Roan Mountain Highlands with Kids

The Appalachian Trail and Great Smoky Mountain National Park are both huge touristy areas this time of year. The park is incredible, but the crowds can be intense and overwhelming. However, there is another option for exploring the Appalachian Trail with kids nearby that is family-friendly and way less crowded, with spectacular vistas and stunning wildlife. If you find yourself in Southern Appalachia, check out the Roan Mountain Highlands! The Roan Highlands are quite simply a gem of the American Southeast and have something for families of all abilities. Today, local Tennessee mom and avid hiker Somer Pickel is here sharing her favorite section of the Appalachian Trail to hike with kids and tips for exploring the Roan Mountain Highlands. 

Roan Mountain Kids

The Roan Mountain Highlands are the perfect southeastern mountain get away for families of all abilities.

An introduction to the Roan Mountain Highlands

Roan Mountain is located a couple of hours northeast of Smoky Mountain National Park, nestled along the North Carolina and Northeast Tennessee border. It’s part of the Unaka Mountain subrange within the Blue Ridge Mountains. The surrounding mountains of the area are blanketed by beautiful deciduous national forests (hello fall foliage!) and magical spruce-fir forests of the Cherokee and Pisgah National Forests. The area is famous for its expansive 360-degree Appalachian views and incredible wild rhododendron gardens. Every June, crowds flock to the mountain to view the rhododendron and flame azalea blooms for good reason. They’re magnificent. 

Roan Mountain Rhododendron blooms

Roan Mountain has the world’s largest wild rhododendron gardens and it’s sure something to see!

Visit the Appalachian Balds

The Roan Highlands were my first introduction to Appalachian “Balds”. Aka mountain tops and ridge-lines without forests. The Roan Highlands are the longest stretch of balds in the entire Appalachian Mountain range! The Roan Balds stretch about ~ 2.5 miles across three mountains (Round, Jane, and Grassy Ridge). On clear days, hikers have continuous expansive mountain views for hours while exploring the trail.

These wide open views and minimal light pollution also make the highlands perfect for stargazing. On crisp clear nights, the Milky Way is clearly visible, and there’s no better place to watch a meteor shower.

Appalachian Trail Kids

On a clear day you can see hundreds of miles in every direction from the Roan Highlands. Not that your toddler will appreciate it. This boulder is right off the trail about half a mile up. It’s a favorite climbing spot for small children devouring snacks and adults looking for a breather. 

Hiking portions of the Appalachian Trail with kids

If one were to take a day hike with kids from Carver’s Gap parking area, they could choose the distance of the hike based on the family’s ability. The wide open expansive views start not even half a mile up the Appalachian Trail.

Oh, I guess I haven’t mentioned that little detail yet. The trail that leads across these stunning mountains is none other than the famous Appalachian Trail! 

The Appalachian Trail is a long trail that stretches nearly 2200 miles from Northern Georgia into Maine. The trail follows the Appalachian Mountainss and includes countless incredible vistas. But the Roan Highlands section is considered one of the most beautiful–especially in June when the rhododendrons and azaleas are blooming. Honestly though, I’ve been up there in all seasons and all weather; it’s a beautiful stretch any time. 

Hiking kids Roan Mountain

Exploring with kids isn’t always easy. But that’s not to say it isn’t doable or worth the effort. Even if they are too young to remember it—I promise you will.

Hiking with kids

My recommendation, if you and your children are able-bodied, is to park at Carver’s Gap on the Tennessee/ North Carolina state line. Directly across the street from the parking lot is the Appalachian Trail and an information board. 

Anytime you’re new to an area, you’d be wise to look over any information boards you see. Sometimes it’s just a map of the surrounding area and/or trail. But a lot of time, they have invaluable information about the hike you’re about to embark upon. For instance, there may be a posting warning of recent increased bear activity. Or, in the case of Roan Mountain, it may have warnings not to touch the endangered Grays Lily wildflower species or how you can do your part to protect and preserve the Roan Mountain Highland ecosystem.

Wildflowers Hiking Kids Roan Mountain

Roan Mountain Balds sport incredible wildflowers, including these flame azaleas to trout lilies, trilliums, endangered Grays lilies, the famous rhododendrons, and dozens more!

Roan Mountain State Park

If you’re looking to get your bearings before you set out, head to the Roan Mountain State Park Visitor Center. It’s a lovely stop at the base of the mountain situated on the rambling little Doe river. My kid is a huge fan of the large water wheel at the center. I’m not sure what cascades more, the water or all her ‘why?’ questions about its inner mechanical workings.

But all jokes aside, the visitor center is a great resource where you can ask questions. They will know the shape of the trails and roads (aka, are they too muddy or snowy to traverse) and may have insight into how the weather is on top of the mountain. It is typically open from 0800-1600 EST.

Camping with kids Roan Mountain

For those who may not be up for backpacking, never fear. The State Park at the base of the mountain has over 100 campsites and 30 cabins available for rent.

Camping at Roan Mountain State Park

Roan Mountain State Park also offers camping in designated camp areas. There’s a $5 reservation fee for booking online, in addition to the nightly fee, which varies depending on the season. And while I can’t give exact costs, the nightly rates are quite reasonable—and lower than those we’ve paid when staying at parks out west.

The camping areas have access to walking trails lower on the mountain, wildflower viewing areas, the beautiful Doe river, and of course, some bathhouses. You also regularly see deer ambling about the fields at dawn and dusk. 

Hiking kids Roan Mountain

Hiking with kids is just as rewarding for kids as it is for us parents. Kids get to explore their capabilities and push their physical limits. Seeing them pride themselves in their own accomplishments is incredible.

Roan Mountain cabins

If you book early enough, you may be able to snag one of the park’s adorable little cabins. There are 30 cabins in all, but they’re spread throughout a beautiful deciduous forest, giving each one a secluded feeling. The cabins sleep between 4 and 6 people, and rates vary between $100-300 a night depending on size and season. 

All cabins are equipped with electricity and running water but not Wi-Fi.

Backpacking Roan kids

Roan Mountain Highlands are a fantastic introduction hike for children. The section of trail up to the first bald is accessible for most children and families.

Carver’s Gap hike with kids

But back to Carver’s Gap. Cross the street and head up the trail as it passes through a field spotted with rhododendron. About a quarter mile up, you enter a Frazier fir forest that’s simply magical, especially in golden hour light and/or in fog. You hike through this forest for another quarter mile or so before you come out onto the side of Round Bald with immediate expansive views of the North Carolina Blueridge mountains, including the highest peak east of the Mississippi–Mt. Mitchell.

If your family isn’t used to hiking and the climb is starting to get to you, or if your toddler is demanding their 5th snack of the day, there’s a great snack rock right off the trail. It’s also a great little bouldering challenge for smaller kiddos. 

If you keep going up the trail to the summit of Round Bald, you’ll get your first 360-degree views. From there, you and your family can choose how far to go. If you go all the way out to Grassy Ridge and back, the total length of the hike is somewhere around 5 miles. Keep in mind this milage includes some significant elevation gains along the way.

While I wouldn’t say it’s an easy hike, it’s definitely doable for many. My three-year-old has hiked the entirety of the trail on a recent backpacking trip (though she insisted on being called Spider-Man the whole time–hey, whatever works…). 

Backpacking Roan Mountain Kids

Backpacking to Grassy Ridge was our perfect introduction trip for our toddler. Far enough out to be an adventure, but close enough to bail to the truck if things go awry.

Entry-level backpacking on the Appalachian Trail with kids

For anyone looking for a great entry-level backpacking trip for kids, you found it! This section of the Appalachian Trail was our child’s first backpacking trip when she was 9 months old. It was far enough out to give us the experience we were looking for, but close enough to the car to bail if something went awry. It was also our kid’s first backpacking trip that she hiked completely independently (hallelujah!). 

There are multiple places one could set up camp around this area. There are a couple of backpacking shelters within a few miles of Carver’s Gap parking (Roan High Knob and the Stan Murray Shelters).

Backpacking with kids Roan Mountain

Backpacking on the Roan Highlands is one of our favorite family adventures. The mountain gets top points for it’s beauty and accessibility.

Recommended camping site

My recommendation is to camp on one of the balds, if the weather forecast is favorable. If you keep a keen eye, you’ll find multiple established campsites on each bald. I truly cannot describe how beautiful and otherworldly watching the sunsets and sunrises from each of the three balds. (Unless you’re three. Then you’re too busy playing with the penlight you found in your mom’s pack to notice.) Plus, having multiple options on each bald is fantastic when hiking with kids who may or may not have lost all interest in forward progression. 

Backpacking Kids Roan Mountain

The sunsets and sunrises are 100% worth the lack of sleep that comes with sharing a tent with a toddler. Can we take a moment to peep that happy pupper? Okay, you’re welcome. Moving on. 

More family-friendly & accessible trail options

If hiking isn’t your family’s cup of tea, but you’re still out looking for a fun nature-fueled adventure with the kids, head up past Carver’s Gap to the rhododendron gardens. There’s parking galore and trails aplenty to explore.

Another of our favorite trails is the Roan High Knob trail. This leads to a beautiful deck overlook on the western side of Roan. The trail winds less than a mile through a beautiful mossy rich fir forest, that always reminds me of Middle Earth. The forest is an amazing habitat full of treasures. From mushrooms in what look like fairy gardens to salamanders. It’s truly a kid’s dream come true. 

While the first section of this trail is paved, the whole of it is not. So, I don’t recommend bringing strollers or wheelchairs on this particular trail. However, the popularity of the rhododendron gardens has led the park to develop more options for folks of all ages and abilities. Paved meandering paths wind through the gardens and fir forests. While some are wheelchair or jogging stroller accessible, others aren’t easily so in patches where roots have bumped up the asphalt. But with a bit of extra effort, you could get kids of all abilities deep into this forest wonderland. On hot days you can smell the balsam in the air as you see the sun twinkling through the canopy overhead. We’re talking core memories here, people. 

FYI, the access road up to the gardens is closed in the winter months, so check before heading out. 

Roan Mountain Kids Salamander

The Roan mountain ecosystem is incredibly diverse and rich. Salamanders are a definite favorite of our family though. If you’d like to learn more about them check out our Salamander article!

Baby rhododendron roan mountain

The rhododendron gardens are designed so that visitors of all ages and abilities can get out and explore.

Special considerations when hiking the Appalachian Trail with kids

While I don’t want to scare anyone off the trail, there are special considerations to take if you are planning to day hike or backpack this section of the Appalachian trail (especially if you plan to have kids in tow). 

First off, know your and your child(ren)’s abilities. If your kid has never done a five-mile hike on even terrain, don’t expect them to be able to climb up and down three mountains. But too, don’t be frightened. This is a great hike for parents of little kids or babies still in carriers. There are sections that are pretty technical and require having the littles under three or four in a carrier. But, there are many sections all along the way that are quite mild. My kid has been crawling down them since before she could walk. 

A side note of caution to any parents hiking while wearing or carrying children. Keep in mind wearing children throws your balance and makes it more difficult to keep your footing–especially if you are wearing your child in the front and you can’t see your feet. I always recommend using hiking poles while baby wearing on the trail. They’re a quick and easy safety tool that’s saved my kid and me more than a few mishaps. 

The Roan Highlands make for a fantastic entry level backpacking trip.

There’s loads of opportunity for parents to stretch their legs and for kids to safely explore.

Exposure & elevation

While we are on the topic of safety, let’s point out one of the dangers brought on by what makes Roan so unique. You’re totally exposed for miles. There aren’t any trees to buffer the wind or offer shade. You have to plan for sun and wind exposure. We take sunscreen year-round. We also utilize merino wool’s sun protection year-round (if you want to read more about the crazy awesome powers of merino wool, check out this previous article).

The Roan Mountain Highlands are at a higher elevation than typical for most of us Easterners, and the weather can change on a dime. But don’t let these challenges stop you. Just make sure you prepare properly for the environment. Below are some basic hiking safety tips that can be applied to almost any situation.

Toddlers Hiking Roan Mountain

If properly dressed kids will often surprise you on what they are game for, even in cold environments.

Always check the weather

I am a strong believer in “There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather” (if you haven’t read this book yet, I 100% recommend it).  However, you have to know what sort of weather you might encounter while out adventuring and hiking with your kids so that you can be prepared.

Oftentimes, regular weather apps and websites aren’t suitable sources for labile mountain-top weather. The weather on the mountain may be very different than the weather down below. My personal go-to is You can look up specific mountains you’ll be on rather than the nearest town, which may be 30+ miles from where you are hiking. 

Kids Hiking Roan Mountain

Weather changes rapidly in mountain environments. It’s always safe to bring extra layers just in case.

Dress in layers

Once you know the weather you should expect, plan for the worst outcomes. For instance, with a 30% chance of rain, I’m going to bring my kid’s rain gear and an extra change of clothes in case she gets wet. (You know what, let’s be honest. My kid is three, so I always bring an extra set of clothes with me and have another in the car no matter what the forecast. If your kid is anything like mine, they’re born with an innate ability to trash clothes. But, I digress…) 

If it’s showing temperature ranges of 45-60 degrees Fahrenheit, I’m going to bring multiple layers for my kid, including an insulating layer and a windbreaker. Little kids and babies can’t regulate body temperature as well as adults. What may not be too cold for you, could very well likely be too cold for your toddler. (This is especially true if you have recently transitioned your toddler from a front carrier to a backpack carrier where they can’t rely on your body heat any longer.)

If you want to know the ins and outs of layering and my personal go-to’s (hint, hint–it’s merino wool 100% of the time) check out my merino wool article. It contains all you could ever possibly want to know, and then some, about the wonders of merino wool and layering in general. 

Kids Merino Wool Roan Mountain

Merino wool is nature’s wonder fabric. It wicks moisture, protects from the sun and temperature regulates!

Bring food and plenty of fluids

For those out day-hiking, keep in mind that you’re totally exposed to the elements when on the balds. So, bring plenty of water, as it’s likely that you will dehydrate faster than typical. Plus, you never know when your kid might decide to trail run a couple of miles for no reason (or is that just my kid?). But yea, definitely bring water for each party member and even more for breastfeeding mamas–even if you only plan on going out a mile or so. 

Snacks are a must for my kid in every situation, but they become more important while hiking. I like to bring high-calorie snacks when hiking with my kiddo. Our go-to’s are typically nut butters, granola/protein bars, meats sticks, dried fruits, and crackers.

But let’s not forget the bribery tools, because heck yes, I resort to bribing my kid on the reg. My favorite bribery snacks are fun-sized packages of fruit snacks or gummies, chocolate bites, and lollipops. Word to the wise about the lollipops, though, do not give your kid a lollipop in a backpack carrier if you have hair. Trust me, just don’t. 

Children Mountains Layers

If ever in doubt, bring all three layers for your kids. It’s so much better to be safe than sorry.

And last but not least…leave no trace

Please make sure to follow the leave no trace principles whenever you are visiting wild spaces. Take out all your trash and try to leave the area cleaner than you found it. If we want these places to remain accessible to future generations, we have to preserve, protect, and take care of them. Little eyes are watching. 


Have you ever hiked a portion of the Appalachian Trail?

About the author

Somer is a mama living in southern Appalachia. Somer’s motherhood journey began when her oldest daughter was born with severe congenital heart disease. Avelyn spent the majority of her 18 months of life within a pediatric ICU. Though she lived her life chronically critically ill, Avie was an incredibly loving and joyous child. After her death, Somer and her husband sought solace backpacking a section of the Appalachian Trail. Before long, they discovered their ability to cope seemed to correspond with time spent outdoors.

When it came time to add another kiddo to the mix, bringing the baby along was never a question. In an effort to celebrate the freedom provided by healthy bodies, Somer has hiked her second-born 2k+ miles. Even so, she doesn’t believe grand adventures are necessary to reap nature’s wonder. They just as often revel in mundane evenings in their backyard. The family believes it’s prioritizing time spent outdoors that’s important.

Professionally, Somer has spent the last decade caring for veterans in an acute psychiatric unit as a clinical nurse educator. Over the years, she’s become a passionate advocate for the intersectional relationships of mental health, wellness, and the natural world. She truly believes there’s healing and strength to be found outdoors for those who seek it.

You can find Somer online in the following locations:
Instagram: @somerpickel
RWMC posts: Somer Pickel
Podcast episode: Overcoming Grief Outdoors

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