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. Getting a glimpse of them wrapped in the technicolor coat of mid October, however, is something every hiker should experience at least once in their lifetime.
What Makes It Great
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 route. 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 on the grassy knoll leading up to the barn. Waking up in the valley, with the sun lighting the floor below, is worth the trip itself.
The final six miles includes one of the tougher hills of the trek. But once at the top, the trail pops 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.
Cresting over 6000 feet, the highlands create their own weather and it’s constantly changing. Always have cold and wet weather gear and plan for temperatures 15 degrees lower than surrounding towns.
Who is Going to Love It
This 14-mile trek will rate on the top five of almost every hikers southeast list. It is a true representation of what makes hiking in western North Carolina great. As such, it is the choice when recommending a trail for visiting backpackers.
With great beauty comes great effort. The hills at Roan are nearly constant, always seeming to be testing either lungs or knees. If done as a point to point, 14-mile trek this is not an ideal trip for first timer backpackers unless they have extensive hiking experience.
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
If hiking the entire 14 mile section, you’ll need to drop a car at the other end or arrange for a shuttle. The nearby Mountain Harbor Inn offers such a service.
The 19E trailhead lies 1 mile past the TN state line. Most will park on the side of Bear Branch Rd., find the AT on the other side of 19E. While generally safe, this isn’t the best place to leave valuables in the car. Dogs are allowed and, ideally, should be leashed
There are bathrooms at Carvers gap but no facilities at the 19E trailhead. There is a water source at the barn but it should be treated before drinking.