The stretch of the Appalachian Trail from Carver’s Gap on the North Carolina/Tennessee border to the Roan High Knob is unlike any hike I’ve experienced in North Carolina. The elevation of the mountain as well as the geologic history have created one of the most unusual biomes in the Appalachian range.
The highest reaches of Roan Mountain make up the Canadian-zone, tracks of spruce-fir forests that resemble the ranges of the northeastern United States and ranges in Canada. Red spruce, mountain-ash, Fraser fir and wild berry bushes all coat the mountainside above Carvers Gap, which sits at 5,512 feet. The Fraser fir, widely known for its use as a Christmas tree, grows wild all over Roan Mountain. Local history suggests that many of the vast Christmas tree farms that dominate the High Country retrieved their initial saplings from the slopes of Roan Mountain.
At 600 acres, Roan Mountain also features the largest natural rhododendron garden in the world. The gardens, which bloom in mid to late June, draw thousands of visitors annually.
The rhododendron is known for the number of blooms it produces, with individual plants in successful years producing more than 100 clusters of flowers. The gardens feature hundreds of rhododendrons, the sheer quantity of blooms is hard to describe to someone who hasn’t seen it first-hand.
The 71st annual Roan Mountain Rhododendron Festival will be June 16-17. In addition to views of blooming rhododendron on Roan Mountain, the festival includes food, vendors and programs at nearby Roan Mountain State Park in Tennessee.
The Roan High Knob, the highest peak on Roan Mountain at 6,285 feet, is dominated by large spruce trees and features the highest shelter anywhere on the Appalachian Trail. The large shelter can sleep as many as 15 hikers a night.
Hikers interested in taking on any part of Roan Mountain should come prepared with a rain jacket, the weather can swiftly turn from sunny and warm to cold and rainy, even in mid-July. For access to the Roan High Knob and Roan High Bluff, hikers can start at Carvers Gap and follow the Appalachian Trail south or drive up Roan Mountain for easier access to the rhododendron garden and Roan High Bluff.