Written by: Doug Franks | Photography provided by: Appalachian Trail Conservancy
The world’s longest hiking-only footpath, the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) is a 2190 mile stretch, traversing fourteen states, from Mt. Springer, GA., to Mt. Katahdin, ME. Along the way it takes in the southeastern portion of the country’s highest peaks and arguably its most stunningly brilliant scenery. The trail is well-marked with white “blazes” and dotted with shelters to welcome the weary traveler at day’s end. If you are reasonably fit, you can hike the A.T. If you are a beginner, I would suggest whetting your appetite with one of my favorite jaunts, Carver’s Gap to Grassy Ridge Bald (roundtrip, about 5 miles). Are you ready? Then let’s go!
At first peep of dawn I arrive at Carver’s Gap and the trailhead to the Roan Mountain Highlands. The parking lot will quickly fill up, as this trail rightly deserves its reputation as one of North Carolina’s very best hikes. Get here early, but don’t sweat it: the crowds thin out after Round Bald and the trail will pretty much be yours. The familiar A.T. sign marks the trailhead. Overhead a hawk makes a lazy lasso in the sky, swooping up stray clouds. With a final glance over my shoulder, I head north and gradually climb the well-graded trail through a sea of Rhododendron.
In a little under a half mile (.3), you will reach a grove of Red Spruce and Black Balsam Fir (balsam fir krummholz). Krummholz is a German word meaning “crooked wood.” And in this spooky shaded grove, twisted shrubs and branches gesticulate in a frozen pantomime. A morning mist curls around fingers and crooks of arms. It is one my favorite spots on the entire A.T. It’s as if you had just followed breadcrumbs into a storybook forest. The air smells sweet with pine sap, evergreen moss, and dark, rich loam. The trail then slowly climbs through a thicket of Rhododendron blossoms, past a white blur of Mountain Angelicas, to the grassy landscape of Round Bald (.6). The windswept summit offers sweeping vistas in all directions—but the views get even better up ahead.
The trail continues eastward and then descends into the meadows of Engine Gap. Make your way through sienna-tinged hawkweed and greenery touched with daubs of bright wildflowers, wild blueberry bushes, and flame azaleas and then begin the moderate climb to Jane Bald. Here, the trail winds through a stone-tossed and rocky landscape before cresting at 5,820 feet. A few steps off the trail, a great rock slab makes a perfect place to catch your breath and take in the vast expanse of rolling mountains. To the east looms Grassy Ridge Bald, to the west, Roan Mountain.
Atop, I find a comfy perch on the side of the bald. An easy breeze moves through the tall grasses. I watch a honeybee buzz a wildflower and a raven execute an amazing barrel-roll just for the hell of it. After losing myself in the mesmerizing views, I throw on the pack and follow the trail down easy switchbacks and through the saddle between Jane Bald and Grassy Ridge Bald.
At the base of the gap (1.8) you will come to an intersection: the A.T. detours left around the next bald and twists its way to Overmountain Shelter; straight ahead a spur trail leads to the summit of Grassy Ridge Bald. The hike to the top is steep, but short. As I make my way through the shadows of trees, a chipmunk chatters away. I hear a Jay arguing over territorial rights and then suddenly the forest goes quiet. I know what’s next. The first raindrop makes a splash on a leaf. A few more drizzle down through the branches and plop, plop, plop on my boot. As I crest the summit (2.15), the sky opens up. A quick spring rain spreads a thin clean sheen over the mountainside and suddenly everything’s smiling in the sunlight. It is stunningly beautiful. And it is in moments like this that you just want to scream “Yeaaaah!” The soul does a little jig and you can’t help but smile like that ole’ Cheshire Cat. Lord, it’s good to be back on the trail.
Atop the bald, panoramic views are spectacular. Most of the morning and into late afternoon, I explore the ridge until the day gets away from me. Soon the sun will set, mulling in its own burnt orange and yellow colors. I take one last look around me at the vast wilds and reluctantly head down the mountain. It has been a splendid jaunt! And as I retrace my steps back to Carver’s Gap, I begin thinking of ways to approach the wife. Darling, I’d say, I do believe it would behoove me to take a sabbatical, say a month or so, and hike a portion of the A.T. For the soul, mind you, for the soul. And because I know her as well as I do, I also know just what she’ll say: Go for it!