Day Ten, June 15, Roan High Knob Shelter, 7.6 miles: This is it; today I climb Roan Mountain over 2,100 feet in elevation gain to arrive near the summit. First, however, is a short but steep trek up Little Rock Knob and long descent to Hughes Gap, comprising the day’s initial 3.1 miles. It is a gorgeous morning, ideal for the task ahead.
Little Rock Knob personifies the middle word in its name. Given my extreme distaste for Virginia rocks two years ago, I’m surprised to find that the trail rocks in Tennessee and North Carolina do not evoke the same venomous passion and suspect that the rocks themselves have little to do with it. Perception is important, and my perceptions are thankfully very different in 2015. Yet I also believe the trail surface here is in superior condition overall. I tip my sun hat to the hiking clubs maintaining this stretch.
From the knob, great views of the surrounding mountainous landscape to the north and west reveal an important economic driver here — Christmas tree farms. The Fraser Fir, a co-dominant in the Spruce-Fir forest ecosystem, grows well enough under cultivation at lower elevations for holiday harvesting. These plots of short dark trees organized in rows contrast the bumpy, lighter green canopy of closed forests around them. Some farms cultivate Eastern Hemlock too.
To get from Little Rock Knob through Hughes Gap to the summit of Roan Mountain, the northbound Appalachian Trail runs due south. Such compass anomalies occur with regularity as the A.T. snakes its way from one mountain to another through the Southern Appalachians. In general, we NoBos are headed north but may have to walk east, west, and even south to get there. The A.T. is anything but direct.
In 105 minutes, I am resting and snacking at Hughes Gap in preparation for the big climb. The land here has been in the Hughes family since 1878 beginning with patriarch Charles Hughes (1818-1907). A granite monument at the gap honors five members of that family, including James Frank Hughes who, if still alive as the stone suggests, is now 90.
The northbound ascent of Roan’s north flank comes in two stages. Beginning at 4,000 feet, the trail works its way gradually upslope over about 2.5 miles and becomes steeper near the end of the first stage, cresting at 5,500 feet. There’s no need to rush, and I take the better part of two hours to reach this point, traveling at an easy pace. The trail itself is in fine shape, alternating from the left side of the ridge (east) to the right side (west) which is breezy. Puffy white clouds race across the clear blue sky. Just shy of the crest, I pause for another snack and revel in the serenade of a Hermit Thrush. His languid phrases are intoxicating, and I linger longer than I need, hesitant to disturb the quiet. Walking again, I edge closer to his territory, taking slow steps and pausing each time I hear him sing. Such beauty is rare for me; I cannot let this opportunity pass unappreciated.
At 5,500 feet the trail descends into one of the most beautiful gaps in the mountains, Ash Gap. The forest here has two main layers, a tree canopy of beech, maple, birch, and buckeye with a lush, sensuous ground cover of sedges, most likely Pennsylvania Sedge (Carex pensylvanica). The wide level gap extends maybe 0.3 mile amid this northern hardwoods community and ends at the base of the final ascent. Great camps (at least two large sites) are here with a water source 0.1 mile to the right. I would climb this again in a heartbeat just to camp in Ash Gap.
The second stage of the climb is 1.1 miles and was redirected a few years ago from a straight up path along the ridge line to a much more hiker friendly route with excellent examples of trail work designed to make the journey easier and protect the Spruce-Fir community found throughout this section. There is a marvelous, monstrous Yellow Birch (Betula allegheniensis) that must be many decades old. As is the predilection of this species, it started life perched on a boulder and somehow wound up sideways, jutting one large, gravity-defying bole straight out and sending another in a more gravitationally appropriate upright manner. It has survived and apparently thrived in the cool, moist atmosphere of Roan Mountain despite the very awkward position of its rooted base.
Spruce-Fir forests have been fighting for their survival too. Mature Fraser Firs (Abies fraseri) lost the battle with Balsam Woolly Adelgid, leaving a forest of large Red Spruce (Picea rubens) that resembles a war zone of coarse woody debris as the white snags of dead firs come down. Fraser Fir seedlings are readily found on the forest floor, and saplings not yet old enough to fall victim to BWA fill the understory in places.
Around 1:00 p.m., I emerge from the forested shoulders of Roan and walk among the open patchwork of exposed rock, spaced trees, and grassy expanses. A side trail to the right leads to the parking area and restrooms associated with one of four main attractions on the Roan massif. Now an open meadow, this site was once home to the ugly, three-story Cloudland Hotel built around 1884. In service for 20 years, it was dismantled in 1914.
Two other attractions are Roan High Bluff, a high elevation rock outcropping with rare plants, and Roan Gardens, a path through the Spruce-Fir forest that highlights many of the plant species found on Roan including endemics. The fourth attraction is Carvers Gap and the balds, which I’ll experience tomorrow. If the Cloudland Hotel site is all one had to go one, Roan Mountain would not be worth the time or trouble to visit. Fortunately, the other three sites more than make up for it.
Friends Susan and Allen Sweetser may be visiting Roan today, and I look for them around Cloudland. If we can find each other, we can botanize up here. They know a lot about Roan thanks to their plant mentor, Ed Schell. Since I have never set foot on Roan before, they are to be my mentors. I wasn’t sure how long it would take me to travel 7.1 miles to the top, so we kept things loose. They weren’t certain they would be here today. I see no sign of them but wander the area for at least 30 minutes before continuing to the shelter.
Roan High Knob Shelter is a half mile down a very rocky jeep road, in the middle of which sits a stone chimney. I can find no information on its origin. Situated near the mountain’s true summit (6,286 feet), the shelter is off trail a tenth mile, and neither the skinny brown post marking the trail nor the trail itself are easy to spot. In fact, the side trail is a steep rutted mess of roots that looks more like a drainage ditch. Without the blue blazes, I would not have believed the sign.
This shelter, the highest on the A.T., must have been the caretaker’s cabin associated with a fire tower now gone, only concrete footings remain. There is a spacious fire ring in front of the shelter, and the water source is down another rutted path behind it. The cabin has a narrow covered porch, door, and wooden floor but no sleeping platforms. Hikers must stake out a rectangle on the floor. Given the shelter’s elevation (6,194), I’m sure there are times when the door and too cozy sleeping arrangements are welcome.
An open understory Spruce-Fir forest beyond the cabin contains many potential tent sites. Most have some degree of slant to them. I find a reasonably level location to stake my tent and begin a few camp chores. It’s still early in the afternoon, and there isn’t that much to do. I’m looking for ‘Storm’ and ‘Roachy’ to show. They plan to camp here too. A couple stops by briefly and makes the decision to keep going on this warm sunny day. As they prepare to leave, the man asks if I was the one who left a note on the A.T. post near Cloudland. I tell him no, and he says, “Well, some lady named Margie taped a note with ‘Hi’ and some numbers…215 I think.” “Could the note have been FOR Margie?” I ask. “Maybe.” The Sweetsers did make it, and left a note for me about an hour after I passed through. I ask if they saw a dad with a little red-haired girl. “Yeah, we passed them near the top.”
It’s now 5:00 p.m., and ‘Storm’ and ‘Roachy’ still haven’t arrived at the shelter. Did they decide to leave the A.T. and hitch a ride at Cloudland? Did they miss the shelter side trail? No one else is here, and I’m not sure I want to stay by myself. I’ve either got to pack up and get going (the next shelter is 5.2 miles away) or commit and start dinner. Just as I’ve struck my tent and am about the take down my food bag, they arrive, having lounged at length around the parking area bathrooms and picnic tables.
While cooking dinner, others show. It’s the church group from Cherry Gap. One of the young men looks at me and asks, “Are you the lady that left us a note about the fireflies?” I nod yes. “Thank you so much, it was an incredible experience.” Two of the young women come up to thank me as well. “We’d like to give you a trail name…‘Firefly.’” I’m touched. Having a second trail name gives me options. There will be days when ‘G-Sprout’ just doesn’t fit, then I can be ‘Firefly’ and float through the air glowing!
Day Eleven, June 16, Mountain Harbor Hostel, 15.8 miles: For the first and only time this trip, I need the long johns and jacket I packed. Cool temperatures and breezes overnight are followed by misty clouds enveloping Roan in the morning. I remain bundled through breakfast and the first minutes of today’s journey.
Descent from Roan High Knob follows that rocky jeep road nearly a mile through walls of Catawba Rhododendron and young Fraser Fir, then turns left into the forest winding along the well built trail that mirrors and even exceeds the excellent work seen yesterday. These efforts produce a surface to withstand the harsh mountain elements and heavy foot traffic, keeping hikers on trail and out of the delicate forest community wreathing Roan.
It’s just 1.5 miles from the shelter’s side trail to Carvers Gap. The A.T. emerges from dark Spruce-Fir forest to cross TN 143 within sight of the gap’s large sign. From here the trail passes through long stretches of open sky in a series of grassy balds extending to Hump Mountain 9.5 miles east.
Spruce-Fir forests are deep and primeval, grassy balds offer spectacular views, but Roan Mountain’s two biggest draws are shrubs, Catawba Rhododendron (Rhododendron catawbiense) and Flame Azalea (Rhododendron calendulaceum). Masses of these shrubs in flower, the former around High Knob and the latter on the balds, attract a crush of visitors in mid June and are the featured stars of an annual Rhododendron Festival weekend.
The timing of my trip puts me at Roan a few days before the festival, but I’m already late to the party. The Catawba Rhodos, slave to no calendar, have peaked and many are finished. A few shrubs still hold their baseball-sized clusters of purple flowers, but the main show is over for the year. Flame Azaleas are more cooperative, aggregated in scattered groupings sporting brilliant bundles of yellow to red-orange flowers.
The real botanical interest on Roan would never register on the public’s radar. Sprinkled among the Flame Azaleas are drab Green Alder shrubs (Alnus viridis ssp. crispa), their ovoid female catkins the opposite of showy. Dazzled by orange, I almost fail to notice the alders myself, but when one right under my nose at last pierces my consciousness, the excitement is palpable!
This population is special. Green Alder’s native range is circumpolar. It covers most of Canada and Greenland, dipping into the U.S. through the Great Lakes states and New England, petering out in two Pennsylvania counties with one notable exception. Approximately 450 miles south of the southernmost PA population, Green Alder resides happy as the proverbial pig upon the grassy balds of Roan Mountain. Widely separated species populations are called disjuncts, and they are the subject of biogeography, more specifically in the case of plants, phytogeography. Disjunct northern species like Green Alder and the showier Schweinitz’s Ragwort (Packera schweinitziana) plus species such as Red Spruce and Three-toothed Cinquefoil (Sibbaldiopsis tridentata) that dip south only through the Appalachians provide compelling evidence of plant migration during periods of glaciation. Moving south ahead of ice sheets, these plants settled further downslope while tundra covered the summits. Later, as the climate warmed again, they found suitable local habitats in the mountains’ higher elevations.
Beating Green Alder in the ‘easily overlooked’ category are several grasses and sedges — Hair-grass (Deschampsia flexuosa), Flattened Oat-grass (Danthonia compressa), and White Beaksedge (Rhynchospora alba). These are best explored on a day trip to Roan, when time and miles are not breathing down my neck.
Round Bald is the first grassy expanse past Carvers Gap. ‘Roachy’ gives me her best smile from its summit 30 yards off trail. Jane Bald with its rock slabs is 0.7 mile away, and 0.6 mile further is a side trail (0.5 mi) to Grassy Ridge Bald, something to save for one of those day trips.
Past Roan’s balds, the A.T. reenters the green tunnel and begins a steady descent to Yellow Mountain Gap, passing the Stan Murray Shelter about halfway. Tassel Rue (Trautvettaria caroliniensis) flowers are beginning to open. Numerous thick white stamens prove an eye-catching substitute for petals. What appear to be Cinnamon Ferns crowd one section of the trail. Later, I walk past an Interrupted Fern as tall as me, so they all may be Osmunda claytoniana.
Yellow Mountain Gap (Bright’s Trace) was the route of the ‘Overmountain Men’ who helped rout the British at Kings Mountain during the Revolutionary War. A blue-blazed trail to the right leads 0.3 mile to Overmountain Shelter, a converted barn that accommodates 20 people plus tent sites. A popular stop along the trail, it is also known for its scenic views.
Climbing Little Hump Mountain, I can look back and easily spot the red barn perched mid-slope at the head of a clearing, the valley of Yellow Mountain Gap spreading below. The trail up Little Hump moves in and out of small openings and forests before reaching the open summit. I pause in the shade to eat a snack and apply sunscreen. The morning’s heavier cloud cover has broken into a swift flotilla of sailing cumulus puffs. The sun is bright and strong, yet breezes prevent the exertion of backpacking from becoming too burdensome.
Hump Mountain is visible from Little Hump. The trail makes an abrupt right turn into a thick tunnel of birch and hawthorn trees, but quickly pops out again. From here, the trail bisects a wide grassy boulevard connecting the slopes of Little Hump and Hump through Bradley Gap. Large rock outcrops of gneiss dot the middle slope of Hump. I choose one of these for my lunch spot. Blustery and cool even in mid-afternoon, I don a long-sleeve shirt to avoid becoming both chilled and sunburned.
In this patch of outcrops, a lone stem of Gray’s Lily (Lilium grayi) screams red-orange in the sea of green grass. The wind has this darn thing bouncing and jigging around like a little kid overdue for a potty break, but I keep shooting images until I get a reasonably sharp one. Gray’s Lily is a rare plant, endemic to the Southern Appalachians’ high peaks, and found mainly in association with the Roan massif in Tennessee.
NoBos must push past a couple of false summits to crest Hump Mountain. The true top isn’t visible from lower vantage points on trail. Livestock sometimes graze here though I see no animals or evidence, and fences crisscross the mountain with zigzag stiles for us two-footed beasts to maneuver.
The trail slips back in the woods less than two miles from my intended destination, Doll Flats campsite, but what a 1.6 miles it is. Shades of Virginia’s rockiest terrain hover around me as I negotiate a tough descent that is all the worse for coming at the end of a long day. It doesn’t look bad on Miller’s profile, but holy cow, it’s rough. Once again, heroic maintenance efforts are obvious and appreciated, yet not quite enough to blunt the late afternoon toll. Small Purple Fringed Orchid (Platanthera psycodes) provides a bit of botanical relief.
At last the trail smooths and levels. Another Christmas tree farm is visible through a break in the foliage. On the backside of a small meadow opening a sign on trail announces “Leaving NC.” I step into back into Tennessee at Doll Flats, a lovely campsite right on the trail, its water source on the opposite side. I set up my tent and wait for ‘Roachy’ and ‘Storm.’
They arrive within 45 minutes and are energized, wanting to continue another 2.5 miles to US Highway 19E and the hostel 0.3 mile west. I would be quite content to spend the night in peaceful Doll Flats, but after consulting my plans for the next two days, I determine that getting these extra miles done might be a positive move. My only concern is the condition of the trail down to the highway. The profile looks steeper, and if it’s as rocky as what came before Doll Flats, I’ll be in misery. ‘Storm’s enthusiasm persuades me to pull up my tent and keep going.
The trail is mostly smooth and in good shape. Within 90 minutes we are at 19E thumbing for a ride. Many people pass us despite having an adorable kid in tow. A young man finally stops, and we cram into his compact car. Speeding down the road, we drive well past the hostel’s location and have to double back. Turns out we were less than a tenth mile away when he stopped for us; we hiked 16 miles today.
Mountain Harbor hosts a bed and breakfast in the main house and hiker hostel in a barn with tent sites out back. I’d originally planned to stop here tomorrow morning, pick up my second resupply, shower, wash clothes, and resume the trail to the next shelter. When I arranged to send my second food pack here, the lady I spoke with was very nice. I’ve heard others talk favorably of their experiences with Mountain Harbor, but ‘Storm,’ ‘Roachy,’ and I aren’t so fortunate tonight. It’s 7:00 p.m., and I’m dead on my feet when we ring the doorbell. The man that answers stares as if we were alien life forms. He merely shakes his head “no” when ‘Storm’ asks if there are rooms available in the house. We ask about the hostel, and he shuffles off in search of an answer. The barn is crowded, but there may be one spot in the loft. I ask if there are fans…we post-menopausal women cannot get enough cool moving air at night. He shrugs. ‘Storm’ and ‘Roachy’ give him 15 dollars for a tent site and laundry soap/quarters. I do the same.
The tenting area is very rough and located below the highway where cars and trucks grind uphill. By the time I shower, set up camp, sort my resupply, and finish laundry, it is well after 10:00 p.m. I’m too exhausted to eat dinner. It’s another Vitamin I chugging, ear-plugging night that never quite blocks the sound of traffic groaning on US 19E.