Julie Judkins photo
Roan Mountain goats
Moving day for the goats.
The Roan Mountains provide some of the most beautiful vistas and abundant wildflowers in all the Southern Appalachians.
This ridge on the North Carolina/Tennessee border rises above 6,000 feet and offers spectacular views of Grandfather Mountain, Table Mountain, and Hawksbill to the east as well as Mt. Mitchell to the southwest. The Appalachian Trail crosses Carvers Gap and in 2.5 miles, leads to Grassy Ridge, one of the highest points of the whole trail. Hikers remember the Roans as one of the most scenic of their whole A.T. experience. No matter how hot it is at the foot of the mountain, a breeze keeps hikers cool in the Roans.
Northern trees, such as fir and spruce, cover a small pocket of the mountains, but most of the Roans are open and bald—a misnomer because balds are not bare soil. They maintain shrubs and grasses instead being filled with trees.
The Roans are very hospitable to a range of outdoor enthusiasts from A.T. thru-hikers to day hikers, and photographers to picnickers. Michaux’s Saxifrage, cow parsnip, bluets, strawberry plants, and cinquefoil abound, but it’s the rare Gray’s lily that attracts visitors. Asa Gray, the 19th century botanist, called the Roans “the most beautiful mountains east of the Rockies.” In these mountains, Gray first found the lily, which was eventually named after him. Gray’s lilies have small, funnel-shaped flowers that dangle downward.
These flowers, crimson outside and orange-red inside with reddish-purple spots, are held on slender stems with whorled leaves. Many visitors time their trek for mid to late June when they hope to see the lily in bloom. With luck, Catawba rhododendrons and flame azaleas will also flower at the same time. August brings mounds of blueberries too.
Carvers Gap is also the entrance to the Rhododendron Gardens filled with Catawba (purple) rhododendrons. No one planted the rhododendron bushes and only nature prunes them. To protect these outstanding bushes from being carried off by vandals, the gardens were declared part of Pisgah National Forest in 1941. Now thousands of visitors come to see the blooms in late June. The gardens have a network of paved, wheelchair accessible trails with picnic tables, and barbecue stands. One may feel like a hobbit as her or she walks under towering dark spruce and fir trees and tunnels of twisted rhododendron branches.
This year, the U.S. Forest Service will rehabilitate the roads, trails, and restrooms. The gardens will only be open from June 6 to July 7, allowing visitors to witness the fantastic blooms at their peak. The Appalachian Trail on either side of Carvers Gap will not be affected.
In 1974, Stan Murray of eastern Tennessee founded the Southern Appalachian Highland Conservancy for the purpose of saving the Roans. “Second home development just started to sprout up when Murray had the idea of a land conservancy,” said Cheryl Fowler, operations director for the conservancy.
Murray, who went on to become president of Appalachian Trail Conservancy, is now remembered with a plaque and shelter on the mountain. The conservancy purchased land from individual owners and held it until the U.S. Forest Service was ready to buy it. Now the Roans are part of Pisgah National Forest.
Having saved the land, there are still constant challenges to keep the Roans bald. Left to their own devices, invasive plants such as Canadian blackberries would spread and enclose the area. Once blackberries take over, most other plants don’t stand a chance.
To help combat this problem, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy has brought up a herd of 50 angora goats to feed on blackberry cane.
“Goats are browsers, preferring woody plants over grazing,” said Julie Judkins of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s Southern Region in Asheville and coordinator of the Baa-tany project.
The goats are enclosed inside electric fences, hidden behind rhododendron bushes as they munch away. Trained Great Pyrenees dogs keep them in line and keep visitors away as well. In England hikers walk with goats and sheep scampering about without needing dogs and fences for protection, but as Judkins points out, in the Southern Appalachians, people have to deal with bears and coyotes.
Jamey Donaldson, a volunteer biologist in charge of the project, spends the summer on Roan Mountain. The goats are taken up the third week of June and stay until the end of September. Every two to three weeks, Donaldson, helped by volunteers, moves the enclosure, giving the goats a chance at new blackberry cane. This project, which is into its third summer, is also the goats’ retirement program—preventing a final trip to the meat market. The North Carolina automobile license plate program finances the project. Judkins encourages supporters to adopt a goat. For $50, you get a photo and lock of hair from your goat and a chance to name it.
To keep up with the goat project and adopt a goat, go to www.friendsofroanmtn.org.
From Burnsville, go east on US 19E to Spruce Pine, turn left (north) on NC 226, and follow this road to Bakersville. Once in Bakersville, continue to follow the road which changes to NC 261. Follow this road to Carvers Gap, on the N.C./Tenn. state line.