Roan Highlands

Appalachian Adventures: Roan Highlands

One benefit of a Lees-McRae education is access to outdoor adventures mere minutes from campus. Follow recent graduate Juan Sebastian Restrepo ’21 as he spends his final summer in Banner Elk exploring the High Country.  

“This is what completeness looks like,” commented Benjamin Herman, a senior Sport Management student from Charlotte, North Carolina, as we watched the sunset from the top of Grassy Ridge Bald. “It has everything. There is nothing that it’s missing or needs.” 

Herman could not have used better words to describe that day’s sunset scene. The sunset from Grassy Ridge Bald is incomparable to any other I had viewed in my life. A fading yellow to red rim extended across the horizon, like a threshold separating the clear blue of the summer sky from the misty blue of the Blue Ridge Mountains afar. The outline of the sun was perfectly visible as it slowly descended behind the mountains. For brief seconds, the sun seemed to remain suspended in the distance, as if time had frozen. 

Watching the sunset from the Roan Highlands had been on my bucket list for the past few months. I hiked this trail for the first time last February with Lees-McRae Outdoor Programs. Since then, I had looked forward to the return of summer for an opportunity to witness this matchless spectacle. 

In June, I invited Herman to join me on this long-delayed trip to the Roan Highlands. Unlike my first hike to Grassy Ridge, the knee-high snow had melted away, unveiling the tall grassy fields that give this place its name.   

Herman and I met around 6 p.m. in downtown Banner Elk to start our adventure. This was going to be his first visit to the Roan Highlands. It was an idyllic summer evening, with temperatures around 70° F. The shining sun and clear blue sky predicted the fantastic sunset view awaiting us. 

With our backpacks loaded with snacks and water, we buckled up and headed out. It is a 41-minute drive to reach the Carvers Gap trailhead from Banner Elk. First, drive down NC-194 S towards Elk Park, turning right onto US-19E N toward Roan Mountain, Tennessee. Then, once in Roan Mountain, turn left onto TN-143 S and drive up to the North Carolina-Tennessee state line. 

After turning left and entering Roan Mountain State Park, we began to ascend towards Carvers Gap. The surrounding hardwood forest formed a tunnel over the road. We soon entered the Cherokee National Forest. As we approached the summit, fir trees were visible over the ridgeline. Under the sunlight, the foliage of the woods below us resembled a tapestry of green cotton balls.  

“This day is perfect,” said Herman, marveled by the mountain view.  

Upon arriving at Carvers Gap, we parked on the side of the road and prepared for our hike. The trailhead is located at 5,512 feet (1,680 meters) above sea level. From this point, we had 5 miles (8 kilometers) of hiking ahead with around 1,100 feet (335 meters) of elevation gain. 

At the trail entrance, a board by the U.S. Forest Service informs visitors of the uniqueness and fragility of the ecosystem of the Roan Highlands. The spruce-fir forest and grassy and shrub balds in this area are natural time capsules. More than 10,500 years ago, during the Ice Age, giant mastodons grazed these lands. Some of these balds date back as far as 2.6 million years ago.  

Roan Mountain is also home to rare indigenous plants and flowers such as Gray’s lilies, Blue Ridge goldenrods, and mountain bluets. The U.S. Forest Service requests visitors to be mindful of the ecosystem’s fragility and avoid building fires on the rocky outcrops or picking or digging the flowers or plants.  

The trail is well outlined with trail blazes and signs all the way to Grassy Ridge bald. There are no significant obstacles across the ridgeline. As we began hiking, we crossed under a dome of pine trees. It felt as if we were walking through the forest in “The Wizard of Oz.” Herman took a moment to photograph some of those enormous trees, whose long branches resembled tentacles extending in all directions.

We followed the path to Round Bald, the first of three peaks across the ridgeline. From here, we could observe the long stretch of grassy balds ahead, extending as far as the eye could see. Clusters of bluets and rhododendrons were abundant over the grassy fields. “Now, I can see why it’s called Grassy Ridge,” joked Herman. “It’s a good name for this place.” 

As we walked through this first easy section of the trail, we encountered other visitors who, like us, were enjoying the summer weather and delighting in the panoramic views. There were groups of families with children and other hikers with dogs heading back to the trailhead. In addition, we spotted some campers preparing their tents for the night and some people meditating cross-legged over a rocky outcrop. 

As we made our way across the ridge, the view of the Blue Ridge Mountains on all sides was breathtaking. From this perspective, we could observe why this area of Appalachia is named Blue Ridge. In the distance, the mountain forest’s green faded into a misty blue, which blended with the blue of the sky on the horizon.

Soon, we reached Jane Bald, the second peak across Grassy Ridge. A local legend tells that a woman named Jane died of milk sickness as she crossed the mountain. From here, we could see the meadow and Grassy Ridge Bald in the distance. 

Scattered overgrown rhododendrons dominate the last section of the trail. Pink knots were visible at the ends of the buds, announcing the upcoming blooming season. In a few weeks, pink clusters of rhododendron gardens will decorate the ridgeline. Each year, floods of visitors conglomerate in Roan Mountain State Park to witness this picturesque spectacle during the Roan Mountain Rhododendron Festival. Since 1947, Carter County has hosted this festival during mid- to late June.  

Herman and I descended Jane Bald and began our final ascent into Grassy Ridge Bald. We entered a rhododendron thicket that forms a tunnel. We barely fit under this grove, almost bumping our heads on the branches above us as we walked through. 

We emerged from the flowers into a grassy field that resembled a postcard of the French Alps. We strolled through the overgrown pastures towards the boulders at the peak of Grassy Ridge Bald. From this spot, located at an elevation of 6,189 feet (1,886 meters), we had a 360° view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The tops of Beech, Grandfather, and Sugar Mountains were visible on the east, and there was a clear view of the Black Mountains toward the south. 

Herman and I arrived at Grassy Ridge Bald right after 8 p.m. There were two campers with a terrier sitting over the peak facing west, waiting for the sunset like us. We had half an hour before twilight to relax with the sounds and views offered by the highlands. 

As we waited for the sun to set on the horizon, we let the peacefulness of the mountain embrace us. The temperature slowly dropped as the minutes passed. We could feel the gentle touch of the breeze, which was almost a whisper in the deep silence governing that evening. We could hear even the slightest movement of pine branches and the passing of bees. Some robins were hopping on the grass, probably searching for a late snack before the night fell. In addition, we spotted a deer that emerged from the surrounding pines to grass the meadows. 

When Herman and I reached Grassy Ridge Bald, he was immediately enchanted by the magical aura emanating from the mountain. He video called his girlfriend to share with her the panoramic of the peak. “You get recharged by the view,” remarked Herman at one point as we awaited the sunset. 

Finally, the moment we had come to see arrived. The blue western sky faded into yellow and red tones in harmonious synchrony as the sun crawled behind the horizon. The sun’s outline was visible. It looked like a white lightbulb suspended over the red skyline. Time seemed to slow down as the sun hid behind the mountains until the last speck of light disappeared. 

Herman and I jogged back to the trailhead before night fell upon us. Despite the rush to reach Carvers Gap before dark, we could not avoid turning our heads towards the fading twilight as we ran back across the ridgeline.  

Watching the twilight from Grassy Ridge Bald is an unparalleled experience. One cannot often take a break from the seemingly unending rush of college or work and admire the hues of a sunset. “Such spectacle reminds me of how fast time flies and how small we are,” reflected Herman on an Instagram post the day after our trip. 

In his last year at Lees-McRae, Herman plans to return to the Roan Highlands and share this experience with his friends, thus helping other Bobcats discover the meaning behind the college’s motto—In the Mountains, Of the Mountains, For the Mountains. 

By Juan Sebastian Restrepo ’21July 06, 2021
Campus Life