Roan Mountain Gardens are famous for their rhododendrons. I'd seen the photos: great mounds of pink blossoms glimmering through the morning mist. Naturally, I had to go see for myself. I went at the end of June, hoping the flowers would still be in their full glory. Alas, by the time I arrived the blossoms were beginning to fall, but they still put on an impressive display.
The Catawba Rhododendron bushes bloom for a very limited period of time, in late May at lower elevations starting at about 3,000 feet, and in mid-June higher up. If you want to find out when the peak blooming period is expected, call the US Forest Service Pisgah ranger district office at 828-682-6146.
I felt a bit woozy as I walked along the path at the Roan Mountain Gardens. The susurration of the wind sounded for all the world like distant crashing surf, and the cool moist breeze only added to the effect. I expected to look out and see a patch of blue sea in the distance. I wasn't disappointed to see instead those mysterious blue misty mountains. The effect was pleasantly disorienting.
The path at the Rhododendron Gardens winds through groves of large flowering shrubs, which so steal the show that you hardly notice the rich greens of the spruce and fir trees. Meadow grasses and wildflowers glisten in the sunlight. Even though the rhododendrons were off their peak bloom when I visited, there were still enough blossoms left to make a colorful display, and to keep the bees and butterflies busy. Amateur photographers were busy too, snapping away with their SLRs and tripods.
The Gardens' asphalt paved pathways make for a pleasant stroll, and a section of the upper path is designated as wheelchair accessible. An observation deck provides a panoramic view of the mountains. As I stood admiring the view, a group of retirees were pointing and naming the features. "Grandfather Mountain is over there," said one. But I couldn't tell where he was pointing, not that it really mattered.
The highest point here is Roan High Knob, at 6,286 feet. As you'd expect at that elevation, the mountain air is crisp and invigorating. My only regret was that I could only stay for a few hours.
Now for those important details:
Roan Mountain Gardens are actually located just across the Tennessee state line in Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina. From the Tennessee side, take TN 143 south from the tiny village of Roan Mountain. You'll pass through Roan Mountain State Park, then start heading up the mountain to Carver's Gap, where you'll find the entry road to the Gardens clearly marked.
From North Carolina, take NC 261 north from Bakersville to Carver's Gap.
Map courtesy of USDA Forest Service
There's a small kiosk at the entrance to Roan Mountain Gardens, where you'll be charged an entry fee of $3.00 par car.
To the right, there's a parking lot for the Cloudland Hotel Site. The hotel was abandoned sometime in the early 1900's, and there's really nothing much left, but you can pick up the Cloudland Trail here for a moderate 1.2 mile hike to Roan High Bluff Overlook, where on a clear day the view is outstanding.
The Appalachian Trail also passes by the Cloudland Hotel Site and crosses Carver's Gap.
Take the gravel road up to the parking area for Roan Mountain Gardens, where you'll find an information cabin that sells a variety of books and maps. The restroom facilities are well-kept and wheelchair accessible. There are several picnic spots, if you want to pack a lunch.
Roan Mountain Gardens is a day use facility, but camping, vacation rentals, and bed and breakfast inns are available in the area, at Roan Mountain State Park, and in the village of Roan Mountain, Tennessee.
The road from Carver's Gap is open from April until November, but hikers and cross-country skiers can still explore the area in the winter months.
The US Forest Service has printable maps and information for the Roan Mountain Gardens recreation zone, located in the Cherokee National Forest.