Hiking guide: How to tackle one of the Appalachian Trail’s most gorgeous stretches—and maybe find some ‘magic’

Photo by Ely Portillo
Photo by Ely Portillo

This is part of our Hiking Guide series rolling out this spring and summer.

[Related guide: How to get to some of North Carolina’s best views of the Blue Ridge Mountains]

[Related guide: Here’s where you can hike with wild ponies just 2 hours from Charlotte]

The spectacular views we’d read about were nowhere to be seen, shrouded in a thick gray mist that was chilling our spirits as well as our bodies.

The clammy fog shrouded every vista and dampened our clothes, and it was colder than we’d been expecting, with temperatures hovering in the 40s. Yes, the first few hours of hiking was going poorly.

If it’s cloudy, the views are less than spectacular. Photo by Ely Portillo

For one of the fabled stretches of the Appalachian Trail, the Roan Highlands were veering dangerously close to being a bust.

That’s when we got our first glimpse of “trail magic,” like an Appalachian mirage in the gloaming: A blue tent, deep in the woods, pouring out the intoxicating aroma of hotdogs, with smiling, flannel-clad volunteers handing out fruit, snacks and sodas.

Roan Highlands has the power to do that, the magic of the mountains turning a miserable day into a spectacular one in just a few minutes. The “trail angels” were there to dispense free food and supplies to the Appalachian Trail through-hikers planning to do the full 2,138 miles to Maine, but they treated my friend Will and me — weekend backpackers going about 1.5 percent as far — just as generously as if we were going the distance.

“Trail magic,” the free hotdogs, sodas and snacks distributed by “trail angels” along the Appalachian Trail. Photo by Ely Portillo

The trail magic held following our encounter. After just a few more miles, as we hiked up the flanks of the nearly 6,300-foot-tall Roan High Knob, the fog lifted, replaced by brilliant sunshine. From the top of Roan, the mountains of western North Carolina and the Tennessee border rolled away in every direction. The next five or so miles passed in blissful, breezy oblivion, as the Appalachian Trail snaked from one bald to another, dipping into the valleys in between before rising back up and revealing the next drop-dead-gorgeous view.

We completed our 30-mile route between Iron Mountain Gap and Route 19E in 2 ½ days and two nights. Hiking the Appalachian Trail in this area is a pleasure. It’s well-maintained, easy to follow, mostly gentle on the ascents and abundantly supplied with water and campsites.

And there are few sights I’ve seen hiking that rival the views that you burst into the midst of when you ascend out of the dense forest that cloaks Roan’s western side and onto the wide-open balds.

Here’s how you can visit Roan Highlands, located within an easy drive of Charlotte.

Do it as a day hike: This is about as simple a trip as you can do and still access spectacular scenery. Carver’s Gap is a parking area located just over 2 ½ hours from Charlotte, right on the Tennessee border. The parking area is large enough for several dozen cars, but be warned – on beautiful days, this spot fills up with eager day-trippers. There’s another parking area located about a mile west, the Roan High Knob Trail parking lot, that offers additional spaces, though with a longer hike to the balds.

The author, completely smoked at the top of Hump Mountain in the Roan Highlands. Photo by Ely Portillo

Once you park at Carver’s Gap, you’ll be right across the road from the well-marked Appalachian Trail and the chain of balds, with their near-limitless views. Hike east for just over 1.5 miles on the Appalachian Trail (there’s a little climb at the beginning, but nothing too hard) and you’ll be treated to amazing views the whole way. After that, the trail starts to go under tree cover in the woods again — but if you’re in the mood (and have the time) for a more extreme day hike, you can go 8 miles to Hump Mountain, another bald, for the next breathtaking views. Keep in mind, this would make for a 16-mile day.

Do it as a camping trip: The camping here is simply superb, and it’s easy to access. We parked at the Mountain Harbour Bed & Breakfast, a lovely hostel catering to hikers off Route 19E that’s about 2 hours and 15 minutes from Charlotte.

The hostel (which has a food truck — what better way to kick off or end a hike?) will let you park there for $10 a day, or $2 a day if you use their shuttle service. They charge $40 to shuttle you to Iron Mountain Gap, where the Appalachian Trail crosses another road, and drop you off there. After that, you just walk back about 30 miles to Mountain Harbour on the Appalachian Trail. The only navigating you have to do is making sure you don’t start off going southbound instead of northbound on the trail, and follow the white blazes. Easy-peasy.

They’ll also drop you off at other trail access points if you want a longer or shorter hike. Carver’s Gap back to Mountain Harbor is about 13 miles, great for a one-night, introductory trip for first-time backpackers.

There are plenty of places to camp trailside, both in the woods and on the ridges. We opted to camp in the woods, to stay out of the wind. There are also shelters throughout the area on the trail, but we left those for the through-hikers.

Once you get up and over Roan, you’ll probably think most of your hard hiking is behind you. For a while, you’ll be correct: And then you’ll get to Big Hump Mountain. The deceptively gentle-looking rise ahead of you leads to spectacular views (better than Roan, in my opinion), but there aren’t any switchbacks. The 600-foot climb up is more like a Stairmaster than a standard trail. From there, however, you are in the clear, as it’s mostly gentle downhill strolling the last few miles back to Route 19E and Mountain Harbour.

What you need to know

  • Check out to schedule shuttle trips if you’re leaving your car at Mountain Harbour.
  • Keep your eyes open for through-hikers. They’re the people with beards and large amounts of body hair who are about 10 times as fit as you’ll ever be, despite slamming down huge handfuls of candy and junk food every time you see them sitting. If you strike up a conversation, you might hear awesome stories about life on the footpath from Maine to Georgia. And you might just be lucky enough to run into some “trail magic,” though the giveaways are unpredictable.
  • If you leave your car at Mountain Harbour, you’ll have to walk alongside Route 19E for just over a quarter of a mile to get from the trail crossing back to the hostel. Use caution crossing the road, and walk carefully as the cars whiz past you.
  • The best map for the area is National Geographic 783, available for $11.95 at Amazon and stores like REI and Great Outdoor Provision Company. I bought it, because I always like to have the map. But hiking the Appalachian Trail in this area is so simple — few intersecting trails, a well-marked route with bright white blazes, very little to confuse you — and the area is so busy with hikers that I didn’t even notice I’d left the map in my car until near the end of the trip. (That being said, you should always bring a map when you hike.)
  • There are plenty of things to see besides mountains on this section of the trail. Near the balds of Roan, you can find the scant ruins of the massive Cloudland Hotel, built atop the peaks in the 1880s. It’s marked by a plaque with photos. The hotel straddled the state line and legally served liquor — but only on the Tennessee side. A short spur trail east of Roan Mountain and the first string of balds leads to the Overmountain Shelter, a two-story barn that sleeps 30 or more hikers and is one of the most famous on the whole Appalachian Trail.