Highlands of Roan

Highlands of Roan

Approximate Size: 9,356 acres

Location: Mitchell and Avery counties, North Carolina (Carter county Tennessee), 15 miles northwest of Spruce Pine; Pisgah National Forest, Appalachian Ranger District

USGS Topographic Maps: Carvers Gap, Bakersville, and White Rocks

The Highlands of Roan are biologically, geologically and geographically unique. Old Growth is known in the area but specific surveys are lacking. Great extensive natural balds, expanses of spruce-fir forest, high elevation seeps, rock outcrop communities, dwarfed northern hardwood forest, and extensive rhododendron gardens comprise some of the exceptional mix of unique habitats on the Highlands of Roan.

Roan area old map, circa 1770

The balds themselves lie between 5,400 feet and 6,100 feet in elevation and cover hundreds of acres. Vegetation includes sedges, grasses, and wildflowers, many of which are globally rare or endemic species. Heath shrubs, including flame azaleas and Catawba rhododendron, cover the margins of the balds. Atop massive 6,285-foot Roan Mountain, rhododendron gardens cover an area of 600 acres in three natural masses. The display of blooming Catawba rhododendron in this area is the finest and most extensive in the world.

The Highlands of Roan are world renowned for their biotic diversity. The area is listed as a biological hotspot and North Carolina includes the entire Mountain Treasure as a state Natural Heritage area. Over 800 species of plants grow here. More nationally or regionally ranked plant species are found on Roan Mountain than on any other site in the mountains of the Southern Appalachians. And between them, North Carolina and Tennessee recognize as rare 250 species of plants found on the Highlands.

Rare animal species here include Appalachian cottontail, Southern Appalachian saw-whet owl, alder flycatcher, hermit thrush, least weasel, and Carolina northern flying squirrel. Many of the plants and animals are disjunct species whose typical range is hundreds of miles to the north up the Appalachian chain. This highlights the important role Roan Mountain has played as a refuge for plants and animals.

The forests around the bald are also unique. Northern hardwood communities reach possibly their best expression of any in the Southern Appalachians in the forests on the slopes of Roan Mountain, where old-growth stands also occur on the mountain. The slopes around the balds are recognized in a Forest Service old-growth patch. Forests around the edge of the bald contain dwarfed beeches 250 years old but only a scant 12 inches in diameter.

The Appalachian Trail climbs over the steep and beautiful mountains of this wildland for over 19 miles. Scenic North Carolina Route 261 (Tennessee Route 143) crosses the area at Carver’s Gap, where the Appalachian Trail also crosses the area. A Forest Service road takes visitors to the nearby rhododendron gardens.

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