DC UL Trip Report: The Roan Highlands in TN/NC

Posted by Jimmy on

Day 1 - ďThundering ViewsĒ

Now that Friday morning was here, it was time to wake early and head off to the trail head to meet Will and Karan. I had already been in the state of Tennessee since Tuesday visiting my sister, and on Thursday arranged to move to a hotel in Johnson City, TN to make the drive to the trailhead quick and easy. The others in the meantime, were en route from Vienna on their way to the Mountain Harbour Hiker Hostel where they would set up camp for that night. The next morning, with Kylie, Irina, Loay, and Octavia staying behind, Will and Karan were off to meet me at the ending trail head to set up the car shuttles. As we were all en route to Indian Grave Gap, the weather decided to just unleash torrential down pours of rain. I just remember thinking that there takes a special kind of person to want to backpack in this weather as the entire week prior and what was forecasted just wasnít good weather wise. Despite this, we continued on ready for a weekend in the mountains!

After all of us arriving at the Indian Grave Gap parking area, Karan and I parked our cars and hopped in Willís car. Will dropped us off at a small local diner to get breakfast just 3 miles away from the hiker hostel After dropping us off, he drove out to get the others waiting at the hostel. After all of us grabbing a quick sit down breakfast, we were all fueled up ready to go and were on the trail by around 9:30. The weather also decided to cooperate and the rain finally stopped!! This was all thanks to Irinaís weather magic!

Note: This hostel is very hiker friendly and offer shuttles to the surrounding area trail heads. It also has a laundry, offers a resupply service for AT hikers, and has a small supply store. A hikerís dream! This hostel was also .3 miles away from the start point of our trip and made for an excellent/safe place to leave one of the cars.

Hiker Hostel.

After going over the map, we slung our packs on our backs and walked up the road to where the AT crosses Rt 19, just northwest of Elk Park. After crossing the road, we were on the AT heading southbound and to start for our biggest climb of the day, heck the trip! It was onwards and upwards to the summit of Hump Mountain! A three thousand foot straight climb was certainly daunting but we were all happy to be out walking in the woods and the glad that it wasnít raining.

The trail starts out by steadily meandering uphill through dense forest. It was all the typical scenery that we are all used to seeing in the mid atlantic but when I did research beforehand, I knew that we were to be greeted with balds and open terrain soon. Kind of similar to what you would find at Grayson Highlands, but I just didnít know when. Waiting for this, with high anticipation, before arriving at Doll Flats, we were greeted with the beautiful open terrain just as promised!

Now at the mid point of our climb, the trail starts to ascend into the clouds and starts to really open up. The scenery definitely had this mysterious, beautiful vibe to it as all you saw was open fields of grass and the dense white fog of being in the clouds.

Jimmy posted on

As we continued to ascend, the wind started to pick up. To our grace, it was warm enough to hike comfortably without layering up too much and it wasnít raining! At this point though, worrying about any incoming storms (forecasted earlier) I was starting to wonder how much more there was left to get to the summit of Hump Mountain. With the low visibility, all you saw was the trail rising and disappearing into the clouds. I really didnít want to be on the summit with a thunderstorm coming in. Anyways, before we knew it, after two and a half miles past Doll Flats, we reached the summit.

As we all started to descend Hump Mountain on the other side, the clouds started to lift from the trail and started to break apart. This slowly started to reveal what I would say was the most stunning piece of the AT I had ever hiked to date! Words nor pictures for that matter, cannot do it justice for how beautiful it was here! I think Karan was crying because it was so beautiful! Haha.

Reluctantly, we had to hike on. From this point on, the trail dips down into a saddle area called Bradley Gap and at the bottom, climbs back up to the summit of Little Hump Mountain. Again, more stunning views were offered here. After about a mile and a half of descending form Little Hump Mountain, we arrived at our lunch spot for the day, Overmountain Shelter.

I had looked forward to seeing this shelter for a while now as from all the pictures Iíve seen of it depicted that it was not like a traditional AT shelter. Actually seeing it in person was pretty neat as you can observe just how big the shelter is. I swear you can probably fit a small city of people there! It also has this sweet porch dining area that faces the surrounding mountain valleys to the east. I canít imagine what a sunrise would look like here and I agree with Irina, this was the best view from a AT shelter Iíve ever seen! We have to come back!

After eating lunch and caching up on water, we were back on the trail again. Within a couple of minutes being back on the trail, however, the skies darkened and it started to rain. For the next two miles, we were in a complete down pour. The trails quickly turned into small creeks and there were threats of lightening. Knowing that the next shelter (Stan Murray Shelter) wasnít too far, we quickened our paces so that we can see cover from the storm. Once we all got to the shelter, we decided to wait out the storm for a bit. Kylie took her phone out to check whether or not she had service and to our surprise she did! It gave us the chance to check out the weather radar to see what the storms were doing. This was really important to us because the next four miles of trail would be up on high exposed terrain. We certainly didnít want be out hiking on it with approaching thunder storms. This was something I learned very well in Colorado last year! After reading the radar maps, good news was had. A wide window of clear weather was incoming and we all took this opportunity to hike out the next four miles.

From the Stan Murray Shelter, the trail ascends for a mile or so towards Grassy Ridge. There is actually a spur trail that goes the rest of the way to the ridge itself but we passed it and continued along the AT towards Jane Bald. This section of the AT contains rolling hills, open balds, and sweeping views. Again one of the more beautiful sections of the AT that Iíd ever seen! I think I cried this time as to how beautiful it was. On a warm sunny day, I could see myself skipping around and singing ďThe hills are alive with the sound of musicĒ!!

Looking behind to Grassy Ridge.

Views to the east from Jane Bald.

View of the Balds!

Irina coming up on Round Bald.

Going along further along, the AT starts to become very well groomed as it becomes a neatly laid out gravel trail. This just meant to me that we were nearing Carvers Gap, one of the main trail heads in the area with a huge parking area. As we descended down into Carvers Gap, we could see views of Roan Mountain deep into the clouds above. A preview of what would be our last climb for the day. Just on the other side of the parking lot, the trail re-enters a thick pine forest and starts to ascend up to towards the summit of Roan Mountain.

View of Roan Mountain in the clouds.

Back into the thick pine forest!

After about a mile and a half of walking through the dark, misty, wet conditions, we arrived at our home for the day, Roan High Knob Shelter. Just as we arrived, the rains started again but we were all thankful to be at the shelter. Luckily for us, the shelter which could hold a large capacity of people (around 12) only had 2 folks staying in it. We had the entire loft to ourselves and this was where we decided set up for the night. Didnít seem too much fun setting up in the pouring rain. Will, however, elected to brave the elements as he slung his hammock just outside the shelter. At around 6,200 feet, Roan High Knob Shelter is the highest shelter on the AT. It was cool to check this box off, but it sure made for a windy, chilly, wet night.

Jimmy posted on

Day 2 - A Walk in the Woods

As we woke to the sounds of rain hitting the roof of the shelter, it really didnít motivate us to want to break camp and hit the trail in any kind of urgent matter. Thankfully, there wasnít a need to pack up any wet shelters. Taking our time, we started hiking by around 8:30. I know itís considered late for us DC ULers but I didnít see a need to rush as the hike planned for the day was much easier than the first.

Random chimney on the AT!

After descending steeply for four miles, we arrived at Hughes Gap where we all regrouped to discuss check points for the rest of the day. After going over the map, we started the gradual ascent up Little Rock Knob and at the top, there are small lookouts providing views of the valley below. On that that day, however, all you could see were clouds. Quickly descending off the knob, after another mile, we arrived at the Clyde Smith Shelter to have lunch. The shelter offered some nice seating including bar like tables and made it a really nice place to sit and have lunch. Doing well on time, we decided to stay here for a bit which allowed for most of us to cook hot lunches and dry out our gear.

Clyde Smith Shelter.

Stomachs full and packs heavy with water, we were all on the trail again. At this point, knowing that the rest of the day didnít really include much in the way of views or vistas, I decided to switch out my wide angle lens for my telephoto lens so that I could take some up close, macro shots. Coincidently enough, soon after doing this, I passed a small, brightly colored lizard (sorry didnít have time to look up what it was) that decided to model itself right on the trail!

Hiking on, we were off towards Iron Mountain Gap. Honestly, there isnít that much to talk about as far as the rest of the day goes. It was a nice gentle up and down walk through the woods and when the rains came, it was only long enough to where once we got all of our rain gear on it would stop raining. Will, Karan, and I took most of this time to talk about our upcoming trips to the West, Colorado and Wyoming!

The beautiful sea of... Stinging Nettles. Ugh!

Nine and a half miles later, since leaving the Clyde Smith Shelter, we arrived at our camp for the night, Cherry Gap Shelter. The whole area offered a nice large campsite ares with multiple smaller ones scattered around it. Also, the shelter had a nice fire ring in front of it and also had a picnic table. With the camp area as nice as it was and the fact that the sun was starting to break through the clouds, we all elected to set up our shelters instead of staying in a shelter again.

After completing our camp chores like fetching water, gathering firewood, and even bathing (Loay!), the group gathered in front of the shelter to cook dinner. At this time Will, Kylie and myself tried to get proper bear lines up as we were warned earlier by other hikers that the camp in the nights past, had lots of bear activity. They had told us that a bear has gotten to several peoples food bags during the nights. With this in mind, we tried doing all the proper things like hanging the lines several hundred feet away, and to have the bags about 20 feet off the ground. Will even did a ďPCTĒ hang. After setting the lines, we went back to camp to have dinner.

During dinner, we further emphasized to everyone about all the proper bear food etiquette like being careful to keep a clean camp free of any odors. Once dinner was over, we collected he food bags and hung them on the two lines we had set earlier. We then enjoyed a nice fire and before we knew it, it was time for bed.

Jimmy posted on

Day 3- ďThat Son of aÖĒ

Considering we all had another 8 or so miles left to hike for the remainder of the trip and that we all had long drives in front of us, we planned to wake early so that we can start hiking by around 7. So when 6am came, I yelled a wakeup call and started to break camp. After gathering all of my things, I headed over to the shelter to drop my pack off and headed straight for the bear bags. I was a little worried about the food at this point as something just didnít feel right. ďI swear, I think I heard something thing lastĒ was what I kept saying in my head and just as I got a little close, I could see the food bags still hanging in the trees. It was a sigh of temporary relief as I swore I heard a bear walk right past our camp in the middle of the night. Well that feeling of relief was soon shattered when I got even closer to the bags. Three of the seven food bags were torn apart and Willís bear proof Ursack looked like it served as the bearís chew toy.

Shocked that a bear actually got to our hung food bags, I was more amazed as to how it got our food. Telling from the claw marks on the side of the tree, it looked like the bear climbed twenty feet up and pulled the lines bringing the food bags towards it. At the same time, it was probably swatting at the bags because the lines that morning were completely tangled with each other and the tree next to it. Iím sure after the bear got is fill of food, it decided to play some tetherball with the rest of the bags for entertainment. That bastard!

With the damage done, I had to figure out how to get the rest of the bags down from the tree. Climbing the tree was out of the question since the wet bark made it super slick and trying to untangle the mess of lines so that we can lower the bags proved impossible. I ran and got the others and letís just say, after about an hour and a half a messing about, we came to the solution of lashing a knife to the end of a very long stick so that we could cut the lines. Thanks Will and Karan for your efforts!

After dealing with this debacle, we provided extra food to those that needed it and starting hiking by around 8:30. Just like the day prior, the scenery stayed the same as the trail meandered through a dense forest. The weather on the other hand was starting to get better as we started to see more blue skies. After about a mile and half, just past Low Gap, we approached the last major climb of the trip, a nice little 1200 feet climb to the summit of Unaka Mountain.

As the trail climbed higher and higher, the scenery quickly changed back to the dense pine forest as we saw earlier during our climb up to Roan Mountain. Once at the summit we were back in the clouds again as everything was engulfed in a thick fog. It definitely had a cool feeling though.

Summit of Unaka Mountian.

After summiting, the trail then steeply descends for a mile and a half to Deep Gap. From there, the trail gradually rises again heading towards Beauty Spot. Beauty Spot was another much highly talked about place in terms of scenery and when we all arrived there, we were not disappointed. Just like the first day, the views were absolutely stunning and it was just great to be out in the open again!

View to the east from Beauty Spot.

On Beauty Spot itself.

From here on out, it was all downhill back to the cars. After about another mile or so we arrived at Indian Grave Gap and back to the cars at around 11:30. Not bad for a time considering how late we left. In order to save some time, Karan, Will and I hoped in my car to get Willís car at Mountain Harbour. This would allow for the rest of the group to catch up on the trail and made for a easy exit later as the highway out of town was close.

In the end we climbed a total of 11.5 thousand feet and walked about forty two miles. Not too shabby for 2.5 days of walking. After the trip, we all headed for the nearby town of Johnson City to grab a celebratory lunch. If anyone does a trip in the area, I highly recommend going to Johnson City to grab a bite to eat as the choices there are plentiful.

Thanks again to Karan for helping me lead yet another great trip, and to Will for coordinating the food recovery efforts. Kylie, Loay, Irina, and Octavia, you guys rock and I had a blast hiking with all of you!

Will posted on

Another great trip for the books! Apparently we located the right place for bear hang testing. I owe that bear punch in the face. Thanks for the write up GQ!

Daniel posted on

Thanks for the amusing write-up , Jimmy. Sounds like a great trip. The wide-open parts especially look awesome. Great photos as usual.

As for the bear, after that punch to the face, he may also deserve a promotion to "VMO," out of respect.

Karan posted on

Awesome trip report, Jimmy! And amazing pics - you captured the beauty of Roan Mountains very well. Thanks for organizing!

The balds were ever so beautiful - especially as the fog unfolded right in front of our eyes when we were there. I'll agree with Jim - this was the most beautiful AT experience for me so far. As I kept saying, awesome back-to-back Independence Day trips two years in a row now (last year was the ADKs).

We were lucky with the weather - the forecast looked pretty bad when we started. For some time, I was quite worried that the weather will spoil our plans again. I am glad I can finally cross this place off my list after a snowstorm messed up our plans last year.

As for the bear incident, man that was something. That bear deserves a punch for sure, but boy was that bear hungry. It was unnerving to see how ferociously the bear tried to get to our food. The clawmarks on the trees, Will's bag after the bear pounded it in a million places, the way Kylie's bag was slit in half - I was stupefied. We all gained a good bear story I guess.

Will - did you hear back from the bear bag company? What was their reaction?

Will posted on

I did hear back from Ursack - they seemed unimpressed! I guess Black Bear attacks just don't turn them on ;)

Karan posted on

Uh-oh. You will have to let a Grizzly attack the bear sack I guess :)

Jimmy posted on

Haha. Thanks guys!

Not sure if I want to partake in any Grizzly Bear experiments on the Ursacks while in Wyoming...