Into the Woods: Roan Mountain

Nothing dredges up memory as quickly and thoroughly as smell. A subtle scent unleashes a flash of thoughts, feelings, and experience from various points in our lives. This connection is well known to literature, and brain science seems to point to this being a design feature. The parts of the brain that process smell (the olfactory bulb) are in close proximity to those responsible for emotional memory (the amygdala and the rest of the limbic system). It’s supposed to be this way.

For me, one of the most powerful of these “smell markers” is the peculiar perfume of the Southern Appalachian spruce-fir forest. Part Christmas tree, part mushroom, part skunk, part grass, and all wrapped in a lightly chilled cloud. If you’ve sniffed it, you know what I mean. If not, there is really nothing else like it. Part of the charm is its relative rarity…there are only a handful of spots in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia that have all the right ingredients.

These spruce-fir pockets are islands in the sky, little corners of Canadian climate poking up above the rest of the subtropical South. Their altitude (generally north of 5,000′ above sea level) and isolation makes access difficult, helping with preservation. Of course, that same uniqueness has always fed visitor’s curiosity, and many such outposts have vehicle access (if you can stomach the curves) nearly to the summit—Cligman’s Dome, Mount Mitchell, Grandfather Mountain, Black Balsam Knob, Whitetop, and Roan Mountain, among others.

Roan, a long massif straddling the N.C./Tenn. line was one of the first to attract tourists, with the long-since burned down Cloudland Hotel bringing a select clientele to the mountain “for their health” when the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was barely a gleam in Horace Kephart‘s eye. Among hikers, Roan is known more for it’s expansive balds and their 360° vistas than its forests, and this interplay of two such uncommon ecosystems may account for its early and continued popularity.

Today, the mountain’s long, green backbone is well protected by Cherokee (in Tenn.) and Pisgah (in N.C.) National Forests. The Appalachian Trail traverses the ridgeline from West to East, and the shelter at Roan High Knob (6,285’) is the highest spot to sleep anywhere on the trail. To further add to its allure, the western end contains a “heath bald” so thick with catawba rhododendrons that it is marketed by the forest service as a garden. This section is even handicap-accessible, with gently sloping paved trails weaving through thickets of wind-pruned shrubs. In mid-June, when these fully bloom, the effect is nothing short of magical.IMG_6620

To return to nostalgia, I lived for many years (and my family still does) in Watauga County, North Carolina, and Roan was always one of my favorite spots for a day hike. I’ve seen bathed in artist’s-palette sunsets, in hailstorms, buried under feet of snow, and wrapped in fog so thick you can barely see where to put your next footstep. It never disappoints. If there is a beau ideal of Appalachian wildness, this is it.

It’s been several years since I last visited, and I wanted to bring my daughters to share in my love for the place. We spent last week at my family’s house, and were able to pay our respects to the mountain (N.B. – Tempting one’s children with a trip to the state park pool at the bottom of the TN side is a great hiking incentive). Hoping to catch the rhodie bloom, we opted to park at the gardens area. Though things peaked early this year, we were still rewarded with mounds of magenta flowers. Plenty of other plants were likewise in bloom: purple-flowered raspberry, hawkweed, bluets, gray’s lily, and more.

From the gardens (which, for those keeping track of family-friendly hikes, are seasonally equipped with restrooms and running water), we took a 3-mile round trip walk along the Cloudland Trail to Roan High Bluff on the far west of the massif. This is an easy walk, unless you’re not used to the altitude (laugh it up, Coloradans. Some of us live at only 700′!), and mostly forested. Mountains have a way of creating their own weather, so the bright green moss and plentiful mud we encountered are typical. The viewing platform at the end of the trail is well worth the trek. Once back at the gardens, we sealed the deal with a fine picnic.

As every parent will attest, there is a special joy attached to seeing your offspring revel in one of your own childhood haunts, sharing in your story in a new and deeper way. I hope this is one in a long line of visits that lets this incredible place sink deep into their souls.

If you’re ever in the area (the peak is about an hour’s drive from either Boone, N.C., or Johnson City, Tenn., and just shy of 2 hours from Asheville), make sure to let the Roan work its magic on you as well. Just don’t all show up at once, OK?

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