It only took me two years to finally get through the gate to the Rhododendron Garden on Roan Mountain. When I arrived at the top on a warm day in early June I found myself surrounded by thousands of blooming Catawba rhododendron bushes. My first time through that gate was one of the best times all year to visit.
Here are some details about Roan Mountain, when to visit the Rhododendron Garden to see the blooms, and a few other tidbits about your visit to the Roan Highlands.
Roan Mountain isn’t a single mountain but rather a ridge about five miles long. The highest point is Roan High Knob at 6,285 feet above sea level. The lowest point of the mountain in Carver’s Gap where the gate that kept me out for years stood securely locked.
The Rhododendron Garden are managed by the Forest Service. The gardens are only accessible from Memorial Day through the end of September mostly during daylight hours only. That’s why I had never been able to get through the gate before: I was usually visiting in the off season.
The Catawba rhododendron bushes are a natural feature of Roan Mountain. The Rhododendron Garden was built around these bushes to take advantage of the annual bloom.
Each year around early June the rhododendrons will begin a magnificent display with thousands of bright pink blooms across the mountain. Visitors can meander along the paved paths and enjoy the view from a couple of scenic overlooks. Some of the paths are even handicap accessible.
There is a fee of $3 per vehicle to visit Roan Mountain. However, the two times I have visited it is been a “pay on the honor system” arrangement. There is a toll booth that might have once had an attendant but budget cuts prevent that now.
There are envelopes and a drop box at the toll booth. You have to fill out quite a bit of information about your vehicle so if you have a passenger it would be best to run ahead to get the envelope to keep the line moving. Each time it has taken me about 20 minutes to get through the toll booth.
There are three large paved parking lots on Roan Mountain. The first is just after the toll booth at Roan High Knob. This parking lot includes restrooms.
The second parking lot is a little further down at the entrance to the Rhododendron Garden. This parking area also includes a restroom.
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.
There are two festivals each year that celebrate this natural event. 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 ironically the same weekend each year. Each festival is timed to coincide with the peak of the rhododendron blooms on Roan Mountain.
Roan High Bluff
While visiting the Rhododendron Garden you might wanna pay a visit to Roan High Bluff. At 6,627 feet above sea level it is one of the highest peaks in the Appalachian Mountains. There is a grassy parking area at the very end of the loop road on Roan Mountain. From there it is an easy 1-mile roundtrip hike to an observation deck overlooking the bluff.
Roan High Knob and the Appalachian Trail
The Appalachian Trail crosses Roan Mountain beside the first parking lot after the toll booth. This is a very popular day hike destination for people eager to get on the Appalachian Trail.
It is a moderate 1.6-mile roundtrip hike from the parking lot to Roan High Knob. Along the way you’ll come across the ruins of the Cloudland Hotel and see lots of rhododendron bushes.
Did You Know? At 6,285’ the Roan High Knob Shelter is the highest shelter on the entire Appalachian Trail.
Alternate Access to Rhododendron Garden
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.