Hiking the Appalachian Trail through the Roan Highlands is like walking along the Blue Ridge Mountains’ spine. Straddling the border between eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina, the Trail slips through spruce-fir forests with moss-covered floors into the open meadows of the longest grassy bald area in the Appalachian range. Looking to the horizon, you can see undulating ridges disappear into the distance like rolling waves. Unique plant populations blanket the area, from blueberry bushes to windblown wildflowers, including the protected Gray’s lily. In June, the world’s largest natural rhododendron garden erupts into a sea of bright pink flowers, attracting pollinators and humans from all over the world.
“Walking through the Roan Highlands was my favorite day on the Trail,” Ron Tipton, CEO and President of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, says about his 1978 thru-hike. “Well, maybe other than finishing at Katahdin,” he adds with a laugh.
Roan Mountain begins at Roan High Bluff, then hops over Roan High Knob, where you can find the highest elevation shelter on the A.T. at 6,275 feet and the only section of Trail to rise above 6,000 feet between the Great Smoky Mountains and the White Mountains. Continue down to Carver’s Gap, the highest road crossing on the entire Trail at 5,500 feet. The A.T. then bounces over the highland meadows of Round Bald, Jane Bald, and Grassy Ridge Bald.
“Not only do you get 360-degree views of the surrounding landscape, from high mountains in the Smokies to the highest peaks of Virginia, but you can see the next mountain in front of you,” Tipton says. “It’s extraordinary. I love this section the most,” he adds, noting he’s been back at least half a dozen times.
Heading off Roan Mountain proper, hikers cross through the hardwood forests and rocky outcroppings of Yellow Mountain and Hump Mountain, the north end of the Roan massif. Near the intersection of the A.T. and the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail lies the Overmountain Shelter, a restored barn that is the largest and “one of the most beautiful shelters on the Trail,” Tipton believes.
The beauty of the Roan Highlands attracts thousands of visitors each year, but increased visitation and development threaten this unique and sensitive area. Since the 1980s, ATC and public and private partners have been working to protect more land on Roan. The recent protection of a 324-acre section on the northern slope of Hump Mountain, only 500 feet from the Trail, shows the power of the A.T. Large Landscape Protection Partnership, Tipton says. “That is the goal of the initiative – to work together to protect the best parts of the A.T.”