Monday, April 18, 2011

Roan Highlands, Pisgah-Cherokee National Forest, North Carolina


Distance: 5.1 miles roundtrip (8.2 km) - Add ~3 miles to Yellow Mountain
Elevation: 5,512 - 6,189 feet (1680 - 1887 m)
Difficulty: Moderately Easy
Time of Year: April to October


Located along the North Carolina-Tennessee border, the Roan Highlands contains the largest expanse of "balds" in the entire Appalachian range. Balds are openings in the forest along ridges and mountain tops that are very similar in structure and species composition to alpine zones. Along this stretch of the Appalachian Trail, it is an opportunity to finally emerge from the continuous forest canopy into an area of spectacular views of the southern Appalachian landscape.

Carver's Gap

To reach the Roan Highlands, take NC-261 up from Bakersville, NC or TN-143 up from the village of Roan Mountain, TN. The parking area is at Carver's Gap right at the state boundary at 5500 feet in elevation. At the parking area, you will notice that it is open and grassy on the eastside, while the western slopes of Roan Mountain are completely covered in red spruce forest.

Inside a red spruce stand

Red spruce and Fraser fir are the dominate species of the highest elevation forests of the southern Appalachians aboive 5,000 feet. Their evergreen nature allows them to survive and even do photosynthesis in the harsh icy conditions on these ridgetops. Fraser fir is most closely related to Balsam fir which lives in the boreal forests far to the north, while red spruce lives all the way up north into Canada.

Edge of forest and bald

However, the balds are the most fascinating feature of this landscape. Yet, are not true alpine areas. In fact, the scientifically predicted elevation for treeline in the southern Appalachians would be nearly 8,000 feet. But, of course there are no mountains in the eastern U.S. that come anywhere close to that!

View into Roan Valley from Jane Bald

From Carver's Gap, the trail will cross into a patch of these spruce on the way up to the first bald area, known as Round Bald. You will arrive at this first little summit area at 3/4th of a mile. Then the trail drops into a bit of a saddle before climbing up to Jane Bald, which is at 5,800 feet. The view from this spot is outstanding.

The rare Gray's Lily

So, where did they balds come from? It is somewhat of a mystery, but it appears that a combination of fire history and grazing by bsion (and then later cattle). Yes, bison were common in the Appalachians until the arrival of settlers in the 1700's. It is thought that these areas are relicts of the Ice Age, when tundra plants colonized them and then they remained open due to periodic lightning-induced fires and seasonal grazing by migrating herbivores. One species endemic to these balds is the Gray's Lily, which can be seen along the trail.

Round Bald Summit

From Jane Bald, the trail drops again about 100 feet before climbing over 500 feet to the summit of the largest open stretch called Grassy Ridge Bald. At 1.9 miles from the trailhead, the Appalachian Trail actually veers left and follows the side of the ridge, while a side trail stays right and heads up to the rocky summit of Grassy Ridge Bald. From the nearly 6200 foot summit, the views are truly panoramic.

More balds on the ridgetops...Yellow Mountain Bald is lower left

As for why these balds persist, one thing is clear, once bison and elk were exterminated and then cattle removed when the areas came under protection, the balds all across the regions began to quickly be reclaimed by forests. Thus, today many of the balds are maintained by the NPS or USFS through prescribed burns, mowing, and prescribed cattle-grazing.

View of Mount Mitchell, the highest peak in Eastern North America, in distance

From Grassy Ridge Bald, you can see Grandfather Mountain to the north and Mount Mitchell (the highest peak in eastern North America at 6,684 feet) and the Black Mountains to the south. We also saw another bald on the next ridge over (Yellow Mountain) and decided to see if we could get to it. So, we backtracked to the Appalachian Trail and following it further north. The trail unexpectedly descended quite some ways down below the spruce forest and back into deciduous stands. We passed an AT shelter and then began climbing up the slope again.

The bald on Yellow Mountain is becoming overgrown

As we approached the bald, we noticed it was heavily overgrown with thistles, biars, and small tress. I guess Yellow Mountain is an example of what will happen to these historic balds if they are not managed and maintained. As there were no further views, we turned around and headed back to Carver's Gap.

Grandfather Mountain rises off in the distance
So, if you are looking for the most outstanding views anywhere along the entire Appalachian Trail, then Roan Highlands is the place to go. As a westerner, used to spectacular views from alpine meadows, I considered myself to have seen the best the AT has to offer.

The view of the entire route from Grassy Ridge Bald
(Round Bald in center, Jane Bald to lower right, Roan Mountain upper left)

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