. What a difference a few months can make!