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Searching for Spring Flowers in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
We who live in the southern Appalachians, close to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, are very spoiled. We expect our winters to be mild enough to hike without snowshoes or crampons but cold enough to kill insects and yellow jackets. We want rain to encourage wildflowers, but not when we've planned a hike.
And in early March, we expect to see those first ephemerals to come out of the ground. These perennial wildflowers develop stems, leaves, and flowers early each spring, quickly bloom, go to seed and then quickly die back.
The Smokies is one of the most biological diverse area in the world, with more than 1,600 types of flowering plants. This year, we've had a cold and snowy January, but the warm weather in the second half of February will encourage early spring wildflowers in March.
The flowers we see and where we see them is a function of season and altitude. The elevation in the park ranges from 875 feet around Chilhowee Lake on the far western section to Clingmans Dome at 6,643 feet. From late February to late November, something is blooming in the Smokies. Here's a slice of what we'll soon enjoy this spring.
March and early April
Chestnut Top Trail claims to be the best early spring wildflower trail in the park. The trail starts at the Townsend "Y," just a mile into the park from Townsend, Tennessee. Nothing signifies that winter is finally over than bloodroot, a flower with narrow white petals around a yellow stamen. The stem is red, hence its name. Trailing arbutus might be growing under a rock. Star chickweed, spring-beauties, and early violets will also be blooming.
The Bradley Fork Trail, which starts at the far end of Smokemont Campground just north of Oconaluftee Visitor Center, follows the creek for several miles. Though the trail starts as an old, wide road, it's a good place to see violets, hepatica, rue-anemone, and wood anemones.
If T.S. Eliot had come down to the Smokies, he might not have written "April is the cruelest month."
April has probably the best flower display of any month in the park. Though early flowers are just coming out at higher altitudes, April is all about trilliums - fields and fields of white trilliums, painted trilliums, sessile-flowered trilliums, yellow trilliums and dozens of others that may be more difficult to recognize.
Porter Creek Trail, in the Greenbrier section, is the trail to walk in April. Fringed phacelias create a white carpet. White, yellow, and purple violets are seen in profusion. A little later in April, foam flowers, toothworts and bluets are comingled on the side of the trail and on nursery logs - dead downed logs that offer a hospitable home for other vegetation. The first mile is an old road, attracting a crowd of walkers, photographers, and painters who have set up their easels. But as with just about any trail, walk past that first mile and you'll see few people but lots of wildflowers. The trail ends at a backcountry campground, 3.6 miles from the trailhead.
Kephart Prong Trail, about eight miles north of Oconaluftee Visitor Center, has a good, though more modest, display of spring flowers than Porter Creek Trail. But showy orchis, a small orchid with a pink hood and a white lip, makes this trail stand out in mid- to late-April.
If you want an easy trail full of wildflowers, walk the Oconaluftee River Trail, next to Oconaluftee Visitor Center. In April, this 1.5-mile flat trail displays wood bethany, early may apples with its white flowers under large leaves, as well as the full complement of violets, trilliums, and toothworts.
Mingus Creek Trail, which takes off from Mingus Mill parking area, has one of the first displays of firepinks. These bright red flowers are not named for their color but for the shape of their petals, which look like they've been cut by pinking shears.
Long Bunk Trail, on the way to Mt. Sterling Trail in Cataloochee, is a good place to enjoy an array of spring flowers without encountering too many other hikers. Where the trail crosses Correll Branch and several minor seepages, you'll find cut-leaf toothworts, Dutchmen's britches, trout lilies and various species of violets.
If you've missed the early spring flowers or if you wish to relive early spring, walk Hemphill Bald, which starts at Polls Gap at 5,000 feet. Wake robin and sweet white trilliums, violets and fringed phacelias spill over the sides like paint on the trail. Yellow trout lilies cover any potential bare spot.
If you can come back in early summer, you'll see purple-fringed orchids, an "occasional flower," one classification up from "rare." These majestic flowers might be occasional in the global sense, but on this trail these orchids are plentiful. Purple fringed orchids can also be seen on the way to the Clingmans Dome Tower.
In June, the southern Appalachians has its own triple crown: mountain laurel, Catawba rhododendrons, and flame azaleas. Mountain laurel blooms all over the park. They line Bradley Fork Trail.
In mid- to late-June, no sight can top the color explosion on Andrews Bald and Gregory Bald. Both balds are maintained by the park as open spaces to keep the open vistas and encourage the vegetation and vistas. Andrew Bald, less than two miles from the Clingmans Dome parking area on the Forney Ridge Trail, has a wonderful display of flame azaleas and Catawba (purple) rhododendrons.
You need to walk 4.5 miles on Gregory Bald Trail to reach the bald. In late June, when flame azaleas are at their peak, a large number of visitors find a spot to picnic, photograph, or nap. But the bald area is so large that it doesn't feel crowded. You can't stay overnight on the bald, but Campsite #13 is less than a half-mile away.
Bob Miller, public information Officer for the Smokies, explains that the balds are mowed regularly with a self-propelled brush mower. They also use a chain saw to get rid of woody brush. Some sections of the balds are cleared each year to make sure that the area stays in grass.
But where did the daffodils come from?
The Smokies was inhabited until the 1930s. Despite all this natural beauty surrounding them, homeowners still wanted exotic flowers, mostly daffodils. Though residents have long left the Smokies, daffodils keep on blooming in April. You'll see them on the Cades Cove loop and around the Walker Sister homes. Daffodils are also found in the Bradley Cemetery, off the Smokemont Loop.
The best way to be introduced to this wildflower abundance is to go on a wildflower walk with experts.
The Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage, now in its 61st, year, will be held in and around Gatlinburg from April 26 to May 1. The five days are full of wildflower walks all over the Park. The hundreds of participants come from all over the country, year after year to hike, bird, and learn about the natural and cultural heritage of the Smokies.
The Smoky Mountain Field School, the outreach arm of the University of Tennessee, offers one-day courses from late February to late October on every aspect of the outdoors. Flower identification is a big part of their curriculum.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park: www.nps.gov/grsm
Smoky Mountain Field School: www.outreach.utk.edu/smoky
Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage: springwildflowerpilgrimage.org
Wildflowers of the Smokies, published by the Great Smoky Mountains Association, lists flowers by color. It's a conveniently small book that shows the most popular flowers in the park.