Roan Mountain—Cross Country Ski This Weekend

Welcome to the Appalachian Trail on Roan Mountain, the Deep South's primo Nordic ski site. This President's Day weekend, Roan's ready to inaugurate some great cross country skiing. Photo by Randy Johnson

Nordic skiing in North Carolina and the South fluctuates with snowfall—but this holiday weekend and especially early next week looks doable for cross country ski enthusiasts, especially on Roan Mountain, a best-kept-secret NC High Country destination. New snow from today into Saturday should help. Check out the video below—Roan is my favorite spot to cross country ski in the Deep South.

By Randy Johnson

Perched mostly in North Carolina on the snow-favored Tennessee state line west of Banner Elk, 6,300-foot Roan earns the Deep South’s deepest natural snow—about 130 inches a winter. That’s even more than Mount Mitchell’s 104-inch average. It’s so snowy, I called Roan “Nordic Nirvana” in my 1987 ski book Southern Snow: The Winter Guide to Dixie.

Just forty-five minutes from Boone, Roan’s shivering evergreen covered summits are straight out of the far north. Roan Mountain may be a great place for serious Nordic skiers, but luckily, there’s easy access for beginners too. Two well-maintained roads, Tennessee 143, from the town of Roan Mountain, and NC 261, from Bakersville, both meet at the parking area in Carver’s Gap—as high as the summit of Beech Mountain.

From there it’s uphill, as the mountain’s Canadian zone forests bulk higher to the south. To the east, the bald meadows of the Roan Highlands carry the Appalachian Trail over some of the South’s most alpine scenery. The first summit east, Round Bald, is an easy walk to awesome views. Some skiers and boarders pack their skis up and ski down.

Nordic skiers usually head south from Carver’s Gap, up Roan Mountain itself, and that’s a snap on the US Forest Service road. In summer that road takes motorists to the mountain’s famous rhododendron gardens, but in winter, the route is gated so all that snow is safe from vehicles and perfect for cross country touring.

 Appalachian Trail hikers and skiers on Round Bald and beyond have truly alpine views. Photo by Randy Johnson

Appalachian Trail hikers and skiers on Round Bald and beyond have truly alpine views. Photo by Randy Johnson

Focus on the road if you like. It’s gradual with distant views of Mount Mitchell. When the road to the top levels out, turn into the first parking lot on the right then go left on the Cloudland Trail—all the way to a view deck about three miles from your car. Or stay with the road past the start of Cloudland. Not far on the left, the Rhododendron Gardens Trail reaches its own observation deck.

Great trails also flank Roan’s summit road, including the Appalachian Trail (a right turn just 100 yards past the gate above Carver’s Gap). The trail is actually an 1800s carriage road to the old Cloudland Hotel. It’s wide and gradual heading up. There’s a trail shelter near the top of Roan High Knob, then it descends beyond back to the summit road. In the other direction, on the way back down to Carver’s Gap, its wild, switchbacking descent to your car is one of the region’s premier advanced telemark turn trails.

Roan Mountain is such a great ski site that from 1980 to the 1990s there was actually a Nordic ski center at Tennessee’s Roan Mountain State Park, on the road to Carver’s Gap from the town of Roan Mountain. To this day, the state park’s rental cabins are a great option, whether you ski on Roan, or drive the 25 minutes to nearby Beech or Sugar Mountains.

When Roan gets dumped on, tree skiing in the evergreen zone can be memorable indeed. Photo by Randy Johnson
When Roan gets dumped on, tree skiing in the evergreen zone can be memorable indeed. Photo by Randy Johnson

Roan’s a classic! The next week should be a great time to sample one of the South’s best sites for Nordic Nirvana. If you ski this weekend—be prepared for truly arctic temps.

How to Get There—

To reach Roan—drive to Banner Elk, then go left on NC 194 past the road to Beech Mountain. Turn right on US 19-E into Tennessee, and in the town of Roan Mountain, turn left on TN 143 and drive 14 miles to the ridge-top trailhead.

Where to Rent Skis—

Bring your own skis or stop at the only nearby rental outlet—The High Country Ski Shop at the Pineola Inn south of Linville on US 221 (828-733-2008 or 4979). It offers most everything a beginner or expert skier would need—including skis, boots, and poles, rental equipment, and lessons. They have light weight retail ski packages as well as backcountry ski gear (and snowshoes for sale).

Trail Etiquette—

This is precious natural snow on Roan, so skiers and hikers should share the resource. On the road, hikers are asked to create their own walker’s path to avoid destroying the ski tracks that give skiers such great stride and glide. On the Appalachian Trail, walkers should bring snow shoes. There is nothing worse for a ski trail than to have hikers post-holing through the surface.

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Randy Johnson
Johnson has been chronicling skiing in the South since the 1980s as a columnist for the Charlotte Observer and author of the 1987 “cult classic” "Southern Snow: The Winter Guide to Dixie" (soon to be republished). Johnson is a Lowell Thomas Award-winning travel writer whose articles have appeared in many national newspapers and magazines, including the Miami Herald, National Geographic Traveler, Ski, and Skiing. His new University of North Carolina Press book "Grandfather Mountain: The History and Guide to an Appalachian Icon," debuts next April. Visit him at www.randyjohnsonbooks.com.