The legendary balds of the Appalachian Trail

Yesterday we posted about Carolyn’s trips to the balds of Roan Mountain. This following is an excerpt from her book Touring the East Tennessee Backroads, second edition published in 2007. It explains some of the theories and legends behind what caused the “balds” in the Roan Mountain area. Big Hump and Hump mountains are peaks along the Appalachian Trail, near Roan Mountain, that feature balds.


For centuries, the 6,285-foot “bald” peak called Roan Mountain has been an area landmark not only because of its height, but also because of the distinctive appearance of its treeless summit. Generations of scientists have tried to explain why certain mountaintops in the 2,000- to 6,000-foot range in this part of the Appalachians will not support trees. Altitude and timberline are obviously not the answer, since nearby Mount Mitchell, at almost 7,000 feet, supports tree growth all the way to the top.

In 1938, a professor from Louisiana State University advanced the theory that wasp eggs laid in the trees were responsible for killing them off. Unfortunately, his theory failed to explain why the infestation did not spread and why eradication of the wasps did not result in reforestation. A botanist from North Carolina State University suggested that Indians had created the balds by continually burning off the mountaintops for their settlements. But evidence from archaeologists and anthropologists showed that Indians pre­ferred valleys near streams and never chose the tops of ridges for their villages.

As usual, when science fails, legend enters. In 1898, James Mooney recorded in his report to the Bureau of American Ethnology that the Cherokees had a mythological explanation for the origin of the balds. A Cherokee village was terrorized by a giant yellow jacket called Ulagu that swooped down, snatched up children, and quickly flew off into the distance. The ever-resourceful Cherokees posted sentinels on the tops of the mountains in order to track Ulagu to its lair, located in an inaccessible cavern. The Cherokees prayed to the Great Spirit for aid. Suddenly, a bolt of lightning split off the side of the mountain where Ulagu hid. The Indians then quickly fell on the monstrous insect and destroyed it.

According to Mooney, the Great Spirit was so pleased with the Cherokees’ “initiative in uncovering [Ulagu’s] hiding place, their piety in appealing for Divine aid in their extremity, and their bravery in the final combat, that it was His decree that in the future the tops of the highest mountains be bare of timber, to better serve as stations for sentries should another visitation occur.”

The Catawba Indians, who also frequented the area, had a different explanation. In 1849, Charles Lanman recorded in Letters from the Alleghany Mountains,

There once was a time when all the nations of the earth were at war with the Catawbas, and had proclaimed their determination to conquer and possess their country. On hearing this intelligence the Catawbas became greatly enraged, and sent a challenge to all their enemies, and dared them to a fight on the summit of the Roan. The challenge was accepted, and three famous battles were fought. The streams of the entire land were red with blood, a number of tribes became extinct, and the Catawbas carried the day. Whereupon it was that the Great Spirit caused the forests to wither from the three peaks of the Roan Mountain where the battles were fought, and wherefore it is that the flowers which grow upon this mountain are chiefly of a crimson hue, for they are nourished by the blood of the slain.

The Catawba legend is particularly accommodating because it accounts for another characteristic that helps to draw thousands of visitors to Roan Mountain each year. On the top of the Roan, there are six hundred acres of natural rhododendron gardens that put on a brilliant display of color each June.

In 1799, Scotsman John Fraser, under the patronage of the Russian govern­ment, made his third trip to the North Carolina-Tennessee mountains. It was during his journey up the Roan that he discovered a new plant, which he designated Rhododendron catawbiense. It is this plant, with its crimson-colored blooms, that attracts so many sightseers.

Roan Mountain also boasts an 850-acre forest of Fraser fir and spruce. The Fraser fir, named after the same John Fraser who christened the Catawba rhododendron, has become the rage in the domestic Christmas-tree industry, spawning a whole new source of income for local landowners.


One thought on “The legendary balds of the Appalachian Trail

  1. Well, I remember going to play golf in Roan Valley (Mountain City maybe?) 20 years ago. We traveled from Kingsport TN to the golf course. It looked close on the map but the map didn’t show the mountains in between. What a trip that “direct route” was. We came back via Bristol.

    In the four or five hours we were there, I don’t know how many times we heard the story of how Roan Valley got its name.

    “When Daniel Boone was traveling through this valley his roan horse went lame and…………” Spare me please!!!!

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