Carolina Environmental Diversity Explorations
The unique beauty of the Roan Highlands
The natural beauty of the Roan Mountain Highlands has been recognized since they were first visited by Europeans in the eighteenth century. The first naturalist to report on this site was John Fraser (for whom the Fraser fir is named) in 1787. Other reports soon followed from Andre Michaux, who was exploring North American natural resources for the French, in 1789; in 1836 from Elisha Mitchell, for whom Mount Mitchell is named; and from the “father of American botany,” Asa Gray, in 1841. Both Mitchell and Gray wrote of these highlands as beautiful; Gray even called them “without doubt the most beautiful east of the Rockies.”
The Roan Highlands, which straddles the state line between North Carolina and Tennessee, are now recognized by naturalists not only for their beauty but also for their interesting rocks and plant communities. The rocks of Roan are the oldest in North Carolina, and the oldest that Appalachian trail hikers see anywhere along the route from Georgia to Maine. Examples of all three major rock types — igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary — can be seen on or from the Roan. The major plant communities include the best examples in the southeastern United States of spruce/fir forests and grassy balds that together with their bordering forests contain more than 300 species of plants. Many of these are disjunct populations of northern species. The Roan’s rhododrendron thickets that are as extensive and well developed as anywhere on earth. The unusual grassy balds of the Roan contain twenty-seven species identified by the Federal government as Proposed, Endangered, Threatened, or Sensitive (PETS).
The beauty and unusual natural features of these highlands have led to major efforts to preserve them in their natural state. Federal, state, and private organizations have cooperated to protect more than 15,000 acres. There are two national forests on the Roan Highlands, Pisgah in North Carolina and Cherokee in Tennessee, and Tennessee has established a state park on the northern flank of the highlands. Two private organizations, the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy and the North Carolina Nature Conservancy, have purchased natural areas in the Roan for direct preservation and as a mechanism for transfer of private lands to state and federal agencies.
This virtual field trip should show you why these efforts are important and make you want to visit the highlands yourself. If you decide to visit, I suggest you consult the Roan Highlands fieldtrip description written by Elizabeth Hunter for the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy that appears in a book entitled Exploring North Carolina Natural Areas (University of North Carolina Press, 2000). Most of what is described in this field trip was taken from Hunter’s description, but the original contains much more than is found here.