My heart beat a little faster as I got out of the car at Carver's Gap. This was just what I was looking for -- the cool, misty breeze caressing my face, the trail across the road beckoning, and a few stray rhododendron blossoms glimmering on the shrubby mountain balds. What a pity that I had only a few hours to spare.
Carver's Gap is as an access point to some of the most stunning scenery on the Appalachian Trail. The extensive mountain balds in this area reveal panoramic views, unobstructed by all those pesky trees that hamper visibility in most of the Southern Appalachians. Add to that the amazing diversity of flora and fauna in this unique ecosystem, and you've got a winner.
The formation of these mountain balds is a bit of a mystery. They’re treeless areas of scrubland or grassland where you would expect to find forest. But however they were formed, the scenery from the balds is a thing to behold. In mid June the rhododendrons provide quite a display of pink blossoms. The photos on this page don’t do them justice, since I arrived shortly after the peak of their blooming. But you can enjoy spectacular views of the Appalachians from the grassy balds at any time of year (weather permitting!).
There aren't many amenities here, just a paved parking area and some pit toilets, but it's enough. If you take the Appalachian Trail south, you'll reach the Cloudland Hotel Site in the Roan Mountain Gardens. It's close to a 4 mile trek, round trip.
From there, you can pick up the Rhododendron Gardens Trail, which turns into a blaze of magenta pink blossoms in June. Or take the Cloudland Trail to Roan High Bluff Overlook, a moderate hike of 1.2 miles. (You can also reach both of these trails by driving up the Forest Service access road to Roan Mountain Gardens, and paying the entry fee.)
If you take the Appalachian Trail south, you'll pass through grassy balds, rhododendron gardens, rocky outcrops and stunning vistas. This section of trail leading to US Highway 19E is about 13 miles long, and is moderate to difficult.
If you plan an overnight trip, you might want to use a shuttle service, since there have been some incidents of cars being vandalized at Carver's Gap. But this section of trail is also popular for short day hikes, which, alas, was all I had time for.
Details about Carver's Gap and the Appalachian Trail can be found at Tennessee Eastman Hiking and Canoeing Club.