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Grassy Ridge Bald, Roan Highlands, North Carolina
Grassy Ridge Bald is situated within the Roan-Unaka Mountain Range along the state borders of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. While cabins and organized campground accommodations can be found at Roan Mountain State Park at the base of the mountain along TN-143, backcountry camping is allowed on the balds themselves, making sunrise and sunset more manageable experiences.
Due to the high elevations found in the Roan Highlands and the generally treeless slopes of its peaks, extreme weather is frequent and should be respected. Winter snow, ice and extreme wind chills create conditions more characteristic of Northern climates. The cooler temperatures characteristic of the Roan Highlands are a major draw during the Southern summer months; however, fast-moving thunderstorms can sweep the balds and change weather conditions quickly. Extra layers and rain gear are a must for any trip up to the balds.
A wide-angle zoom is my go-to for the Roan Highlands, allowing the frame to mimic and capture the expansive, open landscapes that can be found atop the grassy balds. Strong foreground elements abound at ground level, from blooming wildflowers to weather-aged rock formations to long, windswept grasses. Exceptional background peak and valley landscapes fade into the horizon in all directions, making choices behind the lens both exciting and abundant. If shooting wide during morning or evening light, consider bringing along a graduated neutral-density filter to even out overall exposure values and retain details. Distant landmarks, such as Mount Mitchell and the Black Mountains to the south or Grandfather Mountain and the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area to the north and east, can be isolated through the use of a telephoto lens, amplifying the frequent weather dramas of fog and light that can occur during the magic hours. For my personal tastes, nothing beats a sunrise from the spine of Grassy Ridge Bald, where expansive views exist to the east and west, with the ridgeline running generally north-south. For sunset, it’s hard to beat the classic view of Engine Gap and Round Bald from high atop Jane Bald on the Appalachian Trail. If you’re considering shooting during sun-up or sundown, bring a tripod, as well as a flashlight or headlamp for safe travel along the trails during the dark hours.
The Roan Highlands are spectacular year-round. Winter provides solitude and extreme conditions, with stunning seasonal landscapes for the bold willing to brave the weather. Spring sweeps in with showy ground flowers, and autumn turns the abundant blueberry bushes to a blazing red. For me, nothing beats the show that the Roan Highlands put on in mid-June. Wild Catawba rhododendron bloom in profusion along the balds, turning the mountainsides bright pink and magenta with their colorful blooms. Flame azalea provide accents of blazing orange and yellow, especially along the Engine Gap stretch of the Appalachian Trail. If you’re lucky, the showy and endangered Gray’s lily will make an appearance closer to the ground for those who are attentive. Fog, as well as strong thunderstorms, can frequent the area in June, bringing dramatic environmental conditions to augment the colorful landscapes. The result: one of my favorite places, behind the camera or not.
Contact: North Carolina Tourism, visitnc.com. See more of Mark VanDyke’s photography at markvandyke.net.
When tackling an unfamiliar location in the dark for sunrise or sunset photography, nothing beats the added safety a headlamp can provide. It supplies hands-free light while setting up gear and adjusting camera settings, can be used for light-painting and allows you to safely navigate the trails upon arrival and departure, making it a necessary addition to a photographer’s bag. Contact: Petzl, www.petzl.com.