ROAN MOUNTAIN — Even though the Roan Mountain Citizens Club announced earlier this year that its annual Rhododendron Festival would not be held for the first time in over 70 years because of the COVID-19 pandemic, nature still keeps to its timetable and the hundreds of acres of rhododendron in the Cloudland Gardens are still going to bloom.
Despite the coronavirus, a very large crowd of people are expected to trek the asphalt trails around the 20-foot tall, purple blossomed Catawba rhododendron.
Crowds at the top of the 6,285-foot mountain are a tradition in late June. Vice President Richard Nixon even made the trip to the top with his wife, Pat, before there was a good road. Other famous people have also been drawn to Roan Mountain at other times of the year and other centuries in the past, from Daniel Boone to Harvard botanist Asa Gray to American naturalist John Muir.
This year, Roan Mountain State Park is providing the latest information on the 2020 bloom in a vlog called “Rhodo Watch.” The latest reports indicate the Pisgah National Forest has removed the barriers from the access road and the gardens are now open to the public. The vlog warns that the blooms won’t reach their peak for a bit longer, toward the end of the month.
While most people enjoy the 10-mile drive to the top of the mountain to see the rhododendron, it is generally not a favorite time for hikers, especially since the national forest has been restricting some trails and popular outdoor spots because of COVID-19.
What should a conscientious hiker who wants to maintain social distancing supposed do with such large crowd, infected with cabin fever if not COVID-19?
Babette McAuliffe, publisher and editor-in-chief of “Carolina Mountain Life,” a free magazine which has been covering North Carolina’s High Country for the past 23 years, was aware her magazine was promoting some popular outdoor spots that did not need the extra crowds this year. As part of the solution, she was thinking of ways to encourage her readers to take the less-trampled trails, perhaps even across the state line in Northeast Tennessee. After all, few hikers on the Appalachian Trail could tell you at any particular moment whether they were in Tennessee or North Carolina.
Her idea inspired an article in the summer 2020 edition of the magazine written by Randy Johnson, one of most prolific writers of trail guides in the region. In the article, Johnson admits that his work may have encouraged some of the crowds on some of Western North Carolina’s most popular trails.
In the article, Johnson explains that there are other ways to access Roan Mountain and other popular places. Instead of the standard stop at Carvers Gap, Johnson offers several other ways to enjoy the mountain and perhaps see a part of it that is totally different from the Roan Mountain that most people know.
Instead of starting at Carvers Gap, Johnson suggests that other gap, Yellow Mountain Gap, that the Overmountain Men used in 1780 when they marched to the Battle of Kings Mountain. That hike begins on the much less traveled Overmountain Victory Trail and provides easy access to Little Hump and Hump mountains, a beautiful area that is far enough from Carvers Gap to hardly ever be overcrowded except during the through-hiking season for the Appalachian Trail.
Johnson also recommends tackling Roan Mountain from the opposite side of Carvers Gap, by starting at Hughes Gap. This is truly a different part of Roan Mountain, which begins with a lower elevation deciduous forest, climbs and continues to climb to the red spruce-Fraser forest, and the Cloudland Rhododendron Garden as the purple cherry at the top.