Scaling the Balds

A Weekend on Tennessee's Appalachian Trail
By Doris Gove
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Wide-open spaces, miles of waving grass, alpine wildflowers—is this the southern Appalachians? Botanist Asa Gray observed in the 1880s that he could ride his horse for 14 miles on Roan Mountain and not pass a single tree. The Roan Massif, a chain of high peaks in northeastern Tennessee, is almost as high as the Smokies and significantly farther north, so it supports northern species of plants and animals. Jane Bald, Hump and Little Hump Mountains, and Grassy Ridge make up the largest of the southern Appalachian grass balds on mountains said to be the world's oldest. Botanists don't understand the origin of balds, which look as if they have a treeline.This spectacular hike has three shelters, several campsites, panoramic vistas, and an unusual history. The original AT route did not include the Roan Massif. However, the late Stan Murray, the ATC chairman from 1961 to 1975, fell in love with Roan Mountain and worked with the U.S. Forest Service to include it in the AT route. Then Murray became the director of the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, which works to protect the Roan Highlands by land purchase and conservation easements. In sports, this is called following through. Murray's widow, Judy, wrote a doctoral dissertation on AT hikers, and since Stan's death in 1990 (his ashes were scattered on Hump Mountain), Judy continues his conservation work on these beautiful mountains.

Caution: Weather can be extreme on any part of Roan Mountain. Wind, rain, snow, ice, dense fog, and lightning can all be dangerous. Check for current conditions by calling the U.S. Forest Service or by asking at the state park visitor center on TN 143. Stay off the balds in thunderstorms. In cold weather, some hikers bring crampons to wear on icy trail.

To start, go north from the parking area, cross TN 143, climb the road bank, and cross a log stile. The AT continues straight up the grassy hillside on a gravel path with logs across it. Reduce erosion on this fragile habitat by keeping your feet on the logs or gravel, even when they are slippery, and resist the temptation to walk on the grass.

About 0.5 miles ahead, just left of the trail, is a patch of Fraser firs, planted on the bald in the 1940s by Dr. D, M. Brown of East Tennessee State University. He wanted to solve the mystery of the balds by seeing if fir trees could live in the treeless area of thick grass. His trees grew well, but they did not reproduce, and now they are dying of old age or insect damage.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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