Monday, November 16, 2009

Hike to Grassy Ridge Bald on Roan Mountain

Grassy Ridge, along the eastern flank of Roan Mountain, is the longest stretch of grassy bald in the Appalachian Mountains, and is an easy hiking destination starting from Carvers Gap.

Because of the massive size of Roan Mountain, let me explain a little bit about the geography of the area.

First off, the Roan Highlands, traversed by the Appalachian Trail, is separate from Roan Mountain State Park, which is located roughly 8 miles north of Carvers Gap.

Roan Mountain comprises the greater part of the Roan Highlands, a 20-mile massif stretching from Big Rock Creek in the west to U.S. Route 19 in the east. Most of the massif lies along the Tennessee-North Carolina border.

Roan Mountain itself contains five mountain peaks, and is divided into two sections by Carvers Gap. To the west of the Gap are Roan High Bluff and Roan High Knob, with Tollhouse Gap and Rhododendron Gardens lying between the two peaks.

To the east of Carvers Gap is the section of Roan Mountain known as Grassy Ridge, which includes three peaks: Round Bald, Jane Bald, and Grassy Ridge Bald. The bald area, spanning roughly 7 miles and covering an area roughly equal to 1000 acres, includes the summits of all three peaks.

Before hiking out to Grassy Ridge Bald, we drove the paved road to Rhododendron Gardens, the largest natural rhododendron garden in the world. We were fortunate to visit in June as the blooms were peaking.

This same road ultimately leads to a short 1.2-mile trail that takes you to an observation platform just below the summit of Roan High Bluff.

Near the Rhododendron Gardens is the site of the former Cloudland Hotel. Built in 1885, the luxurious inn boasted a guest list that included American politicians and European royalty. The hotel, however, was abandoned by 1910 and quickly fell into disrepair.

After visiting the gardens we drove back down to Carvers Gap and, given the time of year and the nice weather that day, we were fortunate enough to find a parking spot.

Our hike began with a series of wooden steps that led us to the summit of Round Bald. Due to the awesome views and the short distance (roughly 0.7 miles), the summit can be quite crowded at times. The farther you walk, however, the less crowded it becomes.

Continuing northbound along the Appalachian Trail for another 0.7 miles (technically walking eastward) we reached our next destination, Jane Bald. In between Round and Jane we lost and regained about 200 feet before reaching the 5807-foot summit of Jane Bald.

Partially overgrown by rhododendron, the bald area atop Jane is much smaller than its two neighbors.

Local legend has it that the peak received its name after a woman named "Jane" died of milk sickness while crossing the mountain (milk sickness is poisoning by milk from cows that have eaten white snakeroot).

Coming off Jane Bald we descended about 100 feet before beginning the final climb of almost 500 feet to the summit of Grassy Ridge Bald.

At roughly 1.9 miles the Appalachian Trail takes a turn towards the left. At this junction you’ll see a side trail that continues straight ahead. This will take you to the summit of Grassy Ridge Bald.

After a relatively stiff climb we reached the huge grassy meadows atop the peak. The panoramic views from the summit area are absolutely stunning. Although it was somewhat hazy on the day of our hike, on a clear day you can see Grandfather, Beech and Sugar Mountains towards the east, and Mt. Mitchell and the Black Mountains towards the south.

Grassy Ridge Bald dominates the center of Grassy Ridge. At an elevation of 6189 feet, it’s one of the highest grassy balds in the Appalachian Mountains.

Scattered throughout the meadows on the summit, as well as along most of the trail, you’ll find beautiful specimens of rhododendron and flame azaleas. We also saw many wild flowers along the route, but didn’t get a chance to see the rare Gray's Lily that are indigenous to the area.

Many people say that this stretch of trail is the most beautiful section along the entire length of the Appalachian Trail. I can’t speak for the trail north of Virginia, but I would certainly rate this as one of the best hikes in the Southern Appalachians.

Grassy Ridge Bald
RT: 5.1 miles
Elev Gain: 1150 feet
Max Elev: 6189 feet

Carvers Gap is located on State Route TN-143 and NC-261, which connects the towns of Roan Mountain, Tennessee and Bakersville, North Carolina.

Jeff Detailed information on trails in the Smoky Mountains; includes trail descriptions, key features, pictures, video, maps, elevation profiles, news, hiking gear store, and more.

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