Hiking Tennessee: Roan Mountain – Grassy Ridge Trail

Mountain Hike Vacation in Tennessee

Roan Mountain – Grassy Ridge Trail…  plus Twisting Falls (Tenn) and Elk Falls (NC)

While not physically located within Tennessee’s Roan Mountain State Park, the Roan Mountain – Grassy Ridge Trail is mentioned in the State Park’s literature, and is just south of the park on the Tennessee – North Carolina border. Roan Mountain State Park has approximately 12 miles of short, mostly easy/moderate hiking trails. Part of the Pisgah – Cherokee National Forest, a conveniently located parking lot to access the Roan Mountain – Grassy Ridge Trail, as well as the Appalachian Trail is at Carvers Gap, approximately 36 highway miles south-east of Johnson City, Tennessee and 65 miles north-east of Ashville, North Carolina.

The Mountain Hiker Rating: 8 out of 10 (Not overly challenging, but excellent scenery)

  • Contributor: Chris Berrier (The Waterfalls hiker)
  • Time required: 4 hours round trip
  • Degree of Difficulty: 5 out of 10
  • Height: 6,170 feet (1,880 meters) / Absolute change in vertical is approximately 670 feet (205m), as the trailhead begins around 5,500 feet (1,675m), however total change in vertical is more, as there are a few ups and downs on this trail.
  • Distance: 5 miles (8km) round trip
  • Guide Required: No – The trailhead and trail are well marked

Note:  The summary info above is for the Roan Mountain – Grassy Ridge Trail and does not include the  Twisting Falls and Elk Falls data, although the write-up below includes all three.

I got rained out for this trip the previous week and did not want to miss the full blooms of the Catawba Rhododendron and Flame Azaleas that Roan Mountain is famous for in mid June.

I designed a drive to Roan Mountain that took me past the trailhead for Twisting Falls to get here and also Elk Falls on the way home.  Both of these very nice waterfalls are on the Elk River about 4 miles apart by way of river, or nearly 30 miles apart by highways and road.

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Twisting Falls parking area – by this barn.





First stop was Twisting Falls, just off of Hwy 321 near Poga Rd.  This was only a 1.4 mile roundtrip hike and the waterfall was very nice.  With that in mind, before you consider viewing this falls, a section of about 0.2 or 0.3 miles is absolutely straight down.  I fell once and nearly 3 or 4 other times down this rocky steep trail that just seems to never end.  It was clear by some of the bent trees that people were using these for leverage.  If you do this, be careful and take your time, it can be done.  Next is the 0.2 miles or so from the river to the falls, this is just walking along side the rocks on the river and it is ok until…..you reach the spray zone.  Here the rocks are all wet, and to get to the big rock that juts out into the river for the best photos, will require some technical and careful maneuvering up some rocks.  Be careful, you could get hurt if you fall here.  It is not a long ways down or anything, but rocks are rocks and they usually win when in a confrontation with skin and bones.  This part would be a lot easier if you are willing to get wet and just get in the river and wade, but I wasn’t.  Despite this extreme short hike to the falls, it is a very popular place that gets a lot of visitors and you might see some kids jumping off the 30 foot falls.

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Someone thankfully marked this tree, where the trail that ascends and descends nearly vertically comes out at the river.
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This tree log must be used to get to Twisting Falls, trust me.
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On the Tennessee side of the Elk River, gorgeous, but a pain to get to!








Next, after a nice lunch and short rest from this extreme hike, was the Balds of Roan Mountain.  This starts on highway 143 at what is known as Carvers Gap.  It is right on the NC/TN State Line.  The Appalachian trail was used for most of this as I hiked up and over Round Bald, Jane Bald, and then up to and along Grassy Ridge.  The hike starts and pretty much follows the state line until you make the right turn to Grassy Ridge.  There are a few spots where it is steep but only for a short ways.  I do not know how to put into words the views you will see up here, they are absolutely amazing.  I was here in full bloom season where there were huge patches of lavender, orange and yellow dotting the hills and grassy meadows with huge green and blue mountain backdrops.  On top of Grassy Ridge, there is an excellent view of Grandfather Mountain.  You just have to hike this to fully see and appreciate it.  The balds continue on past where I stopped, one day I would like to do them all.

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Park here for your hike on the Balds. There is restroom here, but there is no running water.

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Fields of Gold – Tons of Field Hawkweed
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Grassy Ridge in the background, with some nice lavender and orange mixed in
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Catawba Rhododendron

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Sitting atop the large rocky outcrop on the peak of Grassy Ridge, you will find this plaque honoring Cornelius Rex Peake who had a very long and close association with Roan Mountain.
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I have been here 4 times and never seen a goat, but the pamplets say that if you are lucky, you just might!







Finally, last stop on the way home was Elk Falls.  The drive to this falls requires about a 4.5 mile drive off of highway 19E down Elk River Road that takes you through some homesites that are….less than majestic.  However when the road reaches the end, it is thankfully a very short 0.5 mile roundtrip walk to see a very nice, large waterfall into an incredible pool.  It is very popular so don’t expect to be by yourself.  There is a huge rock that runs about 3/4 of the way across the river below the falls and pool that provides excellent and safe photo shots of this beauty.

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Big Falls Trailhead – More commonly known as Elk Falls
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Top of Elk Falls








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The highlight waterfall of the Elk River

Tips:  Use extreme caution around twisting falls, and just common sense at elk falls.  Take lots of water for the Balds, and dress in layers, temperatures can change quickly and it is open and windy up here.

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