Scaling the Balds

Roan Mountain
By Doris Gove

Asa Gray described Roan as the most beautiful mountain east of the Rockies, and he explored them all. Three hundred species of plants, seventy-five of them rare, live here, including Gray's and Michaux's lilies, which bloom in July and are favored by hummingbirds. And one hundred species of birds nest or pass through here: warblers, snow buntings, sawwhet owls, and peregrine falcons. Saw-whet owls, smallest and rarest of eastern owls, live in spruce-fir and are named for their call, which is like a saw being sharpened. Listen for it after dark.

The AT continues up an eroded gully past patches of Greenland alder, flame azalea, Catawba rhododendron, mountain ash, and a few scraggly yellow buckeyes. Just after the patch of Fraser fir at 0.8 mile, the AT descends to Engine Gap, where a sawmill engine once pulled Tennessee logs up to the top so they could be sent down to North Carolina sawmills (there weren't any sawmills in Tennessee back then). At 1.1 miles the AT turns left on a grassy path near the summit of Jane Bald, named for a woman who died there of milk sickness. An unmarked trail goes on straight to Grassy Ridge. Watch for white blazes on rocks or posts.

Weathered exposed boulders here are Precambrian; that is, formed before there were hard-shelled animals to leave fossils as layers of rock accumulated. This rock was probably formed in what is now South America, but it is so old that geologists cannot determine where it came from.

Look for gneiss-rock that has light bands of quartz and feldspar alternating with dark bands of mica or hornblende. With a hand lens, crystals of quartz in the light bands should be visible. This metamorphic rock endured extreme heat and pressure, which caused the compounds in it to melt and flow together before hardening again. Pink feldspar and green epidote are two other rock types on the trail.

The AT swings along the north side of Grassy Ridge through short alder trees and then through beech forest. A flat, grassy campsite is at 1.6 miles, and 100 yards farther is a good spring. The trail turns left again and descends steeply through stunted beech trees and twisted yellow birches. This north-facing slope may be covered with ice even when spring flowers are blooming up on the bald.At 3.0 miles the AT levels at Low Gap (5050 feet), and the Stan Murray Shelter (built in 1977) stands on the left, surrounded by fat-trunked yellow buckeye trees looking like African baobabs, all the same height because of the strong wind in the gap. There's a spring 100 yards to the right, and the view to the right shows the summit of Jane Bald, 800 feet higher.

Ascend from the gap through more stunted beech trees. Look for beech drops, parasitic flowering plants that grow under beech trees and suck food from their roots. Beech drops look like brown 8-to 12-inch twigs growing out of the ground.

From the crest, descend by switchbacks and an old road to Buckeye Gap at 3.9 miles. Watch white blazes carefully; trails, roads, and turns of the AT can be misleading. After the next summit turn right and descend along an old fence to Yellow Mountain Gap at 4.7 miles. The historic Overmountain Victory Trail crosses the AT here.

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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