An Afternoon in the Rhododendron Gardens on Roan Mountain

Written by
Jason Barnette
Posted on
June 18th, 2015
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The gate to Rhododendron Gardens was open, it was early June, and I was finally about to see the infamous pink blooms spread across one of the highest mountains in the Southeast. I couldn’t recall how many times I had driven up the curvy mountain road to Carver’s Gap only to find the gate closed. Time and again I would park and head up Round Bald for a sunset hike, all the while glancing south toward the looming Roan Mountain and wishing I were on that mountain top instead. That’s why I was as giddy as a bookworm at the Scholastic Fair (do they still do those?).

The Rhododendron Gardens is a beautiful place to explore on top of Roan Mountain, one of the tallest mountains in the Southeastern United States. Visitors can enjoy a leisurely drive to the top from nearby Roan Mountain State Park in Tennessee, then use one of three parking areas to explore everything the outdoor attraction has to offer. Be sure to bring some good hiking shoes and a bottle of water because you’re about to spend the day on your feet.

It took about twenty minutes to get through the toll booth at the entrance, mostly because it was a self-pay system and the little envelope asked for a ridiculous amount of information (took nearly five minutes to fill it all out, and I’m pretty sure others didn’t list anything at all). Once inside I passed the first and second parking areas, opting instead to drive through to the round about at the very end.

Blooming rhododendron along the concrete path at the Rhododendron Gardens on Roan Mountain near the town of Roan Mountain, TN on Sunday, June 14, 2015. Copyright 2015 Jason Barnette Roan Mountain straddles the border between the towns of Roan Mountain, Tennessee and Bakersville, North Carolina. The top of the mountain is known for having the largest natural rhododendron gardens in the country, maintained and operated by the National Forest Service. The recreation area includes hiking trails, the gardens, scenic overlooks, and the Appalachian Trail.

Concrete sidewalks make the gardens an easy place to explore.

I stepped out to chilly air even on a clear, warm summer day. The elevation here was about 6,200′ so the air temp was always about five degrees cooler than surrounding areas in the lower elevations. I threw on a pair of trail runners, grabbed my camera bag, and set out on the Roan High Bluff Trail. The hike along the beautiful nature trail was surrounded by rhododendron and covered with a lush canopy, keeping the trail in the shade and keeping me cool during the hike. It took about twenty minutes (well, longer since I stopped to capture a few photos) to reach the end and step out onto the observation deck.

The view from Roan High Bluff was unbelievable, except of course I have photos that make it entirely believable. The sturdy metal observation deck sat on the edge of a bluff and sheer drop off a few hundred feet high. I was treated to about a 270-degree panorama view from here, and spent a good amount of time just watching the shadows of clouds move across the lush green trees below.

With very little soil, a tree has grown atop a large boulder along the Cloudland Trail leading to Roan High Bluff on Roan Mountain near the town of Roan Mountain, TN on Sunday, June 14, 2015. Copyright 2015 Jason Barnette Roan Mountain straddles the border between the towns of Roan Mountain, Tennessee and Bakersville, North Carolina. The top of the mountain is known for having the largest natural rhododendron gardens in the country, maintained and operated by the National Forest Service. The recreation area includes hiking trails, the gardens, scenic overlooks, and the Appalachian Trail.

The view from the scenic overlook at Roan High Bluff on Roan Mountain near the town of Roan Mountain, TN on Sunday, June 14, 2015. Copyright 2015 Jason Barnette Roan Mountain straddles the border between the towns of Roan Mountain, Tennessee and Bakersville, North Carolina. The top of the mountain is known for having the largest natural rhododendron gardens in the country, maintained and operated by the National Forest Service. The recreation area includes hiking trails, the gardens, scenic overlooks, and the Appalachian Trail.

Top: The trail leading to the end is cozy and comfortable walking through a moss-covered forest. Bottom: The view from Roan High Bluff.

Once I finally tore myself away from the bluff I headed back down the trail, hopped in the car, and stopped at the second parking area from the entrance. This area was much busier and I had to drive around a couple of time to find a “parking” spot. I call it that because any normal parking spot was taken so I parallel parked just off the edge of the road between a massive SUV and a tiny Prius.

Moments later I was walking through the gardens. The wide, concrete sidewalks made it easy to walk, and I saw a few people with wheelchairs and walkers out for the view. Families strode past with their children on their shoulders and photographers crouched in odd positions to get close up photos of the blooming rhododendron. The paths create connecting loops so it doesn’t matter if you turn left or right eventually you’ll end up back at the parking lot. One of the loops led to a large observation deck just above the height of the rhododendron bushes.

The view was beautiful looking out across an endless field of pink blooms toward distant mountain ranges across the horizon. I probably should have enjoyed this view longer than the ten minutes I gave it, but I found my attention drawn to the hundreds of bumblebees buzzing around the blooms. They’re mostly harmless and I never saw anyone get stung; considering how close I kept getting if anyone would get stung it would have been me, but I managed to avoid the clash. I spent too much time trying to capture macro photos of the busy bees, much to the entertainment of other visitors.

Blooming rhododendron with a view of distant mountains at the Rhododendron Gardens on Roan Mountain near the town of Roan Mountain, TN on Sunday, June 14, 2015. Copyright 2015 Jason Barnette Roan Mountain straddles the border between the towns of Roan Mountain, Tennessee and Bakersville, North Carolina. The top of the mountain is known for having the largest natural rhododendron gardens in the country, maintained and operated by the National Forest Service. The recreation area includes hiking trails, the gardens, scenic overlooks, and the Appalachian Trail.

A bumblebee works inside a blooming rhododendron at the Rhododendron Gardens on Roan Mountain near the town of Roan Mountain, TN on Sunday, June 14, 2015. Copyright 2015 Jason Barnette Roan Mountain straddles the border between the towns of Roan Mountain, Tennessee and Bakersville, North Carolina. The top of the mountain is known for having the largest natural rhododendron gardens in the country, maintained and operated by the National Forest Service. The recreation area includes hiking trails, the gardens, scenic overlooks, and the Appalachian Trail.

Top: Hundreds, if not thousands, of pink blooms cover the rhododendron bushes around the observation deck in the gardens. Bottom: I was thrilled to capture this photo of a bumblebee buzzing around a beautiful bloom.

My biggest mistake was not spending the entire day right here. I certainly could have, I really should have, but I didn’t. I had a mini day trip planned for myself that would unfortunately prove to be a rather dull drive through the North Carolina countryside. I didn’t get a chance to hop on the Appalachian Trail and hike out to Roan High Knob, the highest point on the mountain with fantastic views of the Roan Highlands to the north, and I didn’t get a chance to track down the foundation of the former Cloudland Hotel.

But that’s okay. I now have a reason to return, and I know the best time of year to do it. I think maybe early June needs to be rhododendron time. With nearby Roan Mountain State Park, Watauga Lake, Erwin, and Johnson City, I certainly have enough to keep me entertained for a few days. And next time I’m spending an entire day right here in the gardens, on the trail, and exploring every nook and cranny of Roan Mountain.

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