Right on the northeastern Tennessee and northwestern North Carolina border is a section of the Appalachian Trail simply referred to by locals as “The Balds.” Technically named Carver’s Gap, this section of trail caps three bald and rounded sections of Roan Mountain. The three grassy balds, Round Bald, Jane Bald and Grassy Ridge, are local favorites and most easily accessed by a parking lot at the top of a long winding road.
From either direction, the road to the parking lot weaves around rocky crags that ice over in the winter, hillsides full of pines, and overlooks that open into an expanse of blue and purple mountain ranges in the distance, a sight that beckons hikers and sightseers back, time after time.
Cole Jenkins, a first-time visitor to the Balds, was stunned by the beauty of the drive itself. Once he drove past the small town of Roan Mountain and up toward the top, the temperature and experience totally shifted, part of the Roan Mountain magic.
“Everything, down to the tiniest tree branches and blades of grass, was covered in a thick layer of snow and ice the Saturday we went up there,” Jenkins said. “It was a night-and-day difference from the rest of the world. One minute the leafless trees and brown earth were all around, and the next moment we were surrounded with a brilliant white shine that came from everywhere. I could not believe it!”
Jenkins’ experience is not singular; during every season, the overlooks are often spotted with cars, phones out for the panorama of beauty.
“We stopped the truck for pictures way before we even got to the parking lot to start the hike,” he said.
Up at the parking lot, cars slip into available spaces at all angles, utilizing gravel strips by the road and a narrow parking lot that leads to a bathroom. A shelter on a concrete pad with a toilet seat over a hole, a toilet paper rack, sturdy walls and a door composes the sole bathroom on the mountain, and it is often passed over in favor of a secluded spot behind a tree in the nearby scrub brush or woods.
Straight across from the parking lot area and right off the road is a gravel trail that leads up to the Balds. A wooden fence with an opening just wide enough for two hikers and their bulging backpacks gate-keeps the Balds’ experience.
Upon beginning ascent, both sides of the trail are rolling grassy hills interspersed with rhododendron which bloom a bright fuchsia purple in June. After a short hike in the open area, hikers enter a canopy of trees with pine needles, large rocks, and moss. This section of the trail feels like an entirely different ecosystem and breeds layers of ice and snow in the winter, a scenario Jenkins experienced during his February hike.
“With a longer, flatter ascent than I’m used to, the only problem we had was the layer of ice still all over the ground,” he said.
Jenkins and two of his fellow hikers, Aubrey Whitlock and Jonathan Preshong skated across sections of ice, grabbing trees to avoid falling off the side of the trail.
The overhanging trees and deep mossy greens contribute beauty before the summit is even reached.
“It felt like we could actually enjoy the view while we hiked to the top, instead of sweating to finally make it there and then get to see the crazy view,” Jenkins said.
Rebekah Nelson is a Tennessee native who has hiked the balds countless times, and she always enjoys the woods.
“I love how the terrain is varied. You have the balds, of course, but you also have the little evergreen forest you walk through,” she said. “It smells wonderful and is a cool, literally and figuratively, contrast.”
After a less-than-a-mile climb, the woods open into the rounded area of the first bald, Round Bald. One big rock right out of the woods is an iconic photo spot, where hikers squeeze their families or hiking group onto the rock for a snapshot of the surrounding view.
Jackets are recommended for the hike during all seasons. Even in the summer, unpredictable breezes blow across the top of the balds with no tree cover to break the torrent, but this does not deter visitors.
“I would totally recommend it to anyone,” Jenkins said. “The incline and cold weather did not put a damper on the day at all. The view was well worth the windy trek to the top.”
The chill can be deceiving, however. A local family said that they once laid out in the sun-warmed grass at the top of the Balds for a nap and to escape the chilly air and ended up with a horrific sunburn.
The panoramic views at Round Bald are interrupted only by patches of short blueberry bushes and by a few scraggly clumps of trees, sparse enough that campers frequently hang hammocks across them.
Beyond Round Bald are Jane Bald and Grassy Ridge, which are less frequented than the first. Jane Bald requires a steeper climb up a rocky trail with a huge flat rock right at the top, perfect for picnic lunch breaks. On the Jane Bald wooden trail sign, someone’s knife etched “IS” between “JANE” and “BALD,” a quip that tickles local hikers’ sense of humor.
The trail to Grassy Ridge is not especially steep, but it is a longer and more constant ascent, so Grassy Ridge is often skipped by day-hikers. When they have the time and energy to do all three, however, the view is rewarding.
“I like the view and atmosphere of the first bald, but I like the experience of reaching the end at the last bald,” Nelson said. “It has an elevation marker and big rocks and is a good place to spend awhile exploring or talking or looking at the view.”
“Relaxing but invigorating,” as Nelson said, any season at the Balds is memorable, breathtaking, and magical.
“I could not stop showing my friends and family pictures from Roan! I am so grateful I had this experience with old friends and new ones, and the conversation and connections made,” Jenkins said. “I’ll be eagerly taking the next chance I get to visit Roan Mountain again!”