Hops and Skips

Tennessee State Park Tour: Roan Mountain

The eastern border of our parallelogram-shaped state is a 45-degree angle. If it’s been a while since freshman Geometry, that just means there’s a large triangle of land that is deceptively VERY FAR from the western half of Tennessee. To reach these farthest stretches of the state, it’s nearly a five hour drive from Nashville. It’s a trip that requires more than a weekend to really relax and explore, but the long trip is rewarded with an Appalachian mountain landscape unlike any other offered by a Tennessee State Park.

This wouldn’t be my first trip out to Roan; in fact, it’d be my third. I learned after our second trip that it’s too far from Nashville for a post-work Friday drive, and a quick overnight doesn’t do it justice. Roan Mountain State Park sits on 2,000 acres just about 10 miles from the Tennessee-North Carolina border. Surrounding the state park is the small village of Roan Mountain and the 6,200-foot peak of the same name. The Doe River winds through the park, imparting a diverse landscape of forest, mountains, and stream.

It was a winter trip for that lull week between Christmas and New Year’s. (The Brits call it “Twixmas,” and I’m officially trying to bring that stateside.) We booked back in September, because cabins at Roan are popular; there are 30 of them that can host 4-6 people, tucked away and surrounded by hardwood forest. None have Wifi or TV, and cell phone signal is nearly nonexistent. We found it to be the perfect place to e x h a l e after the chaos of holidays, when the kids have gone manic (nearly feral) from too many sweets and toys, and we could all do with a little bit less of everything.

The forecast was cold with the possibility of snow, but this state park just vibes with winter weather. The cabins are wood-paneled, inside and out, sequestered among the trees with pedestrian pathways winding between them. Each has a private queen room downstairs and an upstairs loft that can fit either two or four people. There’s also a well-equipped kitchen, bathroom, and, best of all, a wood-burning stove. We checked into cabin number seven just before sunset and watched the skies turn pink through the trees.

Roan Mountain has drawn people towards its peaks for hundreds of years. Native American legend tells the story of a great, bloody battle on the mountain that turned the rhododendron red; botanists of the 18th and 19th centuries studied its extensive alpine species. Further, the well-trafficked Appalachian Trail runs across Roan’s summits and grassy balds. We set out to explore that scenery on a bright, blue-skied morning when majestic, panoramic views were all but guaranteed.

There are 10 interlinking trails that run through the park, but we began at a higher elevation beyond park boundaries. An 8-mile drive will land you at Carver’s Gap on the Tennessee-North Carolina state line, an access point to the Appalachian Trail and mountain views. My 3-year-old had a minor meltdown as we began our ascent; Colin stayed near the car with her as my 6-year-old and I continued onward. The trail climbs less than a mile uphill and through a forest, without too much incline. As the path emerges (and continues) out onto the meadowed highlands, the unencumbered view of the Blue Ridge Mountains is breathtaking.

With one hike under our belts, it was now mid-afternoon. Knowing the sun would lower quickly in late-December skies, we rushed back to the park to visit Miller Farmstead, one of the park’s most scenic points of interest, before the cloud cover of impending weather arrived.

Around 1870, a man named John T. Wilder bought 7,000 acres of land around Roan Mountain that he mined for iron ore. Along with a mine, he built the grand Cloudland Hotel, situated on the TN-NC border and offering visitors a luxury resort “so high above the clouds and storms, that the rare air at the top is full of healthy electricity.” (Click here for more of this hotel’s excellent story.) But up an offshoot of the park’s main road, you’ll find a more down-to-earth representation of Appalachian life.

In 1870, David and Louise Miller settled in a remote holler of the mountain and sharecropped the land for Wilder. Eventually purchasing the land from him, the Miller family would remain on their homestead for another 90 years. Today there stands a white frame farmhouse, built in 1908 to replace the original small log cabin. Life on this isolated piece of land was primitive—children walked nearly five miles to school; there was no electricity or running water. The farmstead had to be self-sufficient, and it was for three generations of the Miller family. Between Memorial and Labor Day, visitors to the park can book a 45-minute tour of the farmhouse to learn more about it and the people who called Roan Mountain home.

The clouds blew in overnight, and the next morning felt heavy with snow in the air. Determined to squeeze in an adventure, we headed out early and followed staff recommendation to walk the 1.3-mile Peg Leg Mine Trail that begins just behind the Visitor Center. It’s a pleasant wooded walk that winds around the remnants of John Wilder’s Peg Leg Mine. The trail begins alongside the river before diverting to higher ground. The crunch of leaves and rush of water are amplified in this hibernating forestscape as the path rises and falls through dense vegetation. Once the forest clears, you’re walking around the land once part of the mine, though the caved-in mine shaft and rail cart pathways are only noticeable to a particularly observant eye.

The remainder of our day was spent bundled up in the cabin, reading, playing games, watching DVDs on an old laptop. I like to think cabins are made so we can experience that sensation known as hygge; it’s a warmth possible to achieve only on cold winter days, a disconnect that comes only from the isolation of nature. It’s a reminder that the cold can be a refreshing tonic when we aren’t forced into battle against it.

The snow did eventually fall—not much, but enough to transform the landscape and elicit a giddy kind of joy. Our tires left tracks in the snow as we departed with a rejuvenating sense of peace.

CHECKLIST

Date: December 2023
Count: 30 of 57
Region: East Tennessee
Must-See: Catch the views from Carver’s Gap; if it’s in season, take a tour of Miller Farmstead

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