Find the trailhead: Roan Mountain and the Appalachian Trail at Carvers Gap on the North Carolina/Tennessee state line is about an hour from Boone. From there, drive through Banner Elk or Newland, and from Elk Park, go west into Tennessee on U.S. Highway 19-E. Turn left in the town of Roan Mountain on Tennessee Highway 143. Carvers Gap is 14 miles from the turn. You'll pass through Tennessee's great Roan Mountain State Park.
A kingpin of the Southern Appalachians, Roan Mountain offers alpine-like meadows and blooming rhododendron that entice hikers and tourists in summer. Averaging about 100 inches of annual snowfall, Nordic skiing or snowshoeing is the big deal in winter. Roan has the Deep South's best cross-country skiing and snow camping.
Carvers Gap is a major cleft in one the South's great ridges. North of the gap, grassy Round Bald entices hikers up the spectacular alpine-like meadows on the Appalachian Trail. South of the gap, Roan Mountain rises to two nearly 6,300 foot summits, one of which is accessible on the Appalachian Trail. A paved road rises across the mountain's crest through scenic evergreens, past meadows, to parking areas and trailheads.
In winter, that road is gated at the gap-creating a gradual cross country skiing and hiking route with great access to trails and the higher peaks. Check out the slide show above for many Roan Mountain photos. The mountain provides some of the best Nordic skiing in the south. Check out the Boone Area Cross Country Ski Report for details. There can also be great Nordic skiing at Tennessee's Roan Mountain State Park, just below the mountain. The park has a nice selection of rental cabins for skiers.
Take the hikes:
In winter, the best hike is not on Roan Mountain, but north from Carvers Gap up the meadow of Round Bald, 0.7-mile to the summit for awesome views (1.4-miles roundtrip). The snow is blown shallower here which makes it doable without snowshoes (and accessible for the less fit). The open ridge continues past Round Bald-just hike out and turn around at will (or camp) for an awesome winter walk or overnighter. (Caution: This can be a bitter cold, arduous hike in deep snow-do not take it lightly.)
Roan Mountain's gated roads and trails make good winter hikes and backpacking trips-but snowshoes are recommended when there is significant snow. Without snowshoes, hikers "post-hole" the snow, work much harder than necessary, and deplete the snow-cover for skiers and snowshoers whose equipment preserves the recreation resource.
Hikers/winter backpackers without snowshoes will enjoy a trek up the snowy road-but please establish a separate walking track that avoids ski tracks. Campsites are everywhere across the crest, but water is easily available only at the shelter mentioned above. Some people sled above the gate on the road.
Take a cross country ski trip:
Appalachian Trail Loop-Advanced
Above Carver's Gap, the gated summit road and Appalachian Trail form one of the South's classic Nordic ski tours and snowshoe hikes. This loop takes substantial snow to avoid rocks.
A few hundred yards above Carver's Gap from the gate, turn right into the woods from the summit road to join the Appalachian Trail, a wide, former a carriage road to an long-gone 19th century hotel (if the start of this trail is rocky, skiers will prefer going up the road). The AT rises through switchbacks, gradually uphill, but requires advanced climbing technique in spots. The trail crests at 1.5 miles where a side path to the left goes a few tenths mile to Roan High Knob Shelter (a cabin with an active winter spring, reached through the porch, then going left downhill). Turn around at that side trail, and the switchbacks on the AT create an exciting downhill run back to your car (3 miles, roundtrip). Keep going on the AT and it drops over steeper spots and big drifts to again reach the summit road at 2.2 miles. Make a left and glide down the road for a 3.5-mile loop back to your car.
Up the AT is the "easy" way. The much more difficult route is to ski up the road the first 1.4-miles, turn right at the second connection with the AT (closest to the shelter path), and ski down through the switchbacks. That entire tour is best for advanced skiers (or snowshoers-protect the snow on this awesome trail!).
The Roan Mountain Road / Rhododendron Gardens Trail / Easier to Moderate
The easy Rhododendron Gardens nature trail (handicapped accessible in summer) is another nice cross country ski loop employing the gated summit road up Roan. Ski up either the AT or the road.
The Roan Road can be skiable without major snow even when wind has blown the snow off of some sections. Under the most marginal conditions, when you might have to walk up some sections of the road, there can be skiable snow across the very highest crest of the mountain, including the Rhododendron Gardesn Trail.
Above where the AT joins the Roan Road-continue up the road past the fee kiosk, then go left on the next road (about 1.7 miles). Not far beyond on the left, at the Rhododendron Gardens parking area, take the trail left off the lot at the information cabin. Ski the flat path into the rhododendron and go left to an observation deck for awesome views. The easy trail passes the deck and loops back through spruce forest to the cabin. Head down for a round trip back to your car, about 5 miles. In summer this little loop from parking at the information cabin is only 1-mile. This trail and observation deck was just rebuilt by the US Forest Service in spring 2011.
Cloudland Trail / Moderate to Advanced
The longest ski trip is for more advanced skiers. Ski up the road or AT to where they meet, continue up the road past the fee kiosk, but don't turn left with the road to the next gate. Turn right into the Cloudland parking area-and an immediate left enters the Cloudland Trail at the trail sign. This trail rises and falls, with exciting turns, and passes beside other snow-covered parking areas and portions of the summit road (connections are everywhere). At about 3 miles, the trail bisects a final loop in the road (overgrown under heavy snow), then continues another half-mile past the road to the most distant observation deck (uphill, with a great downhill run on the way back). Ski the entire Cloudland Trail and back, or include portions of the road. Either way-this is one of the East's best Nordic ski tours (about 7.5 miles). (Check the Nordic Ski Report for Roan Mountain and other Boone Area sites.)