North Carolina’s Mountain Treasures
Help Protect the Vulnerable Wildlands of the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests

Highlands of Roan / Unaka Mountains Conservation Area

Conservation Areas: Nolichucky Gorge, Highlands of Roan

Like so many other special places in the Southern Appalachians, the Highlands of Roan/Unaka Mountains Conservation Area is astonishingly rich in biological values, partly because it is so varied in its geology and topography. And it offers a wealth of recreational opportunities, from the simple enjoyment of its spectacular scenery to white water sports and hiking.

The Appalachian Trail enters the Tennessee side of the Nolichucky and travels the length of this conservation area, traversing the main ridge of the Highlands of Roan and providing an excellent way to see Roan Highlands as well as other portions of the Highlands of Roan/Unaka Area.

The conservation area ranges from high grassy balds in the highlands to the sometimes placid, sometimes roaring Nolichucky River in its deep gorge.

The Highlands of Roan/Unaka Mountains Conservation Area lies to the east of the Bald Mountains Conservation Area and also it straddles the North Carolina-Tennessee border. And, as in the Bald Mountain area, there is a Tennessee counterpart for nearly every North Carolina wild area.

The gorge of the Nolichucky River, which spills from North Carolina into Tennessee, is the northern boundary of the Bald Mountains Conservation area. The gorge itself provides a unifying theme for the Mountain Treasure area in North Carolina and its adjacent companion area in Tennessee. A North Carolina Natural Heritage area designation extends over most of the gorge, reaching to the rim.

From the W.G. Williams Army map of 1837

The U.S. Forest Service reckons that Roan Mountain holds between 1,000 and 2,000 acres of grassy balds or subalpine meadows. The Appalachian Trail traverses the longest stretch of balds in the Southern Appalachians as it runs for 14 miles along Roan Mountain’s crest.

Gradually, trees and brushy vegetation are encroaching on the balds, making them what some ecologists term an endangered ecosystem. Because of funding and staff limitations, the Forest Service is focusing its attention on only two of Roan Mountain’s balds and is using a novel tool in the process: a small herd of domestic goats.

The grazing project will help agency scientists understand the impact of grazing on the balds and help identify ways to preserve their openness. The hope is that goats may help restore what is rapidly becoming a blueberry community to the system of grasses and sedges that it once was.

To some ecologists, the remarkably high species diversity in the Roan Mountain balds suggests that they may be the oldest in the Southern Appalachians.

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