During the warmer seasons, it's known for the famous late-June bloom of sprawling rhododendron gardens. Brand-new facilities in the gardens opened June 6, 2011, making it easier than ever to enjoy the spectacle. The Appalachian Trail crosses the mountain and the adjoining string of summits known as the Roan Highlands, a 13-mile stretch of the AT that features spectacular alpine-like meadows.
To reach the Rhododendron Gardens and Appalachian Trail from Boone, drive through Banner Elk or Newland, 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 is fourteen miles from that turn. In the gap is another AT trailhead and the road to the Rhododendron Gardens.
A kingpin of the Southern Appalachians, Roan Mountain and its highlands offer alpine-like meadows and blooming rhododendron that entice hikers and tourists in summer. 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 the South's great ridges. East of the gap, grassy Round Bald entices 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. On June 6th, the US Forest Service reopened the summit recreation area with extensive improvements all along the Roan Mountain road, including upgraded handicapped accessible trails in the gardens, picnic areas and restrooms. A modest fee of $3 per car is charged.
The best short hike is not on Roan Mountain, but east from Carvers Gap up the meadow of Round Bald, 0.7-mile 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, enter the woods on the AT. It soon becomes a wide, former a 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 up the Roan road, pay at the fee kiosk, 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 newly repaved path reaches a new observation deck for awesome views overlooking the rhododendron gardens. This easy trail loops back from the deck through spruce forest to the cabin. Two trails go left off this paved upper loop and thay also form a newly paved lower loop below the deck that wanders among the rhododendron. It too is rated easy, but a few steps and a steeper grade likely prohibit wheelchairs.
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 mile, 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 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 arrivesat the Apple House Shelter at 13.2 miles, just a half mile from US 19-E in Elk Park. Going up the trail from to Roan there is a steep start, to say the least.
(For more detail on these and other Boone area trails, pick up a trail guide by local outdoor expert Randy Johnson.)
Zoom in close on the map below (use the plus/minus signs and directional arrows at upper left), or repeatedly double click near, but not on, the map symbols. You can literally dive down to see the parking lots and landmarks for Roan Mountain's hikes and cross country ski tours. If you're focused on the Appalachian Trail between Roan Mountain and Elk Park, NC-move the map to the right and follow the information symbols east along the ridge. Click any map symbol and information balloons pop up. In the trailhead parking map balloon, click "Directions," add your address or location, and step-by-step directions will guide you to Carvers Gap from wherever you are!