The Appalachian Trail (AT) runs 2,190 miles from Springer Mountain in Georgia, to Mount Katahdin in Maine. It’s one of the three primary long-distance trails in the United States, and while thru-hiking the entire trail from start to finish is popular, there’s also plenty of opportunity for day hiking. The trail runs for 94 miles through Tennessee, then shares another 160 miles with the North Carolina border. The Roan Highlands section is the trail’s last hurrah in Tennessee before venturing north. It’s not to be missed.
What Makes It Great
Situated at the convergence of the Pisgah and Cherokee National Forests, the Roan Highlands are home to the largest natural rhododendron garden in the world, not to mention the Appalachian Range’s longest stretch of grassy bald. The long-distance trail follows much of the crest of the Roan Highlands, with some of the steepest climbs south of the White Mountains, but offering gorgeous views along the way. The panoramic vistas are due, in part to the highlands’ unique ecosystem, where the climate is warm enough to keep large vegetation from growing (hence the names of these features: balds).
In fact, the Roan Highlands are a large massif, known as Roan Mountain, with five primary subpeaks. You’ll encounter the three easternmost peaks on this section between Carvers and Highway 19E. The eastern balds, which make up Grassy Ridge (the longest section of continuous bald in on the trail), are Round Bald, Jane Bald, and Grassy Ridge Bald, which is among the highest-elevation balds in the Appalachian Range.
Conditions can change quickly on the exposed balds, and many a hiker has found themselves atop the ridge in dropping temperatures, sudden winds, and unexpected precipitation, so be ready with warm (and wet) weather gear. Water sources are not always reliable, so bring plenty for your overnight.
You’ll encounter two shelters on this section of the AT. The Stan Murray Shelter sleeps six, but many hikers recommend continuing on to the Overmountain Shelter (a rustic red barn) that sleeps 20 and has a privy. “The Barn” is one of the most popular spots to sleep on the trail, mainly because it’s pretty luxurious as far as shelters go. It has two floors, a loft, an open porch, as well as picnic tables, fire rings, and a water source nearby.
Who is Going to Love It
This is a great overnight backpacking trip for hikers who want a taste of tough AT hiking (including sleeping in a classic AT-style shelter) without the commitment of doing a longer section. It’s fairly strenuous and contains some of the steepest climbs south of the White Mountains, but it’s also gorgeous and has relatively low daily mileage as you’re getting your hiking legs.
If you’re thru-hiking the AT, this section gives you the opportunity to spend the night in the iconic red barn. Relaxing on the porch and taking in the view as the sun sets is a wonderful way to end a long day of hiking.
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
This section hike can be started at either Carvers Gap or the AT intersection with Highway 19E, but regardless of which direction you’re hiking (or if you’re setting a shuttle), it’s not recommended that backpackers leave cars overnight on Highway 19E. Frequent theft and vandalism mean your car won’t be safe parked near the highway. Instead, pay $5 per day to park at the Mountain Harbour B&B, conveniently located near the trailhead. (The B&B is also a hiker hostel and offers shuttle services, including one back to Carvers Gap.)