Whether they’ve donned the Flame Azalea red and rhododendron orange of spring, the 50 shades of green in summer, or their formal winter whites, the balds of the Roan mountain highlands are always impeccably dressed. However, getting a view of them wrapped in their technicolor coat in mid to late October is something every hiker should experience at least once in his/her lifetime.
Located along the northern border of TN and NC, this 14 mile section of the Appalachian Trail traverses the highlands between Carvers Gap in the south and Highway 19E in the north. While hiking in either direction has its share of elevation gain and loss, starting from 19E and heading south is generally the more uphill and challenging option. You’ll find the trip well worth the effort when you experience the 360 degree views from multiple balds along the way.
A fantastic overnight backpack trip option is to start from the trailhead at 19E and hike about 8 miles in to the Overmountain Shelter, more commonly known as “The Barn” (so named because it is, well, a barn). It’s a large two story structure but fills to capacity during the best weekends. For a bit more privacy (from both snoring hikers and hungry mice) there is plenty of space to set up your tent around the shelter. Waking up to a sunrise over the valley below is worth the effort alone. The final 5 miles includes one of the tougher hills of the trek, but once at the top, you pop out onto the first of your final three balds, reminding you once again why you prefer carrying your hotel room and meals on your back. The views from these ethereal highlands are stunning and constant. Visions of Scotland can't help but enter your mind, especially on cooler, foggier days when the mountain mist whips in with a subtle suggestion that you and your hiking partners are the only people on earth.
The weather on these balds can be different than every other place around, and it's constantly changing. Always have cold and wet weather gear. If going in the winter plan for 15 degrees colder than you expect.
If hiking the entire 14 mile section, you’ll need to drop a car at the other end or arrange for a shuttle.
From Asheville: Take 26 North to 19 North (Exit 9).
Follow 19 North (which becomes 19E) for about 45 miles to 1 mile past the TN state line.
The AT intersects the road here, you'll want to go left to head south towards Carvers. You can park on the side road on Bear Branch Rd on the right (there have been some mention of vandalism to cars here, but I’ve never had a problem).
Follow the directions above and continue on 19E, taking a left onto 143. Pass through Roan Mountain State Park. In approximately 10 miles the Carvers Gap parking lot will be on your right. The trail begins on the opposite side of the road.