A kingpin of the Southern Appalachians, Roan Mountain, and its highlands offer alpine-like meadows and blooming rhododendron that entice hikers and tourists in late June. A 13-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail crosses the mountain and the adjoining string of summits known as the Roan Highlands. Averaging about 100 inches of annual snowfall, Roan has some of the Deep South's best cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and snow camping.
Popular Carvers Gap is a major cleft in one of the South's great ridges. East of the gap, grassy Round Bald attracts hikers up the spectacular alpine-like meadows on the Appalachian Trail toward Elk Park. West 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 from Carver's Gap rises across the crest of Roan, through scenic evergreens, past meadows, to parking areas for the rhododendron gardens and other trails. The US Forest Service maintains the recreation area at the summit and all along the Roan Mountain road, including the handicapped accessible trails in the gardens, picnic areas, and restrooms.
To reach the Rhododendron Gardens and Appalachian Trail from Boone, drive through Banner Elk to Elk Park, and from there, go west into Tennessee on U.S. Highway 19-E. The first AT trailhead is on the left at a small parking slip just beyond the state line (45 minutes from Boone). To reach the popular Carvers Gap AT trailhead, where the road to the Rhododendron Gardens begins (an hour and ten minutes from Boone), continue past this first AT parking another 10 minutes to the town of Roan Mountain and turn left on Tennessee Highway 143. The NC state line and Carvers Gap are fourteen miles from that turn, past the Roan Mountain State Park Visitor Center - a great place to stop for maps, restrooms, refreshments, or information. In the gap is another AT trailhead and the road to the Rhododendron Gardens.
Parking is free at Carvers Gap and only $3 at the Rhododendron Gardens. Reserve a parking pass ahead of time at this link and skip the pay kiosk.
The best short hike is not on Roan Mountain, but east from Carvers Gap up the meadow of Round Bald, 0.7 miles to the summit for awesome views (1.4 miles roundtrip). Just walk across the road and through the gate. The open, grassy ridge and great views continue past Round Bald-just hike out and turn around at will (or camp) for an awesome summer walk or overnighter.
The Appalachian Trail also climbs Roan Mountain and a short hike to the summit shelter makes a nice walk. Walk down the Tennessee side of the highway from Carvers Gap opposite Round Bald, and enter the woods on the AT. It soon becomes a wide, former carriage road to a long-gone 19th-century hotel (left, in winter). The AT gradually rises through switchbacks and 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 spring, reached through the porch, then going left downhill). Turn around from the shelter for a nice 3-mile hike. On the way down, imagine what it's like in winter when cross-country skiers zoom down the switchbacks on the exciting run back to the gap.
This easy, handicapped-accessible nature trail is a wonderful family walk. Drive past the Carvers Gap trailhead on SR 1348 to the Roan Mountain Day Use Area, pay at the fee kiosk or prepay online, and go left on the gravel road at the next gate. Not far beyond on the left, at the Rhododendron Gardens Parking Area, take the trail at the visitor information cabin (with restrooms). The paved path reaches a new observation deck for awesome views overlooking the rhododendron gardens. This easy trail loops back from the deck through the spruce forest to the cabin. Two trails go left off this paved upper loop and they also form a lower loop below the deck that wanders among the rhododendron. It too is rated easy, but a few steps and a steeper grade prohibits wheelchairs. A third loop connects to the second, which is a natural surface trail that weaves below the gardens.
The best hike on Roan is the Cloudland Trail. Just past the fee kiosk, don't turn left toward the gardens, but turn right into the Cloudland parking area with its ample new picnic and restroom facilities. Paths leave the restroom area to explore the grassy spot once occupied in the 1880s by the Cloudland Hotel.
An immediate left at the trail sign as you enter the lot starts the Cloudland Trail. This delightful trail rises and falls and passes beside other parking areas and portions of the summit road (connections are everywhere). At about 0.7 miles, the trail bisects a final loop in the road. Where the trail crosses the road for the last time, it continues as a partially paved path another half-mile to spectacular views from the most distant observation deck. If you drive to the last road crossing, it's only a 1-mile round-trip hike.
This is one of the region's most awesome hikes. Hike the AT from Carvers Gap to Elk Park for the least strenuous climb. Beyond Round Bald, the AT dips across grassy gaps and rocky ridgetops. Jane Bald is another nice turnaround point at 1.4 miles (a nearly 3-mile roundtrip back to your car). At about 2 miles, the AT goes left. (The side trail right leads to Grassy Ridge Bald).
The small Stan Murray Shelter and spring is at 3.3 miles. Another two miles brings you to the Overmountain Shelter, a large barn with a lot of space to spread out inside or out. There's a spring out front. This shelter is close to Yellow Mountain Gap, the route of the Overmountain Men who gathered across the mountains and marched to defeat a Loyalist army at the Battle of King's Mountain in 1780. The old road they marched on, Bright's Trace, still descends out of the gap into NC. A Forest Service access road also descends in that direction. It's only 0.7 miles to a parking area on Roaring Creek Road, creating another good AT starting point. (Use the Google map below to get directions.)
Beyond Yellow Mountain Gap, the AT climbs across open meadows for miles, past Little Hump Mountain to a great campsite at 6.8 miles. Back into open grasslands at Bradley Gap, at 7.4 miles, the spectacular climb of grassy Hump Mountain comes next. There are 360-degree summit views at 8. 3 miles. The trail drops down aggressively to a big campsite in Doll Flats at 10.7 miles. Switchbacks and continuing descent arrive at the Apple House Shelter at 13.2 miles, just a half mile from US 19-E in Elk Park.
Help preserve these iconic trails by sticking to the designated paths, taking pictures of flowers instead of picking them, respecting wildlife, packing out any trash, and being considerate of others enjoying the trail. Bring plenty of food and water, and be ready to find your way without cellphone service.
Click through the images below to learn more about how to help Preserve the Awe-inspiring Appalachian Mountains!