Carvers Gap, elevation 5512 feet, is on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina. From the north, Tennessee state highway 143 winds its way up to the gap, where it changes names to North Carolina state highway 261, curving away to the south. For us, it was a relatively short drive from Elk Park, NC, where we were staying on a little vacation — roughly 18 miles. But if you were approaching Carvers Gap on foot, starting from the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, it was a 340-mile trip northbound from Springer Mountain. Or, if you started on Mount Katahdin, 1,838.4 miles by foot southbound. Standing there, at the starting point of our hike on the AT from Carvers Gap to Grassy Ridge Bald, somehow it didn’t feel like we had earned it.
You see, this roughly 2.3 mile segment of the AT is considered one of the highlights, a reward for those 763,915 steps from Springer Mountain, through the rolling mountains of north Georgia and higher mountains in the Great Smokies. For persevering through the shakedown miles during which you whittle away at what you were before you started the through hike; for pushing through the blisters, strains, cuts, fatigue, and nights crying in your tent while you toughen up for the trail; for climbing one hill only to find an even higher one behind it; for dressing in the cold, walking in a downpour, living on trail food, and smelling worse than you ever have — this is your reward. Glorious mountain balds, with 360-degree views of endless folding green mountains, or maybe a quilt of ambers, reds, and oranges if you started your through hike 4,130,533 steps away from Mount Katahdin.
Like most people who hike this segment of the trail, we drove up to Carvers Gap, found a spot in the paved parking over by the vault toilet, and crossed the road to slip through a gap in a split rail fence to start our walk. It was a busy Friday morning on the trail, with cars in the gravel parking lot at the side of the road and a school bus parked on the shoulder. Somehow, it felt a little like we were cheating — eating dessert without finishing our vegetables — but also like most people, we don’t happen to have the time to start at Springer or Katahdin, and must snatch at what glory comes our way.
The AT runs roughly east-west along this stretch, known generally as the Roan Highlands. Roan Mountain is on the western side of Carvers Gap, but our hike was to take us to the east, to summit three balds along (and near) the Appalachian Trail. The passengers for the school bus were just coming off the trail as we started, with many cheerfully wishing us a good hike. The wide, graveled trail almost immediately began a gentle switchback to the left, crossing a grassy slope to enter a balsam fir forest at about .1 miles. It’s a surprisingly thick little patch, shady and sheltered, with some of the trees marked with the iconic white blaze of the AT. Most of the trees had stubs from long-shed lower branches, forming a forest of turnstiles. Fortunately, our path continued wide and upward, emerging from the trees about .3 miles from the start of the hike, higher up on the edge of the bald. A glance back to the west shows our starting point, with Roan Mountain rising behind the parking area.
At this point the trail begins a more businesslike approach, still winding a little but marching more directly to the summit of Round Bald, at an elevation of 5826 feet, at about .6 miles. At times on the way to the top of the bald, we could see glimpses of the mountains falling away to the north and south. At the top, however, the clouds were hanging low and not allowing much in the way of long-range views. Still, it was a remarkable feeling to be on such a wide mountain summit, with the occasional cool gust washing over us. The grassy bald is huge — 100 yards wide at least — with the Pisgah National Forest to the south and the Cherokee National Forest to the north.
We didn’t tarry long, as the wind was whipping quite a bit, and continued eastward toward Jane Bald. The trail descends from Round Bald into Engine Gap, marked by signposts with the AT blaze, since there aren’t any trees. Fun fact: Engine Gap is so named because there used to be a steam engine there which was used to move timber from Tennessee to lumberyards in North Carolina. The gravel surface stops after topping Round Bald, switching over to packed dirt and increasingly, exposed rock, particularly on the climbs up the next two balds. We were a little late to catch the bulk of the spring wildflowers, but there were many thyme-leaved bluets, wild strawberries, and blackberries in bloom, with portions of the trail flanked by wild blueberry bushes just starting to fruit. This place is going to be a fruit market for bears in a few weeks!
The trail up to Jane Bald is gentle through Engine Gap, but when you come to the beginning of the climb up to the bald the trail becomes markedly steeper. It was here where we met a young man who asked us to take his photo, with the Roan Valley stretching away behind him to the south. We were happy to oblige, and I commented that he looked like he was in this for the long haul. “Yes, I am,” he replied heartily, and thanked us and strode briskly away northbound. It was mid-May, with 340+ miles down and 1,830-something to go — and he was loving it.
Just before the summit of Jane Bald, the trail emerges from a narrow, rocky corridor onto a large sloping rock, a tailor-made place to take a break and admire the views, particularly to the north. We stopped for a snack, then pressed on to reach the top of Jane Bald, at 5,807 feet. Clouds were beginning to break up to the south, so we could get a taste of the view to the south, with NC261 winding through the valley. Jane Bald is much smaller than Round Bald, but the views are marginally better.
The trail continues to the east, with Grassy Ridge beckoning. The weather was finally beginning to clear up, and we were keen to top Grassy Ridge Bald. The trail narrows to single track here and begins a long climb, at one point passing through a rhododendron tree tunnel. The trail re-emerged into an open area, where there’s a fork at 1.8 miles with the AT turning to the left (north) to stay along the flanks of Grassy Ridge Bald. We chose to continue straight to Grassy Ridge. The trail continued as a narrow track through alternating open and shrubby sections, climbing steeply to finally emerge at 2.15 miles onto another huge grassy summit with amazing views all around.
The trail meanders toward a large boulder, to which is affixed a plaque to the memory of Cornelius Rex Peake, a farmer and early champion of conservation of these mountains. Mr. Peake kept cattle on the bald and is credited with operating the farm at the highest altitude east of the Rocky Mountains. He was also the author of an early booklet on Roan Mountain, with descriptions of the flora, fauna, natural and human history, and notable characters on the mountain. We paused for lunch at his plaque, which marks the spot he intended for his grave. The weather was uncooperative on the day of his funeral, so he lies, as the poem on his plaque says, “halfway to the top.”
While Ruth tried out a potential basking rock, I continued down the trail a little ways through a clump of trees and farther on to a couple of overlooks. Little side trails in the area lead to fire rings, a reminder that this is would be an amazing place to camp and catch the sunrise and sunset. The views to the south of Round Mountain, Mid Ridge, Hawk Mountain, and farther peaks and ridges were fabulous. Grassy Ridge Bald is the highest in our trio of balds, topping out at 6,165 feet.
After a short break, it was time to retrace our steps back to Carvers Gap. Luckily, the weather had cleared to give us better views, particularly in Engine Gap, so we got some nice do-overs for views north and south. There were quite a few folks on the trail by now, so if you’re looking for solitude, you’ll need to look elsewhere.
So, now that we’re back from the hike, I’ve been thinking, “Did we earn it?” Ultimately, I’d have to say yes. True, we didn’t start from either end of the AT, but most people don’t. The AT exists for everyone – day hikers, section hikers, and through hikers. We made the climbs and the descents on the trail, for about 5 miles, under our own power. We got to enjoy one of the highlights of the AT, and it reminded us of the enormous value of our national scenic trails. They are a sacred trust. You could say that the payoff might have been sweeter if we had suffered a bit more for it, but for me hiking is about discovery, not suffering. And this brief look at the longest stretch of grassy balds in the Appalachians, far from being a filling dessert, made me want to go back and eat my vegetables.
And I sort of did just that after the hike, enjoying a barbecue plate with fried okra at the Pedalin’ Pig in Banner Elk, washed down with a local beer. Hey, I earned it!