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It only took me two years to get through the gate to the Rhododendron Gardens on Roan Mountain. It wasn’t from a lack of trying, I had visited Carver Gap to go hiking on the Appalachian Trail about a dozen times in those two years, but rather a lack of good timing. But finally, I got through the gates to discover I had perfect timing: I found thousands of blooms in the Rhododendron Gardens.
Information about Roan Mountain and the infamous Rhododendron Gardens is hard to come by. There is no dedicated website, nor is there is a phone to call. When I have asked about them at local tourism offices and even nearby Roan Mountain State Park I’m usually given vague answers.
I have put together some information based on my own experience with visiting the Rhododendron Gardens to help you discover them for yourself. But first, I must warn you. The gates seem to open and close randomly and without any sort of prediction. I guess it’s a good thing I include a backup plan below.
Roan Mountain isn’t what you would normally think is a mountain. Instead of a single peak, this mountain on the border between Tennessee and North Carolina is about five miles long with five prominent peaks. It’s also one of the Southern Sixers, a collection of mountain peaks above 6,000′ in the southern Appalachian Mountains.
Tennessee Highway 143 and North Carolina Highway 261 meet at Carver Gap near the middle of Roan Mountain. A small parking area includes a campsite and privy for Appalachian Trail hikers.
It’s also where the ominous gate indiscriminately determines passage to the Rhododendron Gardens, Roan High Knob, and Roan High Bluff. The mountain top attraction is operated by the Forest Service. The top of the mountain is typically open seven days a week from Memorial Day through last weekend of September, although I have found that is not always true.
The Forest Service collects an entry fee of $3 per vehicle, and locals can purchase a season pass for $15 per person. Although there is a toll booth just before the first parking area, there has not been a full time attendant collecting admission for a few years now. Instead, visitors are kindly asked to “pay on the honor system”, a task most visitors are happy to comply with.
Visitors to the summit of Roan Mountain have to pay an admission on the honor system by filling out an information card and including a cash payment for admission. There is quite a bit of information to fill out. If you have a passenger in the car, send them ahead to collect the card so you can have it filled out by the time you reach the toll booth.
The Catawba rhododendron bushes are a natural feature at the top of Roan Mountain. In the mid-1950s the Forest Service purchased 7,000 acres across the mountain and the Civilian Conservation Corps built the paths winding through the rhododendron bushes.
The Rhododendron Gardens are one of the most beautiful natural sights in both Tennessee and North Carolina. Each year around early June, the rhododendrons begin a magnificent display with thousands of bright pink blooms across the summit.
From the parking area, visitors can enjoy a leisure walk along concrete paths that wind through bushes standing nearly 7′ tall. Unpaved paths branch off, weaving through the gardens. Stay on the paved path for about 10 minutes to reach a secluded observation deck with a stunning view of the landscape.
Roan High Bluff
The blooming rhododendrons are gorgeous to see, but you might also want to take a short hike to the observation deck at Roan High Bluff. At 6,627′, the bluff is one of the highest peaks in the Appalachian Mountains.
There is a small parking area at the end of a loop where visitors can begin the hike. It’s an easy 1-mile round trip hike on the Cloudland Trail following a ridge to the bluff.
There are two festivals each year that celebrate the gorgeous blooming rhododendrons. The Roan Mountain Citizens Club operates the two-day Roan Mountain Rhododendron Festival near the end of June each year. The festival is held at nearby Roan Mountain State Park.
The North Carolina Rhododendron Festival is held in nearby Bakersville, North Carolina, the closest town to Roan Mountain. Ironically, the festival is held the same weekend each year as the other mentioned festival.
In 1870, Union General John T. Wilder purchased 7,000 acres of Roan Mountain after moving to Tennessee at the end of the Civil War. In the early 1880s, Wilder began construction on a luxurious hotel near the summit of the mountain, including building a road to Carver Gap and across Roan High Knob.
In 1885 Cloudland Hotel opened to the public as a health resort. Visitors came from all over the country for the low heat and humidity in the summers, clean air, and supposed health qualities of the flora.
But it was difficult to properly maintain the 166-room hotel at such a high elevation. By 1910 Wilder abandoned Cloudland Hotel and later sold the property; the new owner had no interest in reopening the hotel and instead sold off all the furnishings.
By 1927 only a pile of rubble remained of the short-lived health resort on Roan Mountain. Today, there are no traces left of Cloudland Hotel. But when you visit the mountain summit, take a moment to imagine what it would have been like to spend a night up there.
The 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail crosses Roan Mountain near the first parking lot after the toll booth. The trail skirts around Roan High Knob and descends the mountain to Carver Gap where it continues along the Roan Highlands.
This section of the Appalachian Trail is one of the most popular day hiking destinations on the entire trail. The 1.6-mile out and back hike on the AT from the parking lot leads past the ruins of Cloudland Hotel and to the Roan High Knob Shelter. The hike includes breathtaking views of the local landscape including the bald mountains to the northeast.
Did you know?
At 6,285’ above sea level, the Roan High Knob Shelter is the highest shelter on the entire Appalachian Trail.
Plan B: Alternate Access to the Rhododendron Gardens
While the road to the top of Roan Mountain will be closed during the off-season and after hours, the Appalachian Trail is always open. This offers an alternate way to visit the top of the mountain if you’re up for the hike.
At the bottom of the road to Roan Mountain is Carver’s Gap, where TN 143 and NC 261 meet at the state line. There is a large primitive parking lot here with privy restroom and small campsite for AT thru-hikers. From here visitors eager for a hike can explore Roan Mountain at any time.
It is a strenuous 7.2-mile roundtrip hike from Carver’s Gap to Roan High Bluff. The first 1.6 miles is the heftiest of the hike with a nearly 700’ ascent. The first parking lot on Roan Mountain is 2.2 miles from Carver’s Gap along the AT.
There are three large paved parking lots on Roan Mountain. The first is just after the toll booth at Roan High Knob and the Appalachian Trail. This is also where you can access the Cloudland Trail.
The second parking lot is a little further down at the entrance to the Rhododendron Garden. This is the smallest parking lot and mostly reserved for handicapped visitors.
The final paved parking area is past the entrance to the garden and used as an overflow lot.
During the peak of blooms these parking areas fill up fast, especially during the festival weekend. I have seen vehicles parking on either side of the road in grassy areas, but please follow the standard rule and get all four tires off the road.
Fortunately, there are two locations with flush toilet restrooms on Roan Mountain. If you enjoy the outdoors as much as I, you know finding flush toilet restrooms is a rarity. In fact, finding restrooms at all is far and few in between.
One set of restrooms is located at the first parking area near Roan High Knob, and the other set is located at the parking area beside the Rhododendron Gardens.
Good news! The Rhododendron Gardens are accessible. In fact, during my two visits I noticed quite a few people with wheel chairs and walkers, so I think the word is out that this is one of the most beautiful accessible locations in the area.
The parking area at the Rhododendron Gardens includes several marked handicap parking spaces. From there, a concrete path about 6′ wide passes through the gardens to an observation deck. There are plenty of opportunities along the way to enjoy the beautiful blooming rhododendrons.
Unfortunately, that is where the accessibility ends. The Cloudland Trail and Appalachian Trail are not accessible, so there is no way to see Roan High Bluff or reach the summit of Roan High Knob.
Appalachian Ranger District
Looking for more information? Roan High Knob, Roan High Bluff, and the Rhododendron Gardens are managed by the USDA Forest Service through the Appalachian Ranger District.
632 Manor Road, Mars Hill, NC