backpacking the roan highlands

The Roan Highlands section of the Appalachian Trail is an amazing backpacking trip. One that you will never forget. You get to hike through the thick and remote Pisgah and Cherokee National Forests. It's located on the boarder between Tennessee and North Carolina. The highlight of the trip will be those famous grassy balds giving you a 360-degree view of nothing but mountains. At the end of the hike you certainly will be begging for more. The Roan Highlands section of the AT is a demanding hike with constant changing elevation, but if you are willing to meet the challenge you will be rewarded. This is a hike that should be on everyone's must-do-list.


  • Length: 47.4 Miles

  • Duration: 4-5 Days

  • Best time: Early to Mid June (rhododendrons blooming)

  • Difficulty Level: Challenging (significant elevation change)

  • Bear canisters: Not Required

  • Permits: Not Required


  • Spectacular Mountain Ranges

  • Unique Grassy Mountain Balds

  • Appalachian Trail Community

  • Highest AT shelter-The Roan High Knob Shelter at 6285'

roan highlands grassy bald


For finding your way I recommend digital offline maps from Download the app and purchase the 1502 Davenport Gap to Damascus map. Or, if you still like having a hard copy that is always accessible no matter what, National Geographic waterproof maps are the best. See the link below. 




Since this trail is linear, not a loop, there are shuttle services available. This is a great option because this allows you to get dropped of at one end of the trail while your car stays at the other end. Now you are able to just walk back to your car. If you are going northbound, like I did, you can get a shuttle from Mountain Harbour Hostel.

If you are going southbound you can get a shuttle from Uncle Johnny's Hostel. The shuttles are not the cheapest, but compared to not having them at all they are certainly a logistic necessity. I recommend you visit one of the websites linked above and make a reservation for a shuttle about a week before your trip.

Parking is available at both Hostels at a affordable price. 

If you are traveling great distances to backpack this trail, there are several options for a nice place to stay for the night. Both hostels mentioned above provide affordable accommodations. If you would like something more then a hostel experience both places provide a range of options from basic tent camping for a small fee to private rooms for a large fee. Mountain Harbour also serves as a nice backwoods B&B.

  • Shuttles: $15-$75 (roan highlands area, depending on how far you are going)

  • Parking: $2 night (if using the shuttle service) $10 night (if only parking at the hostel)

  • Tent sites: $10 night

  • Hostel: $20-$55 night

  • Private rooms: $30-$95 night

Mountain Harbour Hostel

Mountain Harbour Hostel

Uncle Johnny's Hostel

Uncle Johnny's Hostel


The terrain is challenging due to the constant change in elevation, with the highest point reaching 6,285'. The trail itself for the most part is not overly rocky; only certain sections of the trail.

roan highland section of the Appalachian Trail


With the weather you just have to be a little more careful, because of the many exposed peaks of grassy balds. In the summer months, thunderstorms could come up quick and present a real danger. A good resource for weather can be found at

Regarding wildlife there is little to no danger. When I did this trip I hiked solo, even hiking into the night, and did not feel afraid or in danger. That being said, there are bears in the area, but not a huge population.


Overall bugs in this area are not a huge concern. Certainly some years can be worse then others. I hiked this area in the spring when bugs are usually at there worst and I personally didn't have any issues. It is always good practice to bring some bug repellent with you, because you never know. I recommend using DEET or a natural insect repellent made from lemon and eucalyptus.    

Backpacking appalachian trail


Water is plentiful throughout the trail with a combination of springs and creeks as sources. There is no need to carry more than 2 litters of water at any time. However, I do recommend to fill up before you start your climb from Hughes Gap to Roan Mountain. You will consume a lot of water at this section because of the elevation gain. Always make sure to use a water filter so you don't get sick. I recommend the Sawyer Mini or the Sawyer Squeeze filter



There are a lot of tent spots throughout the trail. You never have to go too far to find one. One of my favorite tent spots of the trip is at Beauty Spot. It's an open grassy area on top of the Unaka Mountains with breathtaking views of the Unaka Wilderness and Pisgah National Forest.

There is also the option of using one of the many shelters. Overmountain Shelter is a very popular one. It's tucked away in a valley with a million dollar view. Or the Roan High Knob Shelter, which is the highest shelter on the AT.  Just be careful. You'll need to get there in the early evening because these shelters can fill up quickly in peak warm season.

Beauty Spot

Beauty Spot

Overmountain Shelter

Overmountain Shelter



Day 1: 

  • Start at the Erwin Trailhead off of Jones Branch Rd in Erwin, TN.

  • Hike for 10.6 miles through thick forest

  • Camp at Beauty Spot with amazing views (make sure to have plenty of water, there's no water near camp. Refer to map below to know last water source)

Day 2: 

  • Hike for 14.8 miles in dense forest

  • Tent Camp at the Clyde Smith Shelter

Day 3: 

  • Hike 13.6 miles in some challenging terrian and eventually you will come to the epic section of the Roan Highlands where there are grassy balds with views everywhere.

  • Tent camp at the Overmountain Shelter located in a nice valley with a great view

  • You will pass through 3 balds. (Round Bald, Jane Bald, and Grassy Ridge Bald).

Day 4:

  • Hike 8.4 miles to U.S. Route 19E to complete your hike. In this last stretch you will enjoy even more grassy balds. In my opinion these are the best views of the Roan Highlands.

  • You will pass through 2 balds on top of Little Hump Mountain and Hump Mountain.

Do you have a question about backpacking the Roan Highlands? Leave a comment down below


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