Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Roan Mountain NC/TN

Because of Ann's injured knee, we took the hiking very easy on Tuesday so that she would be able to hike Roan Mountain on Wednesday. Every time that I mentioned hiking in Western NC to friends and acquaintances, each responded that we just had to hike Roan Mountain. So I was excited, but not quite sure what the experience would be. Now that I have seen it, it fully lives up to its reputation as the most beautiful section of the Appalachian Trail. If you have not been, put it at the top of your list. The photos in this post do not do it any justice at all.

Wednesday morning dawned spectacularly clear and sunny and found us bright and early having breakfast of bacon and eggs with Anne, the B&B owner, who suggested some more local day hikes for us. They both sounded interesting but we were dead set on going to Roan Mountain, over on the NC-TN border. Although it was only a few miles away, it took well over an hour to reach, there being no direct routes through the high mountains. From Boone, NC you head west to Roan Mountain, TN before driving south back through Roan Mountain State Park to the parking lot just on the border of the two states.

We parked nominally in TN at about 5500 feet, but spent the majority of the day either straddling the border or in NC. As we approached the parking area, we climbed first to 4000 feet and then through 5000 feet, going from spring back to late winter in the process. The views into Tennessee on the way up were phenomenal and were a small taste of what we would see up on the mountain, especially when we topped out on Grassy Ridge Bald at 6189 feet.

From the parking area at Carver's Gap, the plan was to hike the AT north (trail north, compass east) up Round Bald, to Jane Bald, to Grassy Ridge Bald, have lunch there, then come back to the parking lot and hike Roan High Knob and Roan High Bluff (trail south, compass west) after lunch. With Ann's bum knee, however, we contented ourselves with the three grassy balds for a total of 6 miles on the day. We'll just have to do the rest of Roan Mountain on our next trip to the area.

Start of Hike #16 of 2017

Starting in TN and Hiking the NC/TN Border
To set the scene for you, we parked in the lot at the west side of the gap, crossed the road, climbed though an opening in the wooden fence, and joined the AT proper a few feet up. The actual AT crosses the road about thirty yards to the Tennessee side from the parking lot. Under cloudless blue skies on a crisp and breezy day, we started climbing an open bald very similar to Max Patch. A few short minutes later, the scenery breathtaking in every direction, we topped out on Round Bald three hundred feet above the parking lot.

Conifers and Rhododendrons Against the Sky

Top of Round Bald, 5826 Feet High

Descending Towards Jane Bald
Going up Round Bald, there were no flowers to speak of aside from the odd wild strawberry and perhaps a dwarf cinquefoil or two. But descending the back side of the bald facing Jane Bald, we came upon large patches of trout lilies, wood anemones, and most common of all, thyme-leaved bluets, gorgeous sky blue four-petaled flowers with a deep yellow center. The thyme-leaved bluets are so much more blue than common bluets.

Trout Lily, Erythronium americanum

Wood Anemone, Anemone quinquefolia

Thyme-leaved Bluet, Houstonia serpyllifolia
Though the balds are largely that, bald, there are some short shrubs in patches on some of the hillsides, most commonly rhododendrons as you see Ann climbing through below, but also large patches of low green alders, Alnus viridis, bearing catkins but no leaves currently. Imagine how spectacular these balds will be in June when the rhododendrons are in full bloom.
Rocky Climb to Jane Bald

Round Bald, Roan High Knob Behind, from Jane Bald

More Rock Going up Jane Bald

From Jane Bald, Round Bald, Roan High Knob, Roan High Bluff

Who is This Jane?

South From Jane Bald

Also South from Jane Bald
I took a picture of the AT looking back south from the summit of Jane Bald so that you can see how impossible it is to miss the trail. And, thank you maintainers, this section of the AT is one of the most highly-blazed sections that I have ever walked, with blazes in places not more than twenty feet apart!

The AT Heading South over Round Bald
I've see all kinds of blazes on the AT on pretty much everything from buildings and sidewalks (Damascus), bird houses (Max Patch), road signs (Snickers Gap), and so forth and so on. And some of the maintainers are pretty crafty, witness the barbed wire fence posts in this section, already pre-painted and ready to go from any farm store anywhere. Schlepping these posts and a sledge-hammer to drive them up the trail cannot be a lot of fun however, but in terms of ease of blazing, these take the cake!

Lazy Man's Blaze
Just beyond Jane Bald, the AT dips left and the side trail to Grassy Ridge Bald goes straight on then climbs right, leaving the border and heading into North Carolina. There are a lot of side trails off the AT and thru hikers often pass many of them by, deeming them unworthy of the extra steps. I certainly understand this but I think that Grassy Ridge Bald is a blue blaze worth taking. Where else will you be on the treeless summit of one of the highest peaks in the east (6189 feet) with 360-degree views?

More Balds to the North

Flag Tree Ascending Grassy Ridge Bald
Being 6'-4" (almost 2 meters, kids) has a lot of advantages in hiking, but also its downsides as well. My wife calls me a mountain goat because these long legs can really get up a hill, but on the downside, all my gear weighs more than regular-sized gear and I do have to lug that weight up the hill. Rhododendron tangles are generally no fun for me either. Below, you see 5'4" Annie trucking through a 5'-6" rhododendron tunnel heading up Grassy Ridge bald. Me, I had to look down to make sure of my foot placement on the rocky trail and then look up to make sure I didn't smack my head, for. each. step. all. the. way. through. the. freaking. tunnel! I only smacked my head twice.

Rhododendron Forest

Grassy Ridge Bald, 6189 Feet High
We looked around the summit of Grassy Ridge Bald for a few minutes, trying to find the best spot for lunch, ultimately settling on a rock outcropping looking back west at Roan High Bluff and Roan High Bald. As we sat in the warm sun on the rocks eating our lunch, several males juncos entertained us, competing vocally with one another from their respective fir trees in a trill-a-thon. It was very difficult for me to want to leave our lunch spot to head back towards the car. I have seldom had lunch in a more beautiful location and I just didn't want our day to end.

Our Lunch View Did Not Suck

Checking out the View 

A Junco Trilling in Every Fir Tree

Grey Catbird at Carver's Cap
On the return as we approached Carver's Gap, coming back down off Round Bald, we kept hearing catbirds calling back and forth across the rhododendron patches and every now and again, we would see one flit across the path. Just like up on the mountain, it seemed that every fir tree had its junco, down lower, each rhododendron patch had its catbird. I was fortunate that one hopped up on a branch so that I could photograph it: catbirds are notorious skulkers.

As we stepped off the AT and prepared to go through the fence down to the road, I saw a couple of obvious thru hikers sitting on the side of the road. Well, actually, one was lying against the bank, shirt off, eyes closed, catching some rays. Clearly, Ann, a couple steps behind me, did not see them. Just as she came to the top of the steps down to the road, she exclaimed, "Oh God, there's a body!" as she sighted the shirtless one.

This got their attention and we all had a great laugh. They were Never Cool and Mitch and we chatted a few minutes and then I brought them a few oranges from the cooler in the car. I know just how good, after days on the trail, fresh fruit tastes. I've only ever been out on the trail for three weeks at a time, but I know that after about 4-5 days of trail food, I could eat an entire salad bar. We said our goodbyes, took the orange peels back to the car, and headed back into Tennessee on our way back to Boone.

It was late afternoon and we already had tentative plans to have salame, cheese, and a bottle of wine on the balcony of our room, looking out over the mountains as the sun set. With only a meager trail lunch in our bellies, we were pretty hungry, so I suggested a return visit to Appalachian Mountain Brewery and another small wood-fired pizza.

Appalachian Mountain Brewery, Once Again

Awesome Pizza

Farm 2 Flame Mobile Pizza Works
Back at the B&B, we sat on the balcony and watched the birds and beasts on the feeders until it was time to go downstairs for a couples massage that Ann had arranged as a surprise for me. I was pretty apprehensive, never having had a massage before. It turned out to be an OK experience. I might do it again. ;)

Male Downy Woodpecker

Wild Turkey Hen Below our Balcony
After our massages, we returned upstairs and headed for the balcony to enjoy our dinner and our Barbaresco while watching the sun go down and the flying squirrels and bats zipping everywhere. With the sun down, it got nippy enough that we headed inside and turned out the lights. Thursday would see us heading to nearby Grayson Highlands and Mount Rogers and because of the weather forecast, it would be an early morning.

Chorizo, Goat Cheese and Barbaresco

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