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Roan Highlands - Fair Splendor 6/12

The Roan Highlands are section of the Appalachian mountains in the upper eastern corner of Tennessee that I have wanted to visit for several years. The AT crosses over a 15 mile section of high altitude natural balds, which offer stunning views and and amazing display of wildflowers.  I decided to make it happen, so I set a date and invited some family and friends.  


After a couple months of planning and helping various family prepare for for the trip,  it seems there are things you just can't control. My dad and younger brother weren't ready to go for our planned departure on Thursday evening, and the three of us ended up leaving Chattanooga hours after I had planned to arrive at our trailhead, whic was still a five hour drive away. Yay. 


So we drove through the beautiful moonlit night, arriving below Roan High Knob as dawn stole into the sky. My oldest brother, one of his friends, and the friends father had arrived the night before as planned, and were camped on top of High Knob. So we set out on the trail, deciding to meet up and fix breakfast with them. 


The section of trail up to High Knob is well traveled, but was sublime in the early light. 


It is always haunting to find remnants the past lives and history of these mountains


The AT is a highway through here, but oh so beautiful still.

We arrive at the top in an enchanting light, and find our compatriots still at slumber in the old cabin shelter.

  We roust the crew awake and set to fixing breakfast after some brotherly teasing and heckling.  Our broken fast was fabulous and extravagant thanks to my brother, Nathaniel, humping in a cast iron griddle!

Eggs, bacon, pancakes, sausage, and coffee were consumed eagerly :) Jonathan and his dad did not complain about the results, though asked where the dutch oven was for biscuits.

Some of you will be glad to know the plan all along was to go back to the cars and visit the Rhododendron Gardens before continuing on, so the griddle did not make the 20 mile trek with us, Lol!

After a quick stop at the car, where a couple people reevaluated and ditched some extra weight, we visited the Rhodo Gardens.


 From there, Nathaniel and I shuttled a car to the Mountain Harbour Inn on hwy 19E at the end of our trail, while Dad, Jonathan, his dad, and my youngest brother headed towards Grassy ridge from Carvers Gap.  Once N and I arrived back at Carvers, the afternoon was advancing.

The day was glorious, we enjoyed the surroundings, and I continueally stopped for photographs, but were still able to maintain near a 2mph pace.


I kept thinking there had to be some Hobbits or Elves around here somewhere ;)

N and I crested Round Bald, and see that the rest of our group had only made it to Jane bald below us, meaning they had been covering less than a mile an hour. This did not portend well :( 

Here is Jane bald below, with the imposing climb up Grassy Ridge. The scale here is very deceiving; everything looks much smaller and closer than it actually is.

The views down Round Bald and across Jane Bald were stunning. 


I was delight to find that we had timed our trip almost perfectly for the Catawba and Azalea bloom! The Flaming Azaleas some of the prettiest I'd ever seen.

 This yellow Azalea was less common that the Flaming and pinkish ones.


The trail began to get steeper up Jane.


And then it just got crazy steep!

You couldn't ask for better to look at while you pause to catch your breath

Such rich colour!


Nathaniel and I quickly caught up with our group, and I find my youngest brother, John, was leading the pack :) 

Though he had done one short over-night trip with me before, this was his first real backpacking trip, and he was loving it!

After catching up, we learn that Jonathan's dad, Walter, was struggling a bit with the altitude and steepness of the trail. He was determined to continue, and I decided it would be best to observe and keep hiking on to our camp for the night.  I knew we would have to re-assess our plans, but wanted to see how the rest of the day went first.

While stopped on a break for Walt, who should arrive but Patman!  I knew he planned to come out and join us, but it was great to see he made, and a delight hanging out on trail again.


On the way up Grassy Ridge, the trail is almost one long series of Rhodo tunnels, which I just love.

The landscape is so wonderfully different and seemingly foreign on these unique highland meadows!

The Rhododendron that grows up here, called Catawba, is different than at lower elevations and has deep red or purple flowers, whereas others are white or pink-hearted.

We suddenly pop our on the summit of Grassy Ridge, and realize we had taken the spur trail without even realizing it. Patman pulls out his map and studies it, and was slightly perturbed at such an oversight :)

Nathaniel arrived at the top, and the three of us decide to continue further to scout out a location for camp. Patman had been told of a perfect grassy saddle off the northeast side, with a good water source and marvelous views.  

This was looking back to the south, with Round Bald backlit and shining.

Grassy Ridge is one of the most deeply beautiful and beguiling places I have ever been.


 (More to come....)

There really isn't anything which to compare miles of blooming rhododendron.

Patman found the saddle, and the wonderful water source, which is located off the left (East) side of the saddle just a couple hundred yards. 

The rest of our group made their way slowly down, so we hastily set up camp, and fixed dinner in the dark. Being that Nathaniel and Jonathan were weeing to their meal and helping Walter, and my dad and John were new to this whole thing,  I was in "guide" mode, and had much to do. So, after showing how to set up the tent, get water, cook and clean up dinner, and hang the food, it was very late and I had been up for over 36 hours.

Lets just say it was quite late when I woke, but found everyone but Nathaniel still asleep. Patman had already risen, eaten, packed up, and was chatting with Nathaniel as I roused myself. unfortunately, he headed on before I got out of the tent to say good morning. Before he left, however they were sitting enjoying the fine morning, when a woman in designer clothes, painted nails, and makeup walks ups and demands "Can you PLEASE remove your bags?!"  Bewildered, and a bit startled, what she meant was not readily apparent, so she points accusingly at out hanging food bags several hundred feet away and says "I need you to take those down, they are ruining my photo!" 

Nathaniel complied, but said he was hard pressed not to immediately stripping down to take a washcloth "bath" in the middle of the clearing :)

(correct me if I didn't get the story quite right, Patman, as I was half asleep, Lol!)

Ah, the cluttered madness that is group backpacking meals! 


Nathaniel and I took care of breakfast while the others broke camp, and we eventually hit the trail.

Before we got underway, we talked things over, and Walt decided that he wasn't going to be able to do the rest of the trip. It was settled that he would hike back to Carvers Gap, and would drive the car to meet up with us at the end of the trip.

John was really starting to get the hang of this whole crazy backpacking thing :)

In places, grassy expanses and domes of Catawba almost look like some Savannah, rather than high mountain peaks. So neat. 


The trail tumbles down from Grassy Ridge and into the trees, losing elevation quickly as we make our way towards Overmountain Shelter.

We stopped for a late lunch at Overmountain, and I grabber a photo inside the shelter. This American flag always hangs here, commemorating the stalwart Overmountain Men, who marched across that gap on their way to the Battle of Kings Mountain. Without their arms, that that pivotal battle would likely have been lost, and potentially the entire revolution as a result.

We left the historic camp and began our own assault on the formidable slopes of Big Yellow Mountain, which is no faint foe. About half way up, I turned and snagged this shot of the barn far below. 


Heavy clouds began glowering above and fleeting overhead, so we donned out pack covers.

I love hedgerow trails like this

This group photo makes me laugh :P

There's not much "little" about the climb up Little Hump Mountain. 


The rock formations at the top provide an excellent excuse to take a break, though.


I hung back to get a video of the storm approaching, and the rest of the guys headed on over the summit and off the other side. As i hurried to catch up, I noticed to odd looking fellows, one older and heavier, and another skinny guy with feathers in his dread locks. They were acting strangely, were visibly nervous and startled when I said hello. It quickly became apparent they were in the middle of digging up a Gray's lily, which is highly endangered and protected. I acted like I didn't realize what they were doing, and was able to get a couple photos of the felons once I was in the trees.  I have reported them and given the photos to the appropriate authorities.

This is one of the Gray's Lilies in bloom. Hopefully the [insert derogatory expletive] will be caught and this one won't find itself on the black market.

I sped on ahead, my nerves on edge knowing the poachers would be less than hospitable if they caught me taking photos of their crime. The half mile was exquisite, even in my rush to overtake my group. 


We arrive at Bradley Gap, and are floored by the imposing and massive Hump Mountain on the other side. To get a sense of scale, if you look carefully, the tiny speck on in the saddle is my brother Nathaniel.

My Dad looking like he should be in a brochure or something :)

A view from my tent as we settled in for the evening.

This was taken the next morning.  We set up camp on the lee side of the Gap, as the heavy clouds brought strong winds through the pass. 


I had hung our food down in the glade off the south side of the gap, and was graced by the sight of this beautiful Roan Deer as I went to get it the morning. I also found an strong water source down there, much closer than the one back up the trail.  


Jonathan fixin' up some chow

And so the slog begins...


Did I just see and hear Julie Andrews sing and dance past?


The amazing vistas came with a brutal wind, which was quite welcome though, as it kept us delightfully cool on the strenuous climb

So beautiful

Wild Stawberries!! They were, bar none, the most flavorful and delicious I have ever tasted.

After cresting the massive bald and taking a short break, we continued on to the west and downward as the strong winds continued.

Though the most grand view were behind us now, I really liked the section of the trail between the summit of Hump Mountain and Dolly Flatts. Everything was so verdant and the diversity of flora was wonderful.

So perfect. I wish this place wan't five hours from where I live :(

Such neat plants!


Not too much further now, only a mile or so left.

The picturesque expanse of healthy plants was so pretty, but it held a nasty secret: all of those plants are Stinging Nettle. Best keep to the path through here, Ha! 


You know your journey is nearing it's end when you come to this classic old cruiser. A fittingly melancholic herald, as I don't want to leave or this trip to end yet.

Of course, we had to pose for an end-of-trip group photo :)


And many thanks to Ashleigh, as I learned from her about the fabulous BBQ place in the town or Roan Mountain!


I big thanks to Patman and Ocala as well for all the info you shared that made this a great trek. 

Great TR. This area has long been on my list, but I don't know if/when I'll ever great around to it. But now I've seen it a little bit through your eyes (or lens) -- great photos! That first dawn light/tree tunnel shot is a keeper. I had no idea the balds were so extensive. I think this area has moved up several notches on my list.

Excellent report my friend! I was wondering how the rest of it went for your crew. I knew your photos would be great....


Btw, your brother was nicer than I would have been with that lady and the food bags. I wouldn't have taken down 45 pounds of food just so she could get a picture if I wasn't ready to. lol (besides I thought it was a cool picture anyway)

Regarding the water you found at Bradley Gap: was there a trail down to it or were you bush wacking? I gave it a cursory glance and didn't see it; but the source is marked in one of my trail guides.





Gonzan said:

Before he left, however they were sitting enjoying the fine morning, when a woman in designer clothes, painted nails, and makeup walks ups and demands "Can you PLEASE remove your bags?!"

Uhhhh, ummmm, uhhhhh....

This would have been a perfect time for the "Happy Hippy Hiking Suit" while singing...

I'm just saying. :p

Thanks Big Red,

It really is a special place, and one I am sure to haunt again in the future. The only two things I could wish is that it wasn't so heavily visited, and that it was surrounded by more wilderness. Oh well :)


Patman, Thanks bro, as always I took WAY to many photos and videos. But it is just so hard not to take one every few feet when in a place as beautiful as that. 

I SO wish I had been up and out of the tent for the crazy lady's visit, it is so strange when you see someone like that in the backcountry! 

Ok, getting to the water source is a tiny bit tricky, as water from three sides creates a large seep in the flat area of the glade. There isn't footpath, though there are tons of game trails. If you come at it from a little on the Hump side on the northeast northeast, there is a tongue of higher ground that runs out towards the largest outlying hawthorn in the middle of the grassy bowl. From the tree, turn southeast and follow the open game trails down the drainage and under the canopy for about a hundred yards. The easiest route is fairly obvious. Once the land starts dropping a little more rapidly, angle back toward the Yellow Mountain side of the glade. There is a place where the head of a cloven ravine appears, created where the groundwater emerges from the bedrock under the seep.  The grass of the bowl actually wraps around the west side, and almost meets the head of the flow, but there is a ton of blow down and brambles on that side, and I do not recommend coming around that way. I think Nathaniel recorded a way point with his GPSR, which I will send you if he did. 


Haha, too funny Rick :) 


Great report! Your pictures are beautiful!! It looks like you had a great time. I will definitely go there next year to see all of the rhododendrons! . I am glad you found Bob's Dairyland!!

Ps...The rocks you were resting on at Little Hump are the site of the infamous tuna bomber strike!

Thanks, Ashleigh :) 

I was pretty sure that was where that happened, Haha!

Thanks for sharing this trip report.  I have just now come across it.  I too have this on my list.  I loved your photos. 

Glad you enjoyed it, Soulful. I will most definitely be visiting the Roan again sometime! 

A great trip report, photos, and video.

That really looks like a fantastic place to backpack in.

Your photo #4 is a winner for sure! I also loved #2 & #7.

The wind whipping through the grass in the last video is really cool.

Thanks so much for posting,

Mike G.

Thanks Trout, 

I really enjoyed this trip, even though it had it less than advantageous start and a few bumps along the way. 

I loved the wind on the last day, and was captivated by it running nad playing in the grass as well! 

Say, Gonzan

Thanks for taking time to make the report really special.  I have some friends who are handicapped who might not have enjoyed that view of the world without your camera and imagination!  I am old enough to have enjoyed Ray Stevens for many years, too--fabulous response to ANY annoyance!

I am so glad I could give your friends something special to see!

Beautiful!  Thanks for sharing.

August 8, 2020
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