BACKPACKING THE AT: CARVERS GAP TO 19E

Carvers Gap to 19E – Why it’s a Favorite

Carvers Gap to 19E (officially US 19 East) 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”. 

Nearing 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 slower pace to stop and enjoy the scenery. 

Don’t mistake it for an easy weekend though. It’s a tough hike with at least three steep climbs but then ends on a fast downhill to 19 East.

One thing you’ll find on this trip is that you can’t put your camera down.  Regardless of the weather, the scenery is breathtaking.

Get ready for great views of nearby Grandfather Mountain and the Black Mountains.  On a recent trip, Table Rock from Linville Gorge was in view.

Different Seasons on the Trail

I’ve hiked Carvers Gap to 19E at least five times and in different seasons with variable weather. It’s always beautiful, although it’s a different type of beauty with overcast skies compared to bright sunshine. 

In the fall and winter, the terrain is dry and brown, but spring and summer bring out the lush greens, overgrown with tall grasses and blooming flowers. 

The weather can vary from dark clouds to puffy white clouds, and then nothing but blue skies. 

Below you’ll see a two photos hiking up Yellow Gap and taking a look back at Overmountain shelter. One was taken in spring and the other in winter.

If you’re lucky, you may get a cool breeze to help you up Hump Mountain. Unlucky hikers will sweat up a storm on blazing hot days with no break from the sun. 

Regardless, I’m hard-pressed to find another hike that so many people continually come back to enjoy.

Camping at Overmountain Shelter

One of the key attractions when hiking Carvers Gap to 19E is Overmountain Shelter. 

The shelter is a two-story red barn with plenty of room and is usually pretty clean.  On recent trips, someone had decorated the privy with little dazzle stickers.

A quick note about Overmountain Shelter: Due to issues with the structure, the US Forestry Service has closed the barn and asks that campers stay 40 feet away for safety. You can still camp in the meadow adjacent to the shelter, but you cannot enter or sleep in the building.

You never know what you’ll find at Overmountain. 

On my adventures out there I’ve found myself camping with thru-hikers, Boy Scout troops, had the area to myself, encountered one or two other backpackers, met a guitar-playing hiking balladeer (really – you cannot make this stuff up), and even ran into 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 valley below.

Getting to the Trailhead

Since it’s a one-way hike, it’s easier to park at a hostel near 19 East and shuttle to the start at Carvers Gap. There have been reports of break-ins for vehicles left overnight at the Carvers Gap lot.

My favorite place to park and grab a shuttle is The Station at 19E where Dave will take great care of you. Call to arrange your shuttle in advance since he can get booked up quickly. It’s about 20 minutes to the trailhead.

To increase our odds of getting a good spot at Overmountain Shelter, I make sure to try and hit the trail around 2 pm.

There are always a lot of cars at the Carvers Gap parking area. This area attracts a lot of day hikers with the trail to 19 E on the left and the trail to Roan High Knob on the right.  

Hiking the Trail – Heading to Overmountain

From the parking lot to Overmountain Shelter is around 6 miles.

Even though the parking lot is at 3800 feet, 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, it’s not unusual to be a bit stiff starting out. 

Once we make it to the top of Round Bald though, the view distracts from the pain and the cameras come out. Next on our list is Jane’s Bald at 5807 feet.

The few times I’ve encountered rain or threatening weather, it’s been at this point.  There’s something about the way the mountains lie that the storms come through this particular area.

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. 

With a little prodding, the group heads on to the Stan Murray shelter and the first sign of level ground.   I like to stop at Stan Murray shelter to regroup and check in with everyone. 

If there are no issues, we’ll continue the next two miles to Overmountain Shelter.  Luckily the terrain continues to remain flat which is usually appreciated at this point. 

Setting up Camp at Overmountain

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. 

It’s an interesting story. Even more exciting is what looks like a bullet hole in the middle of it. 

We’ll hike down to Overmountain Shelter and settle in for the evening. There’s usually a little roaming around and discussion on staying in the shelter versus pitching a tent in the meadow.  (As noted above: Overmountain Shelter was closed August 2019 due to unsafe conditions. The meadow area remains open for tent camping).

Tents in the meadow have a spectacular view of the sunset at night and sunrise in the morning. 

Hiking From Overmountain to Hump Mountain

In the morning, since we’re not in a hurry, the group can take our time with breakfast. It also helps to give the tents time to dry. Thanks to morning dew, they tend to be a little wet.

Heading out, the first thing you have to do is hike up a hill to get back to the AT.  It’s a short, steep climb but then continues through Yellow Gap as you start towards Little Hump. 

Halfway up the hill, looking back, 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

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, just 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 keep looking down. 

Hump Mountain

Reaching 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 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 usually stop for lunch at the top of Hump Mountain and take our time.  At this point, we’ve made it, there are no more climbs. 

Heading to Doll Flats for the Night

It’s downhill to Doll Flats, but the trail is rocky in this section and can slow you down, especially if it’s wet. 

On one occasion, trail runners passed us 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 pitch your tent in the meadow.

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. 

Settling in at Doll Flats

The wooded camping area at Doll Flots is nice with plenty of space for a large group. I’ve been there with 14 tents and there was 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 made other people come to 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. 

Heading Down to 19 East

If you’re in a hurry, you could finish the hike on the second day rather than stay at Doll Flats. It’s a fast three miles or so to 19E, straight downhill and then level. 

When you reach the road, it’s a little weird to hear the cars 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 About the Area

Two Sections of Roan Mountain

*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. 

Overmountain Men History

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, it was difficult to procure gunpowder in the United States during this time.  Mary Patton and her husband supplied the men with five hundred pounds of black powder from their Gap Creek powder mill.

Ginseng, Iron Ore and Logging

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. 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. 

Tips

When hiking Carvers Gap to 19E, locals and regulars alike all recommend you start at Carvers Gap.  There are at least two local hostels that allow you to park overnight and will shuttle you to the trailhead.  As mentioned above, we like to use The Station at 19E.

Carvers Gap is a popular area for day hikers and the trailhead can become crowded. Many day hikers visit 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. 

The weather turns on a dime.  This section of trail is close to Grandfather mountain which is known for making its 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. 

*Wikipedia.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roan_Mountain_(Roan_Highlands)

Other Places to Backpack for Beginners to Intermediates

South Mountains State Park, NC

Grayson Highlands State Park, VA

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