If you care for stunning views and spectacular landscapes, there is no better place in the South than the balds along the Tennessee-North Carolina border. Jane and Round balds, along with Grassy Ridge, all north of Roan Mountain, are fabulous expanses of open grassy highlands stretching for hundreds of acres. The views are unparalleled on clear days, with fold after fold of blue-tinged mountain ranges rolling in every direction like a storm-tossed sea. Temperatures in mid-summer can be mild, often chilly, with bracing breezes ramping up to minor gales, sometimes accompanied by wisps of fog or passing cottony clouds that envelope the 5,000-foot-plus summits.
You don’t have to be a backpacker to take in these views, either, even though the Appalachian Trail crosses the balds. They are easily accessible from Highway 226 that connects Spruce Pine, N.C. to the Johnson City, Tn. area, requiring only a slightly taxing walk of a half-hour along a well-maintained gravel trail that climbs only a few hundred feet from the parking area beside the highway at Carver’s Gap.
What you will experience is a one-of-a-kind natural setting, and also something of a natural mystery. Nobody knows exactly why some of the tallest mountains in the Appalachians are bald. Verdant grasses and sedges that grow nowhere else this far south carpet the mountaintops, the invading line of trees and bushes for some reason stopping short of taking over the terrain.
But, like so much of our natural world, this unique, self-contained mini-universe is teetering on the brink of disappearance. Numerous balds in recent decades have grown over with trees, wiping out rare and often endangered plants, many of which typically live only thousands of miles farther north. The plants in turn support bird and possibly other animal species that are also rare in these parts.
And why should we care, I guess some might say? To me, losing the balds would be like letting a Picasso or a Monet deteriorate on your walls from neglect, moldering and fading until it finally simply vanished, a work of great genius, inspiration and uniqueness gone forever.
Scientists debate how and why the balds formed. According to an excellent piece in Audubon Magazine a few years ago, one of the most dedicated researchers is Peter D. Weigl, an ecologist from Wake Forest University who has spent four decades studying these unique habitats. Weigl believes the balds were a remnant of the last ice age, when howling, frigid weather forced trees to retreat from the mountaintops, inviting a profusion of grasses and plants more accustomed to living in tundra-like settings much farther north. The grasses attracted creatures like mastodons, tapirs and mammoths, which grazed the areas like pre-historic weed-eaters, keeping them clear. When most of those big creatures suddenly disappeared about 10,000 years ago, bison and elk moved in.
Some researchers also believe Native Americans may have kept the balds clear by fire, too, perhaps maintaining them in order to make easier hunting of the beasts that feasted there.
As with so many of our environmental histories, things changed when European settlers arrived. Within a century they killed off most of the bison and elk. Fortunately for the balds, the early farmers quickly capitalized on the waiting pastures, turning loose their goats, pigs, sheep and cattle, who grazed contentedly, keeping up the natural history of treeless mountaintops.
But over the past few decades, most such grazing has vanished as mountain people have taken cash jobs and cut back on the size of their farming operations. The balds that for millennia have supported a unique panoply of plants like Gray’s lily, green alder, three-toothed cinquefoil, greenland sandwort, Bicknell’s rock rose and bronze sedge are now steadily shrinking beneath a steady advance of trees, shrubs and bushes.
A few efforts have been made, some with encouraging results, to re-introduce grazers, especially goats, to eat back the vegetation. A scarcity of funding or a crowded list of priorities has kept the U.S. Forest and National Park services from large-scale projects, however, and many of the balds stretching from Virginia to northern Georgia will likely disappear within a few more decades. Even in the Smokies, officials have decided to concentrate their conservation efforts on Andrews and Gregory balds, while Spence and Russell fields grow over, untended.
Despite the government’s lack of commitment, efforts to preserve the balds are still underway, most carried out by private non-profits like the Nature Conservancy, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy. Volunteers spend long hours hacking back the vegetation with weed-eaters, loppers and other tools. The Friends of Roan Mountain is funding a project that maintains a goatherd on the balds, something you can support with a donation. On Hump Mountain, another bald a few miles north of Roan, conservationists have encouraged a farmer who has imported long-horned African cattle to graze that massive open highland, making for a stirring sight for passersby.
If you’ve never seen the balds, they are worth the trip, perfect for an afternoon of priceless views among plants you will see nowhere else south of Canada. And they could use your help, too, if you care to preserve this unique part of the South.
Photos from top:
Foggy sunrise from Little Hump Mountain
Cattle on Hump Mountain look out toward Grandfather Mountain
Hump Mountain from Bradley Gap
Sunrise from Little Hump Mountain
Appalachian Trail descending Little Hump Mountain