Stunning year-round, the Roan Highlands are exceptionally beautiful during a Winter sunrise. Hike the Appalachian Trail from Carvers Gap to Round Bald, Jane Bald and Grassy Ridge for nearly continuous, exceptional wintertime views.
OFFICIAL MAP: Nat Geo 783 Trails Illustrated Map
There’s just nothing like chasing an epic sunrise on the Appalachian Trail, especially in winter. Western North Carolina’s sunrises and sunsets are simply beautiful, casting light over the rolling, mountainous landscape and bathing everything in a golden glow under a brilliantly-colored sky. As many sunrises as we’ve caught, they’re always uniquely beautiful, and always entirely worthy of the groggy, pre-dawn drive to the trailhead.
This wintertime hike on the Appalachian Trail explores the Roan Highlands at Roan Mountain, a rolling, grassy series of mountain balds that offer nearly unlimited, spectacular, 360-degree views for miles along the AT. And while it’s a wonderful hike (and one of our all-time WNC faves) in any season, it’s especially beautiful at a winter sunrise, when Roan’s snowy mountain balds seem to make an already-perfect sunrise even more beautiful.
Roan Mountain: the winter hike
Pre-dawn breezes blow briskly through the trailhead at Carvers Gap (view maps and driving directions), a paved AT access near the North Carolina / Tennessee Border. Early morning light begins to fill the sky, signaling that the time is near. A golden hue casts on Roan Mountain’s balds, contrasting with the icy, blue-hued, snow-covered landscape. Gearing up, we depart the trailhead, hiking eastbound on the Appalachian Trail and climbing, quickly, chasing the sunrise.
The hike begins a steady, meandering climb of Round Bald, the first of three mountain balds on this adventure. The Appalachian Trail carves through a thicket of rhododendron, their leathery leaves coated in snow and ice. The trail enters a balsam stand, the fresh scent of evergreen blowing fragrantly in the snowy breeze. Early morning light streams through the trees, reflecting across snowflakes like tiny airborne prisms.
The hike exits the balsam forest at .25 mile, arcing through switchbacks in a final ascent of Round Bald. From the summit, sweeping views stretch in every direction just as the sun begins to crest over the nearby Grassy Ridge to the east, this hike’s final destination. The AT switches back, descending Round Bald eastbound to a saddle at Engine Gap, enjoying view after breathtaking view across the ice and snow-crusted landscape.
The hike reaches the gap at 1 mile, leveling briefly before beginning a climb. The AT ascends through a rocky landscape, passing several broad slab rock outcrops. The trail reaches the Jane Bald summit at 1.3 miles, catching beautiful dawn views of Grassy Ridge to the east and Round Bald to the west.
The hike continues following the Appalachian Trail eastbound, the sun hanging low on the eastern horizon. The trail descends Jane Bald, reaching a saddle at 1.5 miles. The hike begins a final, steady climb of Grassy Ridge, reaching a trail junction at 1.8 miles. From here, the AT veers northeast, traveling to the Overmountain Appalachian Trail Shelter. This route turns to the right, following a short spur trail to the Grassy Ridge Mountain summit. The hike ducks through a dense tunnel of snow-covered rhododendron, their gnarly branches bending low over the trail under the weight of ice and snow. The trail exits the dense rhododendron at just over 2.1 miles, with exceptional views expanding as the trail gains its final elevation.
The hike reaches the Grassy Ridge summit at 2.35 miles, cresting elevation at a group of angular rock outcrops. The wind-blown summit landscape offers outstanding views in every direction. Rime ice and snow cling to the grasses and windswept trees, glowing golden in the early dawn light.
Departing Grassy Ridge, the hike retraces its outbound trek to the trailhead, following the spur trail to reach the Appalachian Trail at 2.9 miles, and following the white-blazed AT westbound, rolling elevation over Jane Bald and Round Bald. The hike reaches the Carvers Gap trailhead at 4.7 miles, completing the hike. Hikers swarm the trailhead, departing on their own early-morning Roan Mountain adventure. But that gorgeous, first-light color show is fleeting, and we enjoyed the serenity of having it all to ourselves.
Always leave no trace, pack out everything you pack in, and if you see trash, pick it up and pack it out.
Stay on the marked trail, tell someone where you're going, pack safety and wayfinding essentials, and don't rely on a mobile phone to find your way. Please always practice good trail etiquette. And before you go, always check the trailhead kiosk, official maps, and the park or ranger office for notices of changed routes, trail closures, safety information, and restrictions.
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Free parking is available at the trailhead.
36.106807, -82.110331 // N36 06.385 W82 06.616