Reminiscing from the Roan Highlands

The Roan Highlands is a stretch of the Appalachian Mountains in Tennessee, and it’s famous for having some of the beautiful mountain meadows in all of Appalachia. It’s also famous for its wildflowers, particularly the rhododendrons, which bloom in June… right when we happened to be visiting.

So with that in mind, I enthusiastically packed my camera and headed off, hoping that our worries about rain that weekend would prove to be nothing more than worries. The plan was to park at a bed and breakfast near the trail, then get the owner to shuttle us to a place called Carver’s Gap. From there we would then walk about 15 miles along the Appalachian Trail (and a third of a mile along a road) back to the bed and breakfast.

As we parked and unloaded our gear, it began to rain, and we began preparing for a long day’s hike through the wet. But almost as soon as we had donned our rain gear, the shower stopped. So when we reached Carver’s Gap and began our trek upward into the mountains it was cloudy and humid, but pleasantly cool and most importantly, not raining.

Sure enough, the rhododendrons were on full display, with countless clusters of pink blossoms scattered across the hillsides. Plenty of other wildflowers were competing for attention, too, and we saw lots of cameras mounted on tripods as seemingly hundreds of photographers swarmed along the trail, seeking to capture the beautiful displays of not just pink, but yellow, orange, red, white, and purple as well.

As we rose higher into the mountains, the number of dayhikers and photographers dwindled. Eventually we left the meadows for the cover of forest, and the wildflowers too became more scarce, though what flowers we did see were still impressive. The most interesting find of the day was a Gray’s Lily growing on the side of the trail. Gray’s Lily is a rare, possibly even endangered flower that only grows in a few locations in Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia, mostly high meadows above 4000 feet. Apparently one of the causes of its rarity is that it’s often eaten by grazing cows (more on this later), so we were lucky to find one mere inches off the side of the trail.

There were also entire fields of Queen Anne’s Lace (aka Wild Carrot), which unlike Gray’s Lily is an invasive species and generally to be considered an obnoxious weed. But it was still pretty in its own way, mainly for the arrangements of flowers which branched out by the dozens from the tall stems, and the flurry of tiny insects that created a hive of activity (no pun intended) on each bunch of blossoms.

By the time we reached Overmountain Shelter, a massive barn-like structure that was to be our stopping point for the night, the skies had cleared and the afternoon Sun was shining overhead. We discovered that we would be sharing the shelter with a few other hikers and a large crew of volunteers who were in the midst of doing a trail reroute, so we made friends (I cozied up to the people who were listening to the US-England World Cup match on a portable radio), and then spent the afternoon relaxing. We explored the area around the shelter (including traipsing down phantom paths that gradually disappeared into overgrown brush), and watched our fearless leader Josh Hartman stand on one foot and juggle. I even took a turn myself, just to prove that I could indeed keep all 3 balls in the air at once (ignoring the way they all fell to the ground about two seconds later).

As the sun went down, Josh and I used the zoom lenses on our cameras to take pictures of cows grazing on Big Hump several miles away. Big Hump is the largest of the Roan Highlands meadows, and we could see it quite clearly, stretching along the top of a ridge which loomed large on the left side of the valley. Conquering it would be tomorrow’s work.

As we arose the next morning, we were greeted by a foggy, humid day. Big Hump, which had been so clearly visible the previous night, was now socked in by clouds. Rain had fallen in the night, but except for a brief sprinkle as we were having breakfast safely under the shelter roof, it seemed to have tapered off. So we crossed our fingers, hoping that like the tease of a shower we had endured before setting off the previous morning, that would be the end of it.

But a few minutes after we began our ascent, the skies opened up, and soon we were trudging along, heads down, making our way up a steep climb in the pouring rain. As we walked, the trail turned in a muddy little creek, rivulets of water flowing down the mountain and soaking our boots and shoes in the process. The nine miles to the road was beginning to look like a very long hike indeed.

The reason I titled this post “Reminiscing from the Roan Highlands”, in addition to having an affinity (some would say ailment) for alliteration, is that the last time I hiked this stretch of the AT was in 2004, during my Georgia-to-Maine thru-hike. It was winter, so the landscape was brown, the trees were bare, and there wasn’t a wildflower to be seen for miles, but we did get some amazing views. In my trail journal entry from that day, I described being able to see Mt. Rogers and White Top in Virginia, Mt. Mitchell and Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina, and in general I remember this area as having some of the most spectacular scenery of the southern AT, sort of a Franconia Range for the southern Appalachians.

But views were not to be had today, so I had to make do with reminiscing. The rain stopped as we reached the top of the ridge, but the clouds stayed, and so we made our way across wide, grassy meadows that, while still pretty on their own, were completely socked in by the fog.

The climb up Big Hump was a long one, and since we could only see about fifty feet in front of us, it kept looking like we might be nearing the top. But whenever we moved a little further up the mountain, we would see that the length of our climb had extended by exactly as far as we had walked. Doug, one of my hiking companions, accurately described it as “Nature’s Treadmill.”

We reached the top, hoping for a miraculous parting of the clouds, but alas, it was not to be: the fog was as dense as ever. We did get some sporadic parting of the clouds on the way down, offering a few tantalizing glimpses of distant ridges, but by and large the clouds stayed with us until late morning, long after we had made our way off the grassy meadows. Back under forest cover, we began to push harder to get to the road, scrambling over long stretches of very slippery rocks (including one which gave me a nice bruise on my ass as a souvenir), which finally, a couple of miles before the road, gave way to a gently-downward sloping dirt path and a much simpler and more pleasant hike through the woods.

All in all a good trip– we missed out on some views, but the wildflowers were amazing, and I got a lot of practice with macro photography. If you’re interested in the full set of pictures, click here.

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