Grassy balds with panoramic mountain vistas. “Smoky” fog rolling through the gaps. Untouched pine forests. 6,000-foot peaks. The Roan Highlands, on the NC/TN border, are more reminiscent of the Rockies than Appalachia. The best way to explore this region is on a two-day Appalachian Trail hike from Carvers Gap to 19E Highway.
This is a great beginner backpacking trip — it’s logistically easy and almost the entire hike is downhill. You can camp in total isolation or choose a spot with other backpackers around for camaraderie and security.
In this post, I’ll cover everything you need to know to take on this Roan Mountain backpacking trip. I’m a WNC local and I hike in these mountains every weekend, so I’ll share all my insider tips to have a great time. Let’s dive in!
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Carvers Gap to 19E Backpacking FAQ’s
Carvers Gap to Highway 19E is one of the most popular backpacking trails in North Carolina. If you’re planning a trip from out-of-state — or if you’ve never hiked in the Roan Highlands before — a little preparation goes a long way. These tips will help ensure you have a safe and fun adventure.
When is the best time to go backpacking in the Roan Highlands?
Carvers Gap to 19E is a year-round backpacking destination. This area spans from about 3,000 feet in elevation to over 6,000, so you’ll get varying weather depending on where you are.
Fall is the most beautiful time to hike in the Roans. The grassy balds turn yellow, the sky is blue, and the views from the peaks are colorful. That being said, it’s also the most crowded time of year.
Spring and summer are lovely times weather-wise, but in the spring, you’ll often run into hordes of AT thru-hikers. They pass through between late March and early May. The rhododendron blooms on Roan High Knob are the most vibrant in the Carolina mountains and attract big crowds.
Winter is the best time to hike if you want solitude, but it can be frigid up high. The summits of Roan High Knob, Roan High Bluff, and Roan Mountain are often snow-capped between December and April. Expect nighttime temperatures in the teens. An additional winter hiking challenge is that it’s hard to find the trail under the snow on the balds, where there are no trees to blaze — bring a paper map and compass.
Whatever time of year you visit, I highly recommend aiming for weekdays. Even deep in the backcountry, the trail feels more like a hiker superhighway on weekends.
Where can you camp?
You’ll be on the Appalachian Trail almost the entire time for this hike, so follow the usual guidelines for camping on the AT.
Along the route between Carvers Cap and Highway 19E, you’ll pass three AT shelters:
- Roan High Knob Shelter — between Toll House Gap and Carvers Gap. If you start from Roan High Bluff, this shelter is about 2 miles into your hike.
- Stan Murray Shelter — 3.5 miles in. Lots of campsites around the shelter.
- Overmountain Shelter — 5.8 miles in. The barn that serves as a “shelter” is closed due to structural damage, but you can camp in the huge grassy field. There’s a convenient water source.
However, a far better option than any of these shelters is to camp on one of the balds. Little Hump, the gap between Little Hump and Hump Mountain, and Hump Mountain are the most popular dispersed camping areas with lots of established sites. You can also find sites around Jane Bald and Grassy Ridge Bald. The advantage to camping on the balds is amazing sunrise and sunset views. The disadvantages are cold, windy nights and lack of water nearby.
You’ll encounter a few dispersed camping sites in the woods along the trail as well — mainly between Hump Mountain and Highway 19E. Most are near water sources.
Remember to always use established campsites. Never set up your tent on an untouched portion of field or forest. It’s very damaging to the environment.
Where can you find water?
One reason Roan Mountain makes such a great beginner backpacking trip is because water is plentiful along the trail. You never have to hike more than two miles to find a water source.
The following areas are good places to fill up:
- Descending from Grassy Ridge Bald, you’ll past a few signed water sources.
- Near Stan Murray Shelter, there are a number of small springs.
- Overmountain Shelter has an excellent piped water source 0.3 miles off-trail. Follow the signs to the Overmountain Victory Trail.
- A stream immediate below Little Hump provides your last fill-up opportunity if you’re camping on the balds.
- The descent to Highway 19E from Hump Mountain passes about a dozen creeks and streams.
Always treat your water in the backcountry. I use a Steri Pen and carry iodine tablets as a backup.
Preparation and logistics
Before heading out for your weekend Appalachian Trail backpacking trip, make sure you have everything you need. That includes gear, food, comfort with your pack, and transportation.
Training for your Appalachian Trail hike
Backpacking is more fun when you’re in great shape. Yes, you can technically strap 35 pounds on your back and walk 20 miles. But you’ll be sore and miserable most of the time. It’s far better to be comfortable carrying a lot of weight before your big trip.
Start training a few weeks in advance. If you don’t hike regularly, you can start with just a day pack. But you’ll want to day-hike with your big backpack at least a few times. Practice putting it on and taking it off, tightening all the straps, and getting a feel for how it shifts in tricky terrain. Follow my hiking training plan for more details.
If you’re planning a winter hike, you should also get familiar with compass navigation — you’ll need it to find the trail on the ridge. Take a navigation class online or at REI, or familiarize yourself with the principles online. Practice a few times in an area you know well.
You’ll need a full array of backpacking gear for this trail. If you don’t want to go out and spend $500 on gear for this trip, you can rent most items from French Broad Outfitters in Asheville.
My camping kit includes:
- One-person North Face three-season tent. Normally I leave the stakes at home to save weight, but I really regretted not having them for this trip.
- Three-season sleeping bag or sleep sheet
- Inflatable pillow
- MSR pocket rocket stove and cook kit
- Small can of cooking fuel, purchased from Black Dome Sports in Asheville
- One pair of clothes for trekking, one pair for sleeping (no cotton!)
- Wool fleece, beanie, and gloves (September-May)
- Flip-flops to wear at camp
- Camelbak water bladder plus an additional 1-liter bottle
- Bear spray
- 4,000 calories of food per day — dehydrated dinners, oatmeal packs, string cheese, trail mix, nuts, dried apricots, nut butter, tortillas, tuna packets, peanut M&M’s, fig bars, instant coffee etc.
I carry it all in a Gregory women’s backpacking pack. This was my biggest gear investment and it was 100% worth it. The pack has special technology to adjust to your movements on tricky terrain — so you won’t lose your balance when you’re slipping and sliding down Little Hump in 6 inches of mud.
Finally, a couple pieces of gear you might not normally need are essential for the Carvers Gap to 19E trek. The first is a bear cannister. Do not under any circumstances hike in the Carolina mountains without one — your dinner will be stolen! You can’t count on being able to do bear hangs in the Roan Highlands because there are no trees on the balds.
Second, your knees will greatly appreciate it if you bring trekking poles on this hike. Roughly 15 miles of the 18-20-mile route is downhill. Trekking poles take as much as 40% of the weight out of your knees on descents.
Carvers Gap to Highway 19E is a point-to-point hike — meaning you end in a different location from where you begin. That’s great for maximizing diversity of the terrain you’ll see, but it does make transportation a bit trickier. You’ll need to either use two cars or a commercial shuttle.
The easiest way to deal with transport is to use the Carvers Gap to 19E shuttle at Mountain Harbor Hostel. Costs depend on the number of people, but usually run about $15 per person. It’s an additional $2/day to park in their yard, but it’s totally worth it since the trailhead parking has issues with car break-ins.
You can take the shuttle to Carvers Gap, but the better option is to go all the way to Toll House Gap. This only adds 2-4 miles (depending on side trips) of flat and downhill hiking to your route, but it takes you through beautiful virgin pine forest and to two 6,000-foot peaks.
The shuttle takes about 45 minutes. You pay when you arrive, so make sure you get there 10 minutes early. They leave exactly on time.
If you want to shuttle yourself, you can still leave a car at Mountain Harbor. It costs $10/day. Arrive early and shuttle your second car to Carvers Gap before 9 am — parking fills up very fast at the Carvers Gap trailhead. The parking at Toll House Gap is much better and never crowded.
When you finish your hike, it’s a 5-minute walk along Highway 19E to reach Mountain Harbor Hostel and your car.
The Route from Carvers Gap to Highway 19E
Assuming you’re using the shuttle from Mountain Harbor, I recommend starting out by 10 am on your first day. This will get you to the trailhead just before 11.
Day One: Toll House Gap to Little Hump Mountain (12 miles)
Start at Toll House Gap and before you head to the Appalachian Trail, take the 2-mile side trip to Roan High Bluff. It’s clearly marked from the parking area.
The walk to the lookout point runs through the pine forest. This is the least crowded section of trail. It’s often chilly and foggy, but you have a good chance of being above the clouds. It’s a flat mile to the viewing platform. Double back the way you came.
Then, pick up the AT heading north. You’ll descend gradually for about two miles through more pine forest. You can take a (poorly marked) side trip 0.2 miles to Roan High Knob, but the peak is tree-covered and has no views. You’ll hit Carvers Gap and the crowds when you cross the road.
From here, you have a little bit of a climb and then some rolling hills across a series of grassy balds: Jane Bald, Roan Mountain, Yellow Mountain, and a side trip to Grassy Ridge Bald. You stay above the tree line the whole time. Take the side trails to 180-degree views on both sides. You’ll follow the ridge for about two miles, with a couple short, steep, rocky stretches of climbing.
After crossing Yellow Mountain, you’ll drop below the tree-line. From here you have almost four miles of straight descent to Overmountain Shelter. You can catch the occasional view through the trees, but this section is mostly about enjoying the forest. It can be very, very muddy when the weather is foggy or rainy.
Overmountain Shelter is a popular camping spot, but keep going for better views. It’s only about a 2-mile climb to Little Hump Mountain. You’ll gain almost 1,000 feet of elevation, but it’s gradual. One of the best views is climbing out of the gap from Overmountain Shelter.
Once you reach Little Hump it’s time to stake out a campsite! Most sites are immediately along the trail. You can find a handful of sites a bit further off-trail — I found one right before you drop back into the trees, on the west side. The panoramic sunset views are insane.
Day Two: Little Hump to Highway 19E (8 miles)
Wake up early on Day Two to catch an epic sunrise from the top of Little Hump. In autumn, the early morning rays turn the grass golden and highlight the fall colors spectacularly.
You can take your time packing up your campsite this morning. You have about eight miles to hike, but it goes quick. So feel free to wait for your tent to dry out if you prefer.
The day begins with a slick, muddy descent to the gap between Little Hump and Hump Mountain. You’ll pass a couple water sources if you need to refill. The gap is one of the most gorgeous places on the hike — in fact, it’s maybe in the top five views in Western North Carolina, especially on a slightly foggy morning when the clouds skirt just above you.
Next is the infamous climb up Hump Mountain. This one-mile ascent has a reputation for being extremely difficult, but I didn’t find it bad at all. Plus the views the whole way just keep getting better. The key to remember is it’s long — it goes on way farther than you can see from the gap, so pace yourself. The summit of Hump Mountain is marked with a plaque, and offers 360-degree views.
Finally, it’s all downhill from here. First you descend along the north side of the bald. This is your last chance for great views before you’re back in the forest. Then, it’s about four miles of straight, incessant, steep, rocky descent back to Highway 19E. This is the part that will really hurt if you don’t have trekking poles.
And that’s it! The total hike from Toll House Gap to Highway 19E, with a side trip to Roan High Bluff, is 20.5 miles with 2,900 feet of elevation gain. Not bad for a weekend in the woods!
A few random tips for backpacking the AT in North Carolina
- It’s hard to find a flat campsite on Little Hump Mountain. Try to arrive by 5 pm so you aren’t stuck with the last (angled) ones left.
- If you prefer solitude over views, camp in the woods just below the Little Hump summit. There are about five spread-out campsites before you reach the crowded gap between the Humps.
- You’re never far from a road in this part of NC/TN. Bailout points with nearby road access if you get hurt or need to quit include the Roan Mountain area, Overmountain Victory Trail, Hump Mountain, and the NC/TN border.
- Peak fall color is around the first week of October at 6,000 feet, the third week of October on Little Hump/Hump Mountain, and the end of October/beginning of November in the gaps.
- Toll House Gap and Carvers Gap both have clean restrooms.
- Remember to follow leave no trace principles whenever you backpack in the Carolina mountains! That includes packing out all your trash (including toilet paper). Seriously, don’t be gross and pollute our public lands.
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