These natural gardens comprise an area stretching over 660 acres along the crest of the Highlands, roughly divided by the Tennessee-North Carolina border, and are believed to be the largest of their kind in the world. The great bloom, in all its red, pink and purple profusion, typically takes place in mid-June, with the peak occurring during the third week and celebrated then with rhododendron festivals in the nearby towns of Roan Mountain, TN and Bakersville, NC.
The Roan Highlands are well known throughout much of the world's natural science community for much more than their grand display of rhododendrons. Various rare plant and animal communities exist here, including spruce-fir forests, grassy balds, heath balds and rocky outcrops, providing habitats for more than 30 species considered endangered or threatened at the state, federal or global level. In fact, according to the Open Space Institute, the Highlands area possesses more rare and endangered species than even the Great Smokies. Animals including the northern saw-whet owl, northern flying squirrel and eastern hellbender, as well as plants such as the striking Gray's lily and Roan Mountain bluet make their homes here.
And to think that back in the 1960s, this world-class wonder was very nearly destroyed in that era's mindless drive for fast financial gain, at the expense of irreplaceable natural treasures. But thanks to a handful of visionaries, led by one Stanley A. Murray, the destructive overdevelopment rapidly spreading through nearby mountain communities was averted in the Roan Highlands. In 1966, Murray and colleagues established the Roan Mountain Preservation Committee of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (then the A.T. Conference), and later, in 1974, transitioned the committee into the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy. To date SAHC has preserved thousands of acres of threatened land and vital water resources in the Highlands and more than 75,000 acres overall in the mountains of East Tennessee and Western North Carolina.
To get the full effect of the Roan Highlands, the area is best explored on foot. Making that a bit easier, the Appalachian Trail traverses parts of all seven of the Highlands' summits — Roan Mountain, Round Bald, Jane Bald, Grassy Ridge, Yellow Mountain, Little Hump and Hump Mountain — offering hikers the chance to experience one of the true crown jewels of the entire 2,200-mile A.T. Hiking the full 20-mile length of the Highlands makes for one of the premier overnight hikes in the region.
The rhododendron gardens sit high on top of Roan Mountain proper, also known as Cloudland, and can be easily reached by car via the access road from Carver's Gap and Highway 143. Here, well-maintained paths meander through dark green spruce-fir forests and large expanses of rhododendron. For picnicking there are tables near the parking areas, as well as natural meadows and clearings scattered around the relatively flat summit area.
Roan Mountain State Park does not include the Roan Highlands or Roan gardens area within its boundary, although the park makes an excellent base for those wanting to explore the region more extensively. Camping and lodging, as well as recreational and interpretive activities are offered. The summit area is roughly a 10-minute drive up the mountain.
In addition to the state park, two other excellent sources of information about the Roan Highlands are The Friends of Roan Mountain and the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy. These groups work hard to support the protection and stewardship of the Highlands, as well as provide educational and interpretive programs. Sycamore Shoals State Park Manager, Jennifer Bauer, has published two books, Roan Mountain: History of an Appalachian Treasure and Roan Mountain: A Passage of Time, which are outstanding historical resources.
John Muir came to the Roan Highlands once, in 1898, proclaiming the area to possess "... the most beautiful deciduous forests I ever saw." That's serious praise coming from the man whose words and passion helped create Yosemite, Sequoia and Grand Canyon National Parks. And though it's impossible now to experience what Muir experienced 120 years ago, you can still stand in the predawn or evening light of a Highland summit, perhaps Round Bald or Grassy Ridge, and see the ancient, mist-cloaked waves of forest and earth and life rolling out in every direction. I've done this many times, and recommend it highly. And should you find yourself there, don't forget to offer a small word of thanks to the spirit of Stanley Murray and those who stood with him to save the Highlands of Roan.
David A. Ramsey is a regionally and nationally recognized outdoor photographer and writer from Unicoi, TN. His recently released book, Rocky Fork: Hidden Jewel of the Blue Ridge Wild, is available at Mahoney's in Johnson City and online at www.ramseyphotos.com