Lying amongst several hundred acres of flowering Catawba Rhododendrons and flame azaleas watching the sun sink over the Appalachian Trail crowns my ongoing love affair with the Roan Highland Balds.
I’d seen pictures and heard stories from fellow hikers online: Catching the Roan Highland grassy balds – long heralded as possessing one of the most beautiful legs of the Appalachian Trail in the South – with their Catawba Rhododendrons in peak bloom was a “once in a lifetime” trek. But the large shrubs, striking bushes loaded with pink blossoms that can grow as high as two stories, only bloom during a short two weeks in mid-June. The Asheville Intern Team had visited the Roan in early June, but we’d been too early. Now, it was already June 16. Time was ticking.
In the Wild South office, I pulled up weather.com. The forecast for the day: partial clouds, giving way to a clear evening. For the five days following, thunderstorms. After that, peak bloom would most certainly be over.
At 3:00 in the afternoon, I decided I would never forgive myself if I didn’t see the balds in bloom when I was only a two-hour drive away. And if I wanted to take advantage of the only decent weather I’d have in a week, I would have to go immediately.
My rockin’ supervisor was incredibly supportive when I explained why I had to leave early: “You gotta do it,” he said.
Twenty minutes later, I was driving north on US-19.
Who’re You Calling…?!
True to their namesake, grassy balds are (often entirely) treeless stretches along mountain summits, replaced instead with sweeping alpine meadows bursting with knee-high native grasses and, in the summer, dotted with wildflowers. Why some mountaintops are bald, while others nearby possessing similar biophysical characteristics are not, is something of an ecological mystery.
We don’t have the bald phenomenon in Southeastern Michigan. Our mountains aren’t tall enough. Or our treelines… bald enough. So when I came to Asheville, I naturally had no idea what I’d been missing my entire life. Now, balds have swiftly become one of my preferred hiking destinations – perfect for sweeping 360 degree panoramas and stargazing.
The Roan Highland Balds, my favorite so far, are the longest stretch of bald in the Appalachian Mountains. The Appalachian Trail meanders along twelve miles of these hilltop meadows stretched across five consecutive peaks: Round Bald to Jane Bald, and the tallest peak, Grassy Ridge Bald, to Yellow Mountain and Little Hump beyond. At times, the path weaves into Catawba Rhododendron thickets; the towering plants occasionally unite to form a lovely flower-crested tunnel, bees buzzing loudly overhead.
Forecast: Partly Lucky With a Chance of Flowers
I arrived at the Roan Highland trailhead at Carver’s Gap on the Tennessee – North Carolina state line a little after 5. A generally clear drive had given way to heavy-hanging clouds, their undersides painted dark gray. I held tight to my weather.com-generated hope that they’d clear out in the three hours I had until sunset.
The rhododendrons at the trailhead were long past peak bloom. All I could do was set out for the summit of Grassy Ridge Bald, 3 miles away, and cross my fingers that my luck would improve.
The alpine meadow hike is more of what I’d call a frolic – because that’s essentially what you feel like doing in a setting straight out of the Sound of Music. It’s a pleasure to walk no matter the weather conditions. Along the way, I was delighted to encounter several Gray’s Lilies, rare, endangered flowers that are only found in the Southern Appalachia (and that I’d learned about only the week before). But my most exciting discovery by far was that higher-elevation Rhododendrons were still blossoming.
On the final and tallest summit, Grassy Ridge Bald, with panoramic vistas rolling off its green meadows and layer upon paling layer of mountains fading to a faint blue – the Rhododendrons were in peak bloom.
The entire north mountainside blazed a brilliant pink.
My new mantra: Just keep climbing, just keep climbing…
Because, after lingering amongst the Rhododendrons for perhaps (or definitely) longer than I should have, making it back to my car at Carver’s Gap would have taken me well into nightfall.
Another stunning vista of the same mountain range I had photographed earlier? Just keep climbing, just keep climbing…
The fat timber rattlesnake that abruptly slithered across my path as I tramped over the narrow, rock-covered trail up Grassy Ridge Bald… Oh shit. Just keep climbing!
More flame azaleas lining the trail, making the perfect frame with which to capture the mountains beyond – which the setting sun had conveniently begun to illuminate with that “magic hour” golden glow – just in case some of the other pictures I’d taken of nearly the exact same thing hadn’t turned out –
You guessed it. Just keep climbing.
My self-imposed hustle paid off: I reached Round Bald, 10 minutes from my car, only moments before the sunk sank beneath the cloud-lined horizon. A group of hikers, some who’d pitched tents on the bald and others hefting tripods and digital SLR cameras, congregated at the summit, reclining in wind-blown grasses up to their chins as nature’s own IMAX theater rolled out its feature show.
The two hour-drive from Asheville: officially worth it. As darkness closed this chapter of my Roan Highland adventures, I knew – no, planned – that our paths would cross again!