Catawba Rhododendron and Mountain Ash in
full bloom on the flanks of the Highlands of Roan, June 15, 2002
It had been almost thirty years since
I had been to the Highlands of Roan, on the North Carolina - Tennessee
border. My wife Robin had been there in 1984 so we shared a fond memory
of the place, although our visits were a decade apart. We both on those
separate occasions visited when the Rhododendrons were in bloom, a magical
time, and we both walked through the "Roan Mountain Gardens"
and visited the "High Bluff of Roan". Both spots were memorable,
and recommended by anyone who feels the least "car bound". We
both also recall, upon exiting that wonderful area back to Carver's Gap,
that we each stopped and made half hearted attempts to scale the face
of Round Bald, up the steep and eroded trail that ascended that impressive,
grassy dome. That trail was the Appalachian Trail, on it's way north from
Georgia to Maine.
I can't say now for sure what effect
the vision of a loan hiker cresting the top above me had on my 20 year
old mind that day, but I do remember now a distant recollection that I
thought about such an adventure in that moment. It would be a few years
after that summer day in 1973 before I first donned a backpack and set
out on a trail, at least for the first time in "adulthood".
After 1979 a series of wonders met my eyes, local wonders such as Mt Rogers,
Grandfather, the Blacks, the Balsams, the Smokies, the Unakas, Standing
Indian, Cold Mountain, Shining Rock, and my most visited highlands of
all, Joyce Kilmer - Slickrock. In addition the river haunts took many
sweet weekends, the Chattooga, the Thompson, the Horsepasture and the
Jocassee Gorges stole our hearts for years. The jungles of Costa Rica,
Puerto Rico and Mexico and the coastal roughness of Cape Lookout and Portsmouth
Island met the boots of my family, as my son Simon grew up along the trail.
I can say that the long ago vision of that loan backpacker silhouetted
against the sky, heading into the unknown, may have been an important
influence on this later life. If so, it is an influence I treasure.
Now, through the kind invitation of
a friend, Dr. Charlie McCullough, we had late the evening before decided
to join the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy (SAHC) on a hike
led by Ed Schell, a 79 year old Naturalist and "expert" on the
flora, fauna and history of the Roan Highlands. I was at first reluctant,
not a "joiner", having not been on a "guided" hike
since I was 16. But the shared remembrances of those visits and my wife's
gentle persuasion won me over. We determined to leave at 6:30AM our home
on the French Broad south of Asheville, and through the early morning
river fog and rising sun we drove north toward the Roans.
We arrived, via Roan Mountain, Tennessee,
at Carver's Gap about 45 minutes ahead of the "crowd" at about
8:30AM and discovered a seemingly bitterly cold morning with wind ranging
to 40 mile per hour gusts. Grey clouds passed over in waves driven by
the wind in the early morning light. I was unprepared for the cold, a
"sin" for a "mountain wizard" such as I (I actually
am experienced in the highland's quirks). However with the help of my
friends I ended up comfortable in a borrowed wind breaker. When the members
of the Conservancy arrived at 9:15AM here at the top of the gap, on the
line between Tennessee and North Carolina, we assembled, introduced ourselves,
and "hit the trail".
The junction at Carver's Gap looking toward
Round Bald presents a different picture today compared to the bald and
eroded slope seen in the early 1980s.
The first thing that struck me upon
our arrival at Carver's Gap was the change the years had brought to the
western face of the bald. Now the trail no longer went steeply up the
incline causing the remembered ugly eroded scar. The trees and shubs had
encroached in wide swathes across the vast expanse of grassland I remembered
as well, and the fences, paved parking areas and signs were new to me.
Looking Southeast as we begin the climb
up Round Bald the Welcome To North Carolina Sign has a background that
says it all about why I love it here.
New as well was the growth
of trees and shrubs across the face of the bald.
PLEASE CHECK BACK SOON
A discussion of the
"growing in" of the Balds of the Southern Appalachians with
Ed's comments and thoughts, Dr. McCullough's surprising insights and my
own home grown thoughts...
The history of the Southern
Appalachian Highlands Conservancy and their good works, including their
"pet" project, Grassy Ridge...
Ed's guide, as best
I can remember the wealth of information he imparted, to the flora and
fauna of Grassy Ridge and the Roan Highlands...
All when time allows.
Please visit the good
folks at SAHC at www.appalachian.org
Ed begins the trip with an introduction
to the Mountain Ash and Catawba Rhodos. Our group ranges from 2 to 80.
Ed talks as he walks, pointing out the
"in growth" that is taking hold on the once bare slopes.
The new section of the AT trail built by
Constructed by Tennessee Eastman Hiking Club and Appalachian Trail Conference
Konnarock Crew winds up Round Bald replacing the eroded older route. The
graded footpath is engineered with both aesthetic values and proper drainage
in mind, and is underlaid with a system of plastic "French Drains".
After Ed's recounting the many legends
surrounding the naming of Roan, Charlie McCullough had his own story to
tell. My take, which I kept to myself, is that Roan was named by the early
settlers (ca 1774) of the Watauga settlements. They thought themselves
in Virginia, mistakenly, and looked to the mountain barrier to the southeast
believing it to be the border of North Carolina's Rowan County. Rowan
at the time stretched from the Yadkin River near Salisbury NC all the
way to the coast of California! To them these were the highlands of Rowan.
Looking from Round Bald toward the Northwest,
out toward Johnson City TN.
Round Bald looking North toward Elizabethton
The first "top" along the way
Round Bald looking Northeast toward Mt
Rogers in Virginia
The view from Round Bald back across the
northern part of Carver's Gap
The idealic path crosses the top of Round
Bald and prompts the group to tarry a while in wonder
Ed points out the distant Black Mountains
covered in clouds
A picture could never do the Flame Azalea
justice on the far side of Round Bald
This was the greatest garden of Azalea
I'd ever seen in the wild...
With Round Bald behind us and Roan's two
peaks in the distance, we all prepare in our won ways for the assault
on Jane Bald.
To the south over Grassy Gap the mountains
framing Linville Gorge can be seen
The climb up Jane Bald takes us through
the first Catawba gardens on our route
The surrounding beauty disguises the rugged
and soon brings us straggling to the open
rocks at the top of Jane Bald.
Where we all take a much deserved rest
and admire the 360 degree views...
and contemplate our next "jump",
over the Grassy Ridge in the background... except for Becker, who seems
to have plans of his own.
From the gap between Jane and Grassy we
get a wonderful view of Roan Creek, NC..
No hike in the area can be complete without
a general denunciation of the Condo at Sugar Mountain. Ed points out it's
squarish ridgetop ugliness just visible on the distant skyline across
the flank of Grassy.
Ed recounted how in his early visits here
the balds extended across all the nearby ridges, and now have "grown
in" at an incredible rate
Finally at the top of Grassy Bald we see
the marker set in memory of the early Pioneer who owned this mountain
Here at the "high point" of the
trip Ed tells a tale, while Grandfather Mountain dominates the distant
Grandfather's rugged profile is unmistakable,
with the condo at the left center and Yellow Bald in the foreground.
THe AT follows the near ridges to Little
Hump, and then Big Hump Mountain. In the distance the pointed top of Beech
From the top of windswept Grassy the Black
Mountains, with their high point Mount Mitchell, mark the Southwest view.
To the Northwest from Grassy Bald you can
see our route up along the ridges in the foreground, and distant Johnson
Looking off towards Burnsville and distant
Asheville, lost in haze across the distant Craggies.
The views are a treat in any direction...
but now Ed leads us off the top to the Southeast, and insists that we
soon we all know why, the Gardens of Grassy
Ridge are in the peak of thier blooming! Oh what a sight to behold.
Windblown, sunburned and cold on this unseasonable
June day, and weary after the 2 1/2 mile walk/climb, that all seems a
small price of admission for the beauty of this place.
but Ed, not willing yet to stop, leads
us on into the gardens.
On our way up he scrambles to the top of
a ledge with the excitement of a small child when he spots a "Federally
Endangered" flower growing from the cliff side. He tells us it's
the first he ever saw on Grassy.
For ten days each year a finer destination
couldn't be found on earth, I believe.
Finally at the end of the trail on the
southeast point of Grassy Ridge Ed announces we will turn around
although he confides that he hopes one
day to go on down into Grassy Gap, below us, and climb Little Yellow Mountain
beyond. Maybe he'll wait until he's ninety for that one.
All I can say is I hope he'll take me along.
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