For cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in the southeast, Roan Mountain is one of the best places there is. The summits in this segment of the Appalachian chain, on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, receive more snowfall than most ski resorts in the region, but all the terrain here is backcountry. The snow alone is not what makes Roan an ideal destination, but also the access and variety of routes. There is the Appalachian Trail, the Cloudland Trail, and the road to Roan Gardens. Together they make make an exceptional cross-country ski loop. In midsummer, Roan Gardens road is crammed with motorists who come for the blooming of pink rhododendron flowers and cool mountain air. In the winter, however, it's closed to vehicles and often covered in snow.
The road that crosses the mountain at Carvers Gap (TN-143/NC-261) is generally well-plowed within one to two days after a snow event, providing terrific access for skiers. The trails begin from a parking lot at the top of the pass. The Roan Gardens road and the Appalachian Trail head west along Roan Mountain proper, and the Appalachian Trail also goes east across the bald summits of Roan Highlands. Most skiers will start up the closed road then turn right onto the Appalachian Trail in about a quarter of a mile. The trail twists gradually uphill on the densly forested slope of Roan High Knob and traverses north of its summit, then after a gentle downhill passes near the road at the historic Cloudland Hotel site. The trail requires some technical maneuvers at short, steep sections and log obstacles. An easier alternative is to stick to the road the whole way up.
From Cloudland the Appalachian Trail veers off to the north, so you should rejoin the road to continue skiing on Roan Mountain. You will pass a deserted toll booth and empty picnic area where you again have the option of taking a trail or a road to end up at the same place. The Cloudland Trail begins at the west end of the picnic area and meets the road again in about half a mile. The road passes the Rhodendron Gardens, where snowshoers and hikers might enjoy the boardwalks and viewing platforms through the grove. Beyond the gardens the road ends in a short loop, and the only way to continue is on the Cloudland Trail. Another half mile uphill on the trail leads to a stellar view from an observation deck atop Roan High Bluff. To reach this deck via the Appalachian Trail and Cloudland Trail, and return downhill on the road, is a round trip of roughly 7 miles.
A more adventurous option is to head east across the balds. Because of sun and wind exposure, snow coverage is often fleeting and always variable. The views are incredible, however. On a clear winter day you can see nearly 100 miles in all directions, over mountains of Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia. The Appalachian Trail continues along this chain of balds for about 10 more miles before dropping down to Elk Park.
All the trails and the road on Roan Mountain are open to skiers, snowshoers, and hikers, but they are not maintained in any way. Hikers and snowshoers should try to establish a separate track from the skiers and not walk in the ski tracks. On the road there is usually plenty of room for both. The mountain gets a handful of significant snows in a typical winter, but it doesn't stick around. Expect to share the trails when conditions are good.
Winter backcountry adventures can be dangerous outdoor activities that pose significant risks as conditions affecting safety (i.e. weather, snowpack stability, avalanche hazard) are constantly changing. Prior to engaging in these activities each individual should get the proper training to make safe decisions and be equipped to use avalanche safety resources and tools. Please visit our Backcountry Skiing and Avalanche Safety post to learn more.