by Clint Calhoun
As we start getting geared up for outside weather (please Spring, hurry up and get here!); waiting for the birds to start chirping and the flowers to start blooming, it’s the perfect time to start getting prepared to shed those quarantine pounds, throw the mask aside for a little while, and hit the trail. Spring hikes are my favorites, obviously because of the wildflowers, but I also appreciate majestic views with the clear air that spring provides, and the solitude that comes from lower volumes of tourist traffic.
Over the last couple of years, I have started making a quarterly pilgrimage to Roan Mountain. If you aren’t familiar with Roan Mountain, you should be! It is an amazing place. Without going into a lot of technical detail, Roan Mountain is actually a series of mountaintops that make up what is known as the Roan Massif or the Roan Highlands and are the highest points in the Unaka Mountains, straddling the border between North Carolina and Tennessee.
The Roan is accessed by travelling NC-261 out of Bakersville, North Carolina; a beautiful, scenic drive that takes you through the Roan Valley. As you drive the winding road, you almost feel as though you have taken a step back in time. You will notice as you drive that you are steadily gaining elevation and then suddenly the forest cover changes almost immediately from hardwood trees to red spruce and Fraser fir. That’s when you know you are there. The road crosses Carver’s Gap at the NC/TN line. Carver’s Gap is also famous for being the point where the Overmountain Men came from Tennessee into North Carolina on their way east to the climactic Battle of Kings Mountain. Here you will find the parking area to access the balds. If you choose, and the road is open, you can drive up to the Roan Mountain Gardens where there are concrete-surface trails that wind through perhaps the largest natural Catawba rhododendron thicket in the world.
If you are up for a nice jaunt, want some isolation (depending on when you go), skip the gardens and hit the Appalachian Trail. The AT traverses the Roan Highlands and offers exquisite views into both North Carolina and Tennessee. A good hike is to head east from Carver’s Gap out to Grassy Ridge Bald. Grassy Ridge Bald is one of the highest elevation grassy balds in the Appalachian Mountains. Why these balds are mostly treeless is not well understood, and a great deal of scientific research has been conducted to understand their origins. Most researchers conclude that megagrazers probably played a large role, and the grassy character of the balds made them good for grazing cattle and other livestock after Europeans settled the area. Interestingly enough, when no grazing or disturbance occurs on the balds for a period of time, the tree and shrub layer becomes thicker and the balds shrink as they become colonized with woody vegetation.
Spring is a little early for most wildflowers at the higher elevations, and in early spring it’s likely pockets of snow can be found and an early spring snowstorm shouldn’t be ruled out, but the Roan is beautiful with snow on the ground. Even a winter hike carries the possibility of seeing the spruce and fir trees covered in snow and rime ice. Summer time on the Roan is a great time to escape the heat of the low country, and this is when the wildflowers begin to show themselves. Rhododendron, flame azalea, and numerous wildflowers can be found along the entire massif. One of the prettiest sites is seeing the rare Gray’s lily, an endangered lily named for botanist Asa Gray who spent a great deal of time on Roan Mountain. Fall, of course, offers stunning, colorful views of the valleys below. Want to see a beautiful sunrise? Spend the night on Grassy Ridge Bald and watch the sun come up the next morning. The view is exquisite!
A word of caution: the Roan can be a fickle place. The weather can turn on a dime up there. It can be nice and warm one minute, and in the next, the clouds roll in and it’s cold. The balds, because they are so open and exposed, put hikers at risk during stormy weather. It’s not the place to be caught in a thunderstorm. Winter can also be a tricky time to be on the mountain. The wind blows almost constantly up there and a freak snowstorm is always a possibility, even when the valleys below may have sun shining. It gets really cold up there, and someone who is not prepared for hiking in the extreme conditions on the Roan, could find themselves with a case of hypothermia, frostbite, or both, so be prepared for the weather if you decide to take an adventure up there.
COVID-19 has not been very friendly to the Roan as more people have gotten out and are seemingly experiencing nature for the very first time. The trails are taking a beating from inexperienced hikers and an overall increase in foot traffic. If you go, be a good steward to the land. I like the quote that says, “Take only pictures; leave nothing but footprints; kill nothing but time!” Just enjoy the adventure, and the peace and solitude that you get from ramblin’ on the Roan
Until Next Time!
Clint Calhoun is a naturalist and biologist, whose entire career has been spent in the wilds of Hickory Nut Gorge. Clint is currently teaching high school science at Lake Lure Classical Academy.