The mountains were calling… Okay, so they’re pretty much always calling, but still. They called and we WENT! We hitched up the camper, loaded up the mutts, and headed west just over the TN border to Roan Mountain State Park. After our last epic TN camping trip, we were hungry to check out more of what the state has to offer.
This may be one of my new favorite trips of all time. Well, with the exception of the one crazy hiccup. I was expecting something to go wrong, because, well, it’s us and something always does, but this was on a whole nother level. More about that later.
Day 1 – Setting Up Camp and Hitting the AT
We got to Roan Mountain State Park around 2pm and headed to the campground. If you are an RVer, you can’t beat these sites. Nice and flat, paved, super easy to pull into. We found our site (4A), set up the camper, got the dogs situated, and checked the maps to see where we wanted to hike. I had been itching to check out Grassy Ridge since I first saw pictures of it online, so we opted to do that first.
*If you prefer tent camping (and maybe aren’t bringing 4 dogs), the tent sites are really nice here too. If you want some extra creature comforts, they have cabins to rent as well.
Anyway, onto the good stuff.
While there are some great little hikes within the park itself, the main event is just outside the park in Cherokee National Forest. Roan Mountain, which is more of a range than a single mountain (called a massif) is GORGEOUS. Right at the NC/TN Border is the Carver’s Gap Trailhead, which grants you access to one of the most popular (and beautiful) sections of the Appalachian Trail in the South, Grassy Ridge.
Grassy Ridge via the AT
Head Northeast from Carver’s Gap on the At to Grassy Ridge for some of the most beautiful views of the Blue Ridge Mountains you’ll ever see. The trail takes you up and over 3 treeless, grassy balds, giving you a seemingly endless 360 degree view of the surrounding mountains. This hike is like a technicolor dream! Bright green grasses cover the balds under your feet, mountains in every shade of blue in the distance, under an even bluer sky. It’s nothing short of magical.
Bald #1 – Round Bald
From the trailhead, you’ll follow the gravel path and several sets of wooden steps about 3/4 of a mile to Round Bald. With an elevation change of only about 400 feet, this is the easiest of the balds to get to, and therefore the most popular. On the weekends, this bald is bound to be pretty busy. To avoid the crowds, try to visit during the week or early in the day. We went on a Wednesday and Thursday and had the place virtually to ourselves.
It’s also a great place to run around and embrace your inner child!
If you like the views from Round Bald, you will LOVE the views from the higher elevation balds to come on this trail. Not only are the views better, but many people turn around after Round Bald, so the trail is a lot emptier. After a long day of driving and setting up camp (and being so excited that we forgot to eat), we were tired and decided to do the same. We headed back to camp, ate dinner, cracked open a cold one and rested up to tackle the rest of the balds in the cooler morning temps.
Day 2 – Balds, Falls, and Felonies
We set our alarms for 6:30 am on Thursday to hit the trail nice and early. I made some pancakes (which we shared with the pups), packed up our gear and we headed the 8ish miles back to Carver’s Gap. We quickly retraced our steps from the day before, still in awe of the gorgeous landscapes on this section of the AT. Then we continued further down the trail to tackle the next 2 grassy balds.
Along the way, we met SO many nice people! That’s one of my favorite things about hiking, especially on a trail like the AT. You just meet the most interesting people. We even met an older gentleman by the name of Richard Judy, who we chatted with for a while about the trail. Turns out he’s a thru-hiker and wrote a book about his experience. We couldn’t help but order a copy to read when we got home. Here’s a link to his book entitled THRU- An Appalachian Trail Love Story if you’re interested!
Bald #2 – Jane Bald
Time to hike up to Bald #2, Jane Bald. Jane bald is a bit higher in elevation than Round Bald, at 5807 feet. The views from the top are a bit different too, as it is covered in Rhododendron bushes. In June, crowds of people flock to this trail to see the bright purple flowers covering the balds.
Jane Bald also has a good amount of exposed rock and large boulders, giving it a much more mountainous feel. (read EPIC)
Couldn’t resist a little Lion King action, the rock was just too perfect.
After you’ve spent some time exploring the many different sights of Jane Bald, continue along the trail until you reach a fork. You can then go left to continue Northbound on the AT or go right (basically straight) to climb the steepest part of the trail thus far to your third summit. This spur trail will take you to the top of your third bald, Grassy Ridge Bald.
As you get closer to the summit, this trail gets steep, narrow and rocky, leading you through dense rhododendron bushes. On a hot day, this part of the trail can be pretty brutal, especially in full sun, but the view from the top is more than worth the climb!
Bald #3 – Grassy Ridge Bald
By the time you reach the summit of Grassy Ridge Bald, you’re probably ready for a break. The gorgeous, flowing grasses atop this bald are a perfect place for a picnic lunch. Sit in the grass, take in the views, and rest up for the hike back out. At an elevation of 6189 feet, this is one of the highest balds in the Appalachian Mountains and the views are nothing short of breathtaking.
Total hiking distance from the parking area to this point on Roan Mountain and back is about 5 miles. While not an extremely long hike, make sure you allow yourself plenty of extra time to explore the balds, take pictures, and bask in the beauty of this place. And bring LOTS of water. There is practically zero shade on this trail and the sun in the spring and summer months can be brutal. Similarly, the lack of trees to block the wind will make for an especially chilly hike in fall and winter.
This section of the AT is often referred to as one of the most beautiful parts of the entire trail. After seeing it myself, I can absolutely see why!
IN Roan Mountain State Park
After a short rest back at camp, we decided to check out some of the trails within the state park itself, starting at the visitor’s center. Roan Mountain State Park is comprised of over 2,000 acres of gorgeous hardwood forest situated at the base of Roan Mountain. With over 12 miles of hiking trails (and 3 miles of mountain bike trails), there is a lot to explore without leaving the park.
The trails are all relatively short (ranging from .25 – 2.75 miles) and run the gamut of difficulty levels. Our favorite was the Peg Leg Mine Trail, which starts right at the Visitor’s Center.
The trailhead starts directly behind the gorgeous waterwheel to the left of the building and leads a short .35 miles through the woods to the remains of an old iron ore mine. The mine, which was operational in the 1800s, has since mostly collapsed, so entry is not permitted for safety reasons. The trail though, is lush and green and peaceful.
So, if you’ve been following our adventures for a while, you know that they tend to lean a bit towards (mis)adventures sometimes. Just when I was starting to think that this trip would be different, reality reared its ugly head.
When we got back from our short Peg Leg Mine hike, we hit the visitors center to pick up some maps and find more trails in the area. I sat at the picnic table just outside the door while Robert went in and got directions to our next hike. He came out, I untangled the dogs’ leashes, and we loaded back up in the car. What I didn’t know was that I left my brand new $1300 camera on the picnic table. D’oh!
Of course, I didn’t realize this until we got to the next trailhead about 20 minutes later. My heart sank, I screamed way too many obscenities, and I peeled out of the gravel parking lot like a bat out of hell. After breaking probably every road law in existence, I got back to the visitors center, ran to the table, and it was gone. Checked at the front desk, no dice. Someone swiped my camera. Shit…
So, being the crazy person that I am, I ran up to every person in the parking lot to ask if they’d seen a camera. After a whole lot of “no, I haven’t seen it” and “I’m so sorry”s, and one stumble in a stream, after which I fell on my face… I was about to give up. Then I saw two guys climbing into a car at the far end of the lot about ready to leave. I sprinted over, legs covered in mud from my super graceful fall. In an attempt to be the calm, stable one, my husband yelled “Even if they have it, it’s not like they’re going to give it back!”. To which I replied, “Well, I have to try. Maybe if I cry, they will.”
As I got closer, they noticed me and got back out of their car. I started to say “This is probably a long shot, but…” and the older man replied “Is it about a camera?” “YESS! Yes, my camera! Did you find it?” The son responded, “No, but we know who took it.”
They described (their words) a “fat, white, older couple” who grabbed the camera, wrapped it in a shirt, shoved it in the saddlebag of their red trike, and sped off. The good samaritans thought it looked suspicious but weren’t sure, so they didn’t approach them. Before they could leave though, the son pretended to take a selfie and took a picture of them. The dad showed me the pic and told me which way had gone, 15 minutes earlier. The thiefs had a heck of a head start and I had no idea where they may be headed, but I had to try. I thanked the good samaritans profusely, gave the dad my cell number to send me the pic, and I sped off, desperately wishing to find the portly perpetrators.
By a stroke of luck or divine intervention, I honestly don’t even know how this happened… we FOUND them! We had gone back to the campground (a few miles away from the visitors center) in hopes of downloading the picture over their wifi. There is NO cell signal to speak of in this area. I got tired of waiting and for some reason, I randomly decided to cruise through one of the tent camping loops in the back. I came around a corner and saw a shimmer of bright red! No freaking way!! It’s them! I found them!
What are the Chances?
Before Robert could talk some sense into me, I jumped out of my truck and ran right up to them. He hadn’t seen the picture and didn’t know that I had, only that they had a red trike. But I just KNEW this was them. I tried the nice approach first, telling them that I had lost my camera and that a good samaritan had described the people who took it. A description that they fit to a T. I told them that all I wanted was my camera back. I wouldn’t call the cops,.I didn’t want any trouble. I just wanted my camera. All of my vacation pictures were on there.
Plead as I might, they looked me straight in the face and flat out lied. They hadn’t been to the visitors center. They didn’t know what I was talking about. (The man was sitting in his chair with a rolled up t-shirt in his lap). I wasn’t giving up. I told them that someone took their picture, but they didn’t believe me and laughed. LAUGHED! At this exact moment, the picture finished downloading and Robert hopped out of the truck, running up and shoving the image in their smug faces. The wife continued to deny that it was them, even with photographic proof.
Long story short: Robert goes to get the cops. They suddenly change their tune. They weren’t going to keep it though, they were “trying to figure out whose it was.” Oh, like, the girl standing in front of you crying about her lost camera??? The man opens the shirt in his lap and says “you mean THIS camera?” and reveals my camera for a split second. Then he closes it again and won’t hand it over. Robert gets in his face, grabs the camera and hands it to me. The guy gets confrontational. Robert gets in his face and the GUY threatens to call the cops. Please… go right ahead! I finally talk Robert down and we leave, narrowly avoiding my husband spending the night in the clink. (on our anniversary no less, LOL), while they yell obscenities at US??!!
The rest of the story is filled with Park Rangers with cheeks full of dip and laughter and subsiding rage and relief. SO much relief. We return to my truck, where the dogs have been quietly observing this entire ordeal, and head back to the trailhead to try this hiking thing again.. laughing, high fiving, running on pure adrenaline. It was a heck of an adventure, and now that it was over, all we could do was laugh.
Elk River Falls
We finally arrived back at the trailhead after our “fun” little detour and hiked out to a beautiful waterfall. It was the perfect way to decompress after the day’s events. The hike to Elk River Falls is a short, easy one and only a 20 minute drive from Roan Mountain State Park. It’s a mere 5 minute walk from the trailhead to the top of the falls, giving you a gorgeous view of the river and the pool below.
We explored a little, took some pics, and followed the short trail to the base of the falls. Had it been a bit hotter, it would have been the most amazing swimming spot.
Clouds started rolling in, so we made our way back to camp, stopping to pick up some steaks and a movie. The thunderstorms came with a vengeance, soiling our sunset hike plans. BUT, the skies cleared just long enough to cook some delicious steaks on the grill. We spent the night playing games and watching the movie while snuggling with our super tired pups.
The next morning, we rose early again, in hopes of getting in one last hike before checkout at noon. We were greeted with stormy skies and a forecast filled with more thunderstorms, so we packed up and headed home earlier than planned.
Like all of our trips, our Roan Mountain camping adventure may not have been perfect. It was, however, pretty freaking great. I can’t wait to go back! If you’ve never seen Roan Mountain, never hiked the amazingly beautiful balds… you NEED to add it to your list.
Have questions or comments about our trip or the Roan Mountain area? Leave us a comment below!
Thanks for reading,
Debbie & THE MUTTS
For more information about Roan Mountain State Park, visit the park website here.
Also check out our printable camping checklist to make sure you have all the essentials for camping with your pup.