Why we like it:
Carver’s Gap to US 19 East (19E) is an approximate 14 mile section of the Appalachian Trail (AT) that winds through North Carolina and Tennessee. Most AT guide books refer to it as the “most scenic section of trail”. Flirting with elevations around 6000 feet, there are five balds with almost 360 degree views of nearby mountain ranges. While the daily mileage is low on this trip if you do it as a three day hike, it’s worth the slow pace to stop and enjoy the scenery. It’s a tough hike with a lot of steep climbs, but then ends on a fast downhill to 19E.
I’ve hiked this section at least five times in different seasons and variable weather and it’s always beautiful, although it’s a different type of beauty with overcast skies compared to bright sunshine. I’ve seen it brown, green and lush, overgrown with grasses as tall as me, and blooming with flowers. I’ve seen it with dark clouds, puffy white clouds, and nothing but blue skies. I’ve had cool breezes helping me up Hump Mountain, and I’ve sweated up a storm on blazing hot days with no break from the sun. Regardless, I’m hard pressed to find another hike that’s such fun and filled with so many rewards.
One of the key attractions is Overmountain Shelter. The shelter is a two-story red barn with plenty of room and usually pretty clean. There’s a privy nearby, which on recent trips had been decorated with little dazzle stickers, and water is also close. You never know what you’ll find at Overmountain. We’ve camped with thru-hikers, Boy Scout troops, had the area to ourselves, encountered one or two other backpackers, met with a guitar playing hiking balladeer, and even encountered an old friend from Uwharrie. While it’s a fun place to be, the real reason everyone stops here is for the spectacular sunrise and sunset over the meadow adjacent to the shelter. The light plays off the valley below and mountains out in the distance.
The only “problem” with this hike is that you can’t put your camera down. Just when you think you’ve gotten all the pictures you need, twenty steps later there’s an even better view. You’ll have great views of nearby Grandfather Mountain and also the Black Mountains. On a recent trip, we were even able to see Table Rock from Linville Gorge.
Our Favorite Route:
We always park at 19E and catch a shuttle to Carvers Gap. We’ll usually have a 2 pm start on Friday at Carvers Gap and hike to Overmountain Shelter. I always warn everyone, “We’re starting with a climb”. The second you hit the trail, you’re going uphill to the first view at Round Bald. It doesn’t look particularly steep, but after a day in the car, then the shuttle, it’s not unusual to be a bit stiff starting out. Once we make it to the top of Round Bald though, everyone gets distracted by the view and the cameras come out. The few times I’ve encountered rain or threatening weather, it’s been at this point. I have incredible pictures of an angry sky over gray-blue mountains from this vista. I also have great pictures of the Black Mountains in the distance.
We’ll continue to Jane Bald and more views, then head to Stan Murray shelter which is the first sign of level ground. I like to stop at Stan Murray shelter to regroup and check in with everyone. If we’re all doing okay, we’ll continue the next two miles to Overmountain Shelter. Luckily the terrain continues to remain flat which is usually appreciated at this point.
When we reach the side trail to Overmountain Shelter, it’s fun to take a look at a little post to the left with information about the Overmountain Victory Historic Trail. Yes, it’s an interesting story, but even more exciting is what looks like a bullet hole in the middle of it.
We’ll hike down to Overmountain Shelter and there’s usually a little roaming around and discussion on staying in the shelter versus pitching a tent in the meadow. The shelter is warm and dry, but can get crowded. If you’re on the upper level, you also don’t have a great view. Tents in the meadow have a spectacular view at night and in the morning. It’s a bit of a toss-up, but each individual can follow their own preference. I usually pitch a tent.
On day two, we’re not in a hurry so we take our time with breakfast, and often have to let the tents dry thanks to morning dew. We’ll pack up and head out starting – you guessed it – up a hill. It’s a short, steep climb back to the AT, and then the climb continues through Yellow Gap as you start towards Little Hump. If you look back halfway up the hill, you can see Overmountain Shelter from the trail. It looks so small and peaceful from afar.
The day is a mix of level terrain and climbs. The two big climbs are Little Hump and then it’s parent, Hump Mountain. Little Hump is interesting as you climb through open spaces, then head into wooded areas, only to exit in another open space. I keep getting déjà vu in this area as I exit a wooded area and could swear I was right back in the same open area I just left. In the last wooded area before you reach Hump Mountain, there’s a little creek that crosses the trail which is a good place to stock up on water.
As you wind around Little Hump, you can see Hump Mountain, teasing you with what’s to come. When you get there, just put one foot in front of the other and look down. Looking up just isn’t helpful. Do stop and check the views once in a while though.
Once you hit the top of Hump Mountain, you’re rewarded with spectacular views of Grandfather Mountain, and the surrounding areas of Pisgah National Forest to the right. On the left is a small town which I think is Roan Mountain. In front of you is a wooded area that leads to Doll Flats, our stop for the night.
I’ve heard that some people have managed to camp on top of Hump Mountain. It’s completely exposed so the weather has to be darn near perfect. I haven’t been able to pull this off thanks to rain, high winds, and threats of thunderstorms, but maybe one day I’ll get to experience it.
We stop for lunch on top of Hump Mountain and take our time. At this point, we’ve made it, there are no more climbs. It’s downhill to Doll Flats, but the trail is rocky in this section and will slow you down. We were passed by trail runners who were walking fast, but not running. Trail runners are pretty sure-footed so for them to slow down, you know its tough terrain.
Doll Flats is a beautiful meadow overlooking a valley. If the grass is low enough, you can camp in the meadow or just up to the tree line. When we were there in June, the flora in the meadow was taller than me so we all camped in the wooded area on the far side. It’s a nice area with plenty of space for a large group. I’ve been there with 14 tents and there was plenty of room for more. There’s an area cleared for a fire with large rocks convenient for sitting. We tend to stand at the rocks to eat since they’re perfect table height making it easy to cook.
One of my favorite things about Doll Flats is the sign at the edge of the woods saying “Leaving NC” making you wonder “When did we enter North Carolina?” Since the trail weaves in and out of North Carolina and Tennessee, it’s hard to tell where we’ve been, but at least we now know where the border is.
A solid source of water is nearby and there are good trees for bear hangs. On my last two visits, I got my rope over a 25 foot branch. I know it was 25 feet because my 50 foot rope just made it up and over with both ends barely touching the ground. I was kinda proud of myself and on this last trip made other people come check it out so I have witnesses.
After a great evening around the fire, we head to bed and then take our time again in the morning. It’s a fast three miles or so to 19E, straight downhill and then level. It’s a little weird to hear the road as you close in after being so entrenched in the mountains for the past 2.5 days. The lucky thing for me is that it’s an easy three hour drive and I can pop up most anytime I feel like an escape.
A little history:
*Carvers Gap divides Roan Mountain into two sections. This hike covers a portion of the eastern section called Grassy Ridge. It has the distinction of being the longest stretch of grassy bald in the Appalachian Mountains at approximately seven miles and includes three peaks: Round Bald, Jane Bald, and Grassy Ridge Bald.
While we don’t usually venture up to Grassy Ridge Bald due to time constraints, if you have time, it’s worth it. Grassy Ridge Bald tops out at 6,189 feet making it one of the highest grassy balds in the Appalachian Mountains. You can see Grandfather Mountain to the east and the Black Mountains to the south.
I briefly mentioned the Overmountain Victory Historic Trail and there’s a story behind it. During the American Revolution, British General Charles Cornwallis dispatched a band of Loyalists under the command of Major Patrick Ferguson to raid Western Carolina. A group of frontiersmen from the mountains, now known as the Overmountain Men, assembled to counter this threat. The trail commemorates their march towards South Carolina where they defeated Ferguson’s forces at the Battle of Kings Mountain. Adding further interest to the story, gunpowder was not easily procured in the United States during this time. The Overmountain Men were supplied with five hundred pounds of black powder made by Mary Patton and her husband at their Gap Creek powder mill.
The history of the area takes another odd turn when the three Perkins brothers were searching for ginseng in the area and noted iron ore deposits. This led to the creation of the Cranberry Mine which extracted ore for centuries until forced to close by the Great Depression. Loggers took over in the 19th century and you can see what is leftover from the steam engine built in the gap between Round and Jane Bald to move lumber.
The area is now known for its attachment to the Appalachian Trail and many thru-hikers come through in late May through June.
Locals and regulars alike all recommend you start at Carvers Gap and hike to 19E. There are at least two local hostels that allow you to park overnight and will shuttle you to the trail head.
It can be crowded at the Carvers Gap trail head. A lot of people come and hike to Jane Bald or Grassy Ridge for the day. You’ll leave most of this behind as you exit Jane Bald and continue to Stan Murray shelter.
Overmountain Shelter is a popular overnight location for younger locals looking to get away for an evening, boy scout troops, and youth groups so it can get crowded. You may need to be flexible on how you pitch your tent and accept you won’t get a perfect spot. There’s also a gravel road with a gate about a mile away so it’s easy to park and walk with families and coolers.
Weather turns on a dime. This section of trail is close to Grandfather mountain which is known for making it’s own weather. Forget the forecast, you need to be prepared for anything. I’ve had beautiful, picture perfect days and I’ve also been pelted with over 40 mph gusts of wind all night. It’s part of what makes this area special.