Bakersville, North Carolina, has long been referred to as the "Gateway to Roan Mountain."
Roan Mountain, at 6,285 feet, is one of the highest peaks in the Appalachian Mountain Range. To many who have seen the mountain first-hand, it is considered most beautiful in the entire range. According to Dr. Elisha Mitchell, a professor at the University of North Carolina for whom Mt. Mitchell, the highest peak in the range, and Mitchell County are named, "It is the most beautiful of all the high mountains. The top of the Roan may be described as a vast meadow without a tree to obstruct this prospect, where a person may gallop his horse for a mile or two with Carolina at his feet on one side and Tennessee on the other, and a green ocean of mountains rising in tremendous billows immediately around him" (1836).
The mountain is unique for several reasons. Perhaps it is most widely known for the world's largest natural Catawba Rhododendron gardens. Over 600 acres of rhododendron thickets burst into full bloom in mid-to-late June of each year. The bloom is so profuse that the mountain sometimes appears as a pink or lavender hue viewed from Bakersville, a dozen miles away. Each year thousands of visitors from around the world visit the mountain to behold its beauty. Bakersville hosts an annual Rhododendron Festival each year in June and has done so since 1946.
How "The Roan," as it is affectionately known to area residents, got its name may be due in part to this purple hue. Other legends claim that Daniel Boone left a roan horse on the Roan Balds while he journeyed farther west. When he returned, he found the horse had grown fat and sleek on the lush carpets of grass, sometimes a foot deep, which flourish on the balds of the Roan. These balds remain a mystery to science. Many square miles of treeless areas cover the crest of The Roan on both the North Carolina and Tennessee sides. Many less romantic think the treeless condition is a result of forest fires started by lightning. In any case, this ecosystem--the rhododendron, the balds, and the majestic spruces and firs is found mostly in Canada.
The mountain abounds in rare varieties of plants. Andre Micheaux and Asa Gray, pioneers in the study of botany, visited the area in the 1700's and the early 1800's and discovered and collected species. Gray's Lily was discovered on The Roan's summit.
Visitors to The Roan escape the lowland's prostrating heat, mosquitoes and hay fever. They also find an area where the blackberry bushes have no thorns, where there are no snakes, and where naturally occurring waterfalls and springs offer a cold, sweet water not found any other place. A fortunate few visitors are treated to the mountain's mysterious phenomena: the circular rainbow and the unearthly "mountain music," which on occasion hums its way across the balds.
The Roan is not a place to just drive through--it demands activity. While you can enjoy picnicking right beside the road at one of the many picnic areas provided by the forest service, you should leave your car, take your sunglasses, binoculars, and cameras and hike to the Roan High Bluff where a vista west allows one to see into seven states; or, hike across the balds and through the rhododendron thickets on part of the Appalachian Trail which traverses the crest of The Roan. Just an hour's hike from Carver's Gap, the official entry point to The Roan, is a marker noting that the morning sun's first ray of light falls on North Carolina on this spot, some 350 miles west of the state's eastern-most soil.
Today only a trace remains of a 300-room hotel built in 1885 on the Roan Mountain summit. Brainchild of Civil War General John T. Wilder, the Cloudland Hotel became a retreat for hay fever sufferers and city folk. Advertising the mountain's pristine environnent, one ad states, "Come up out of the sultry plains to the Land of the Sky-magnificent views where the rivers are born.. one-hundred mountain tops over 4,000 feet high, in sight." Sometime around 1910, the building was abandoned. Young's Hotel in Bakersville was a stop-over for visitors going to Cloudland Hotel and The Roan, and its register boasts of Vanderbilts and Astors.
So, while in the Bakersville area, you must visit The Roan. Plan on being here in May when the rhododendron are in bloom in and around Bakersville, and in June the the Roan erupts in unbelievable floral displays. You'll be glad you did!