They’re Throwing a Great Big Garden Party on Roan Mountain
There are some who believe Roan Mountain, with its mysterious grassy balds and natural 600-acre Catawba rhododendron gardens is the most beautiful mountain in the Eastern U.S. I admit I am among them. The unusual vegetation of Roan Mountain’s more than 1,000 acres of balds attracted the famous botanist-explorers of the 1700s and 1800s.
There’s even mystery in its name. Some claim it’s named for Daniel Boone’s roan, a horse with a coat color pattern characterized by an even mixture of colored and white hairs on the body, while the head, lower legs, mane and tail are mostly solid-colored. Others believe the name came from the roan or reddish color of the rhododendrons in bloom. It is just as likely the pioneering Scots saw the orange/red mountain ash berries in fall and named the 6,285-foot peak for the rowan tree of their homeland, a member of the rose family with leaves and berries similar to the mountain ash.
Roan Mountain is a massif, or compact portion of a larger mountain mass that was displaced as the mountains were formed, according to the informational displays in the Roan Mountain State Park Visitor Center. With summits, a central ridge with rounded peaks and gaps, the Roan Massif is 12 miles long and forms the highest point in the Unaka Mountain Range.
Roan Mountain State Park has comfortable cabins, large campgrounds with bathhouses, playgrounds, picnic tables, 12 miles of hiking trails, 2.25 miles of mountain bike trails, three cross-country ski and snow shoe trails and a swimming pool.
One of the largest natural rhododendron gardens in the world is at the top of the Roan. The bloom tends to peak during the last half of June and makes an impressive array of magenta flaming along the mountain peaks. This year the garden party put on by Mom Nature will be celebrated at the foot of the mountain with handmade crafts, food and a variety of traditional music, plus an array of old-time folkway demonstrations during the 67th Annual Rhododendron Festival, Saturday and Sunday June 21-22.
Elizabethton, the closest town on the Tennessee side of the Roan, was the site of the Watauga settlement and the gathering of the “overmountain men” as they went to meet British forces at King’s Mountain, South Carolina on Sept. 25, 1780.
Major Ferguson brought 1,100 British and Tories to the encounter at King’s Mountain as part of Lord Cornwallis’ campaign through the Carolinas. In one fateful day, the “overmountain men” killed Ferguson and either killed or captured his entire command. It was a resounding defeat with fewer than 30 “overmountain” men lost. Many historians feel the defeat was the turning point of the Revolutionary War in the South.
More about the colorful history of our fledgling nation can be discovered at Sycamore Shoals State Park.
Other historic sites in Elizabethton include the Doe River Covered Bridge, which was hand-built by craftsmen in 1882. It is believed to be the oldest covered bridge in use in Tennessee today and is on the National Register of Historic sites.
The babbling waters of the Doe River are well-known for stream fishing. The 72-acre trout-filled Little Wilbur Lake below Watauga Dam is also very popular. Primitive campsites are available near the Little Wilbur with picnic tables, grills and a bathhouse.
Watauga is an inviting TVA lake, nestled among the surrounding mountain peaks like a sparkling sapphire in an emerald crown. With 6,430 surface acres, 106 miles of meandering shoreline, and very little development, outdoor enthusiasts have ample opportunities for fishing, boating, swimming and water skiing. There are several popular picnic sites along the lake, including Shook Branch and Watauga Point, which both have swimming areas. Camping is available at the Carden’s Bluff Campground.
Without a doubt, the Roan is a spectacular spot in all seasons but I hope you’ll put seeing its amazing rhododendron gardens in full bloom high on your to-do list.
**All photos courtesy of Cathy Summerlin