Roan Mountain State Park is well known for one thing, their rhododendrons, but the park has so many other things to offer as well. There are hiking trails that will take you along the Appalachian Trail, a forest that feels like it’s from another place entirely, and some of the most scenic views in the area. If you drive to the top of the mountain, you’ll also get to visit two states and two National Forests in a matter of seconds. You can put one foot in Tennessee, and the Cherokee National Forest, and the other in North Carolina, and the Pisgah National Forest, at the same time.
The Rhododendron Festival at Roan Mountain State Park is the third week in June.
It’s scheduled right around the time the flowers should be at their peak, but nature can be tricky sometimes. They are normally at their peak in mid-June, but the actual peak could also be as much as a week before or after depending on the weather. If you are planning a trip and want to know where the flowers are in their process, you can always call the visitor’s center and they’ll let you know.
When we went to the park the first time, it was still a little chilly, but we wanted to scope it all out, see where the rhododendron bushes were, and get a little fresh air.
The Tom Gray Trail was the perfect place to take short, but pretty walk.
This trail is right next to the campground.
From the Visitor’s Center, turn left and go a few more miles and you’ll see the campground on the right. If you were going into the campground, you would stay right and go through the gates. To walk the trail, park in the lot to the left and look straight towards the woods. You’ll see a small wooden sign that says “Tom Gray Trail” and the beginning of the path.
This path is technically a loop that takes you by the river, around to the left (back towards the road) and then back to where you started. We chose to just walk to the point where it diverts from the river and back along the river because the sound of the water was so peaceful. The path itself is fairly easy, so almost anyone can do it, but there are some uneven parts and tree roots along the way.
We drove on up the mountain to Carver’s Gap that day, but it was FREEZING by that point, so we just snapped a few pictures and moved on.
The day we went to see the rhododendrons, we started at the Carver’s Gap sign (elevation 5512 ft.).
If you turn up the paved road at the Carver’s Gap sign, and go up the mountain another eight miles or so, you’ll come to the Rhododendron Gardens – State Rd 1348, Bakersville, NC.
(Yes, the address is Bakersville, NC. If you’re coming from TN, it’s up the mountain beyond the main Roan Mountain State Park area. If you’re coming from NC, it’s up the mountain beyond Bakersville. This was a little confusing to us the first time we saw the address.)
If you’re not there during prime rhododendron season, don’t let that keep you from stopping by these gardens. There is a small fee to get in, but it’s worth it to walk through the forest of trees that somehow feel like they are full of deep, peaceful magic. I lived in Washington State for seven years when I was growing up, and this area felt more like the forests there.
There are two different loops that you can walk, and both of them together only take about 45 minutes or less. They are easy: paved, so almost anyone can enjoy them, with a slight incline, but not too bad.
If you do happen to be there during peak rhododendron season, be sure to go to the left, to the observation deck. Not only will you see some beautiful views of the mountains in front of you, you’ll also be surrounded by gorgeous pinky purple blooms.
By the time we got there, the rhododendrons had already mostly come and gone. The weather had been rainy and windy for the couple of weeks prior and I think the wind took the blooms with it.
On the other side of the Carver’s Gap sign, you’ll see the beginning point for a hike up the hill to Round Bald, elevation 5826 ft., and some pretty amazing views.
Round Bald is part of the Appalachian Trail, so you can also continue over the mountain and beyond if you’d like to. We actually didn’t intend to walk quite as far as we did, but the views kept getting better and better, so we kept going “just a little farther”. Haha. (And we had snacks and water on hand, so we weren’t completely unprepared.)
The path up the mountain is a bit rough, but totally doable for anyone who walks on these types of trails at all. It was also really nice because we got to walk through some of the bloomed-out rhododendron bushes along the way.
Then, about half way to Round Bald, there is a forest area with some of the same other worldly feeling foliage that is in the Rhododendron Gardens. It’s a nice place to take a break if it’s a hot day because of the shade that the trees provide.
When you get to Round Bald, you’ll be rewarded with some stunning views of Tennessee in one direction and North Carolina in the other.
On our way back down the mountain, we saw several photographers who were trying to make it to a point a little beyond where we went for the sunset. For us, it was time for dinner.
When you’re ready to eat, head back down the mountain towards Tennessee, and go to Smoky Mountain Bakers (located at 126 Orr St. Roan Mountain, TN).
They have the most delicious, wood-fired pizza around. You can also grab some of their homemade breads and desserts while you’re there too. On Friday and Saturday mornings, they have Cinnamon Rolls that are SO GOOD! If you know you’re heading that way, you can call a few days before hand and order them ahead of time.
Don’t let the outside look of this place fool you…SO GOOD! Whenever we travel, we try to eat at local restaurants, and we’ve found that the ones that look like a hole in the wall are often the best. Not always, but often. This one definitely is.