The Roan Highlands offer a rare stretch of wide-open high country splendor in the Southern Appalachians. “The Roan” is actually a lengthy stretch of grassy peaks. The bald beauties feature expansive, open meadows—not typical of Appalachia’s deep wooded forests.
The best way to take in the Roan experience is an epic 20-mile jaunt on the Appalachian Trail that runs from Roan High Knob (the area’s biggest peak at the 6,285 feet) to Highway 19E. With much of it near or over 6,000 feet, the hike crosses six grassy peaks including Round Bald, Jane Bald, Grassy Ridge (reached with a short spur trail detour), Big Yellow Mountain, and Little and Big Hump Mountains.
In the summer, visitors enjoy the 660 acres of Catawba Rhododendron gardens between the summits of Roan High Knob and Roan High Bluff.
In the winter, explorers come to the highlands for the annual 120 inches of snow. The white-blanketed grassy balds provide some perfect spots for making tracks with snowshoes or cross-country skis. Winter hikers should be careful of fast-changing weather on the exposed terrain.
Roan Mountain State Park, which can be reached near the village of Roan Mountain, is one of the only state parks in the South with designated cross-country skiing trails.
Legend attributes the name of the mountain stretch to Daniel Boone, who supposedly frequented the area on a reddish or “roan” horse. Other tales insist the label is just a result of the red hues of the rhodo blooms.
EAT DOWN BY THE RIVER
After a day of braving the backcountry blizzards, drive into Erwin and grab some top-notch barbecue or hand-tossed pizza at River’s Edge Restaurant (riversedgebbq.com), which sits on the banks of the nearby Nolichucky River.