Expecting to wake up to rain showers and cloudy skies, much to my dismay, I found blue and sunny skies outside my window.  On this day I had plans of heading across the gap and into North Carolina for the morning.  When I arrived at the visitor center, I was amazed at all the construction work happening.  Year 76 of the Smokies should be themed "under construction" or "extreme makeover" with all of the park's closures and renovations.  Despite being early in the day, it was considerably warm around the Mountain Farm Museum.  The forest was green at these elevations and the dogwoods in the area were in full bloom.  Around the homestead there were apple blossoms, forsythia, and lilacs adding some character to the long wooden fences and barns.  Bees and butterfiles were in their glory around the lilacs.  In my exploring of the farm, I was startled from behind by the call of a rooster.  At least he didn't mind posing for a picture.
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          Up to this point, the number of hikes I've ever done on this side of the park are few...two to be exact.  Andrews Bald and Kephart Prong, otherwise it's strictly been the AT and Tennessee, which has a lot to do with location since I have always stayed in Gatlinburg.  What better place to begin hiking in NC than along the Oconaluftee River Trail, popular for its well graded and easy walking path lined with spring wildflowers and paralleling the river.  Both types of phlox were in peak bloom and in abundance, reminding me of White Oak Sink days before.  Occasionally one would stumble across crested dwarf iris, golden ragwort, may apples, wood betony, wild geraniums, toothwort, and again, a surprising patch of thyme leaved bluets.  Fly fishermen were active up and down the river.
          After reaching Cherokee and turning back to the visitor center, I decided I wouldn't hike any more that day, but rather enjoy the drive back across the park while the skies were so clear and sunny.  Every so often one would pass these stretches of wildflowers that lined roadsides.  As the road went up in elevation, one would move from green woodlands, to budding trees midway, and mostly bare canopies up high.  Views from Webb, Deep Creek, Luftee Gap, and Newfound Gap Overlooks were inspiring as always.  The lighting and changing of the seasons at Campbell Overlook were just right.  Certainly not a bad day to roll the windows down and soak in the views across the park.
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          The forecast was calling for clouds and rain showers in the afternoon, and I had already delayed the hike to Cammerer a day, so it was important I got another early start to reach the firetower in time for decent views.  The fact that I was taking the long way up and around the mountain meant there was little room for lolly gagging.  The task was difficult with the abundance of wildflowers the entire way up Lower Mount Cammerer, but the improvement in the day's weather allowed me to enjoy my surroundings and ease up on my cadence.  Within the first mile out of Cosby Campground, phlox, wild geraniums, violets, and showy orchis were the norm.  I was afforded some nice views from the Sutton Ridge Overlook along the way, situated where the spring greenery had arrived down below and just beginning up above.  The best areas for wildflowers tended to be on the more shaded, eastern facing slopes while the crested dwarf iris dominated the western faces.  The first half of the trail up saw the irises in full bloom and budding throughout the second half, likely to erupt next week.
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          Higher up, I was impressed with the trail conditions.  It was evident that work had been done recently to improve the path and footing.  Blowdowns were cut and cleared and much of the earth around them removed.  There were also several long stretches where the earth had been dug out and the path widened.  The soft dirt was so pleasant on the feet, especially after going more than seven miles at that point.
          Shortly after arriving on the AT, the trail dynamics changed dramatically.  The grade had steepened, and the rocks and log steps, probably to prevent erosion, were more annoying than exhausting.  I would have preferred a gradual slope over having to push up on steps for more than two miles.  Regardless, the skies were clearing and new wildflowers were appearing.  The rocky slopes of Cammerer were adorned with spring beauties and trout lilies.  There were even a handful of witch hobble trees in bloom.  It was evident that this is the time of year when AT thru-hikers are making their way north from Georgia.  Just inside of the 2.3 mile stretch between the trails of Cammerer, I passed some three dozen backpackers compared to one day hiker.  And I was the only one going up.  Some looked energetic while others already seemed famished.  Some were in pairs while others were alone and plugged into their ipods.
          Finally reaching the junction with the trail to Mount Cammerer, one could see that the spring beauties and trout lilies were putting on quite a show.  The slopes were covered in white and speckles of yellow as far up and down as I could see.  The ups and downs after leaving the AT are enough to drive somebody nuts in anticipation of arriving at the tower.  Eventually, the brush cleared and the outcrop of White Rock was in sight.
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          It had been close to a decade since I was last here, and what was better once more was that I had the entire summit to myself for close to an hour.  I circled the tower several times before finally deciding to relax and eat some lunch inside.  The serviceberry trees that graced the ridges were in peak bloom and the valley floors below were filling in the with green.  Mount Cammerer makes for a great destination to check out the progress of the spring season.
          The majority of the trail from the tower to Low Gap was lined with the snowy appearance of spring beauties, dotted with intermittent trout lilies.  It made for some pleasant walking along the ridgeline.
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          The biggest surprise of the descent came when I rounded a corner that would remove Cammerer from sight.  Along a dry, western facing slope, there were a handful of wildflower patches consisting of thyme leaved bluets.  I was astonished for I wasn't expecting to these dainty little flowers until another month or two.  Plus the fact that they were already blooming this high up added to the wow factor.
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          When I arrived at Low Gap, the white fringed phacelia were just beginning to open up.  I remember seeing pictures from a previous hike my father took along this trail, perhaps the same day of the year, when the phacelia and trout lilies were in peak bloom together.  Another sign of the odd start to spring, the trout lilies appeared to be past peak here while the phacelia were just getting started.  The descent down Low Gap went by quickly, in part to the steep grade.  My return to Cosby was greeted by more of the blue phlox, wild geraniums, and foam flower that saw my morning departure.  Here it was late in the afternoon and the weather remained sunny and clear.  Another great day in the park.
 
          The unusually wintery March and relatively dry month of April has kind of thrown the spring wildflower patterns out of whack.  Some types of flowers have been slow to come to life while others have pulled through seemingly unaffected.  Everywhere I've been this month, trillium, spring beauties, and anemones are prominent, while other notable wildflowers like white fringed phacelia and fire pink seem to be lagging relative to springs past.  At least that's what my research tells me.  So to be sure that I didn't miss anything on those renowned spring wildflower hikes, I had no problem visiting places like Chestnut Top and White Oak Sink three times each.
          It has been a treat to see these areas progress this month from bare, open woodlands with few early bloomers, to greenery that covered the forest floor, and most recently colors stretching from ground level up to the tree canopy.
          I got off to an early morning start in an attempt to beat the crowds and catch the slopes of Chestnut Top before the sun doused the slopes of the popular wildflower half mile.  The white erect trillium and violets that greeted me at the trailhead during prior trips had now faded and been replaced by lots of foamflower, purple phacelia, meadow parsnip, and false solomon's seal.  With the periods of rain the entire day before, the majority of the delicate flowers were rain soaked and drooping.  The most affected were the crested dwarf iris, though they were still a treat to see.
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          More fire pink had bloomed since last week, but there still wasn't a lot to be seen.  I was impressed at how large a number of the yellow trillium had grown.  I had seen them when they first sprouted weeks prior and now several of them had leaf spans wider than my outstretched hand.  Just as the morning light had come over the neighboring ridge, that was my cue to head on down.  Good timing because several large groups with guides were leaving the parking lot.  My guess is they had something to do with the wildflower pilgrimage.  So, onward to the Sink.
          Aware that this next part of my hike is quite popular this time of year, I was worried about the limited parking spaces at the Schoolhouse Gap trailhead.  Sure enough, there were plenty of early risers eager to check out the wildflower mecca, but luckily I got the very last spot without having to block somebody in.  The first mile of the trail saw the arrival of foamflower and catesby's trillium this week, but one constant throughout the month has been the presence of white, yellow, and purple violets.  Wasting no time, I made my way straight to the area adorned with blue phlox.  Everywhere, the forest floor was blanketed with the blue of phlox and green overarching leaves of may apples.
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          Although the flowers were weather beaten, the rain actually gave them a fresh shine in the morning light.  Taking any number of side trails offered other treats.  One offered the first of the shooting stars mixed in with hairy buttercups.  Another to some wild columbine.  But perhaps the biggest treat of the morning came when I took a side path that resulted in finding my first yellow lady's slipper of the season.  And aware of the fact that such a wildflower is a sensitive and cherished one in these parts, I made sure to enjoy the moment.  I understand that the poaching of lady's slippers occurs in the park, so I will not be the one to reveal its location, just its beauty.
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          Many more miles were in front of me, for my plans were to complete the triangle of trails that centered around Laurel Creek Road, beginning and ending at Schoolhouse Gap parking.  I would add in the Crib Gap Trail out to Cades Cove just for good measure.  The elevation change was meager, remaining within the confines of about 600 feet the entire way.  Each of the trails made for pleasant hiking, with the only problem being the loads of horse crap.  I swear, I was dodging the stuff every couple hundred feet.  Eventually, I ran into the army of horses coming down the Crib Gap Trail.  Along the same trail was where I found my first showy orchis of the year.  It was a nice surprise, nestled safely under a rotting log and out of the horse path.  Each of the trails the rest of the way - Turkeypen, Crib Gap, Finley Cane, and Bote Mountain - saw crested dward iris and catesby's trillium often and in good numbers.  With the conclusion of the day's satisfying hike, it meant that over this month of April I had knocked out the trails between the Wye and Cades Cove.  Now I was looking forward to heading elsewhere in the park...far to the east to be exact!
 
          I wasn't about to let a cloudy and rainy morning keep me from getting in a good afternoon hike.  I was struck with an itch to take The Boulevard all the way to the AT.  The majority of the hike out was in the clouds, but the temperature felt just right.  I never broke a sweat the entire way, even after the ascents of Anakeesta Knob and Mount Kephart.  In fact, I couldn't help but notice how considerably easier this day's hike was compared to when I last came out in all the snow and ice.  Plus the park service had cleared all the blowdowns, so it became more of a stroll in the park rather than a workout.  Before reaching the AT, there was a passing shower and I was close to regretting my decision not to bring rain gear, but it was very brief.  Still in the clouds, I made my way to the Icewater Spring Shelter to see how it looked and if any thru-hikers had shacked up for the day.  The shelter had two residents when I went by, and I passed several backpackers on my way back to the junction.  What surprised me was how the clouds had risen and broken up, offering blue skies in just a matter of fifteen minutes.  Unsure of how long it would last, I hurried out to The Jumpoff for a chance at some good views.  I wouldn't be disappointed.
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          The view overlooking Charlies Bunion had to be the clearest I had ever seen.  You could pick out at least a dozen shirts of brave hikers making their way around the rocky outcrops.  As I looked toward Mount LeConte, you could see the very last cloud rise up from the summit and drift away.  I look forward to returning here some time in June to see the cliffs adorned with blooming dwarf rhododendron.  The sun's coming out party that afternoon made for an interesting journey back to the Lodge.  Many of the spring beauties that were closed on the cloudy hike out had now opened, right on cue.  The Boulevard is notorious for its length and difficulty that it poses for unsuspecting hikers, but I was able to come away with a greater appreciation for the trail.  The smooth hiking surface, the mild spring temps, and the surrounding views made for an enjoyable afternoon.
 
          I figured I would take it easy today, hiking wise, mostly because of the amazing success I had in seeing wildflowers yesterday.  So a quick morning trip over to the Cove Hardwoods Nature Trail was in order.  I obviously chose the right time to be there because there were a ton of people with the big camera tripods and super extendo lenses, standing, crouching, and laying everywhere.  In between all the people I was able to enjoy the plethora of trillium, white fringed phacelia, squirrel corn, and violets that covered the slopes.  I even managed to spot a few dwarf ginseng along the way.  Well that's it for this week, the mountain is calling.
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          With the trend of nice weather gracing the park over the past few weeks, the wildflower season is finally building momentum.  Dogwoods and Redbuds are filling out nicely, the lower elevations are leafing out in light greens and yellows, and forest floors are awakening with life.  With only a couple days off the mountain this week, it meant starting early and moving early to get a lot done.  So strap in cause here we go...
          Seeing all the dogwoods in bloom in the Burg, I became interested in revisiting the Ogle Cabin along Cherokee Orchard to see if the trees were flowering there.  It also gave me an opportunity to check out the progress the construction crews were making along the road.  When I arrived, few people were there.  A few redbuds and dogwoods near the cabin were in bloom, and scattered around the homestead were yellow trilliums, purple phacelia, and phlox.  Nice to be there, but no time to linger, so back in the vehicle and west to the Wye!
          Having already completed the Chestnut Top Trail in its entirety a week prior, my only intention here was to revisit the popular wildflower zone within the first half mile.  It was neat to see how things had progressed since my first trip.  The longspurred violets, bishop's caps, and white erect trillium were still going strong, but now the yellow trilliums, silverbells, purple phacelia, redbuds, and stonecrop were blooming.  It was especially great to spot about six patches of fire pink, but it's still early for this plant as well as several others along this trail, so I'll hope the third time is the charm next week.  Just getting started, though, gotta chug along...
          Continuing westward, it was time to see if anything was happening down in White Oak Sink.  When I went last week, there wasn't much going on blooming wise except for a few violets, spring beauties, anemones, and budding trillium.  What a difference a week makes!  The number of spring beauties in bloom increased exponentially, carpeting many of the flatter areas.  The yellow trilliums were blooming now, too.  I was able to find the path that leads to the waterfall that trickles down into one of the existing caves.  This cascade is so unique compared to all the others in the park.  A number of white trilliums were growing along the slopes dropping down into the cave.
          Those folks familiar with the area know about the impressive carpet of blue phlox that covers the forest floor.
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          At the moment, they are blooming, but more patchy and not all encompassing.  The may apples are growing larger but still no blooms.  It looks like more time and the right weather conditions are needed to help things progress here, so I'll check again here next week as well.  So it was back up to the gap trail to tackle the many miles yet to be walked.  The remainder of the Schoolhouse Gap Trail was wide but very dry and sandy.  When I reached the actual gap I spent a few minutes to eat at a picnic table situated on the park boundary surrounded by trailheads, a cottage, and a dirt road.  I figured the wildflower extravaganza for the day was behind me, and that the rest of the day heading up Scott Mountain Trail would just be me hiking for the sake of hiking.  I even considered calling it a day and just turning back.  My decision to press on turned out to be an incredibly good choice.
          After about a mile into this part of the hike, the trail dips down into a saddle along the ridgeline.  Now things began to get exciting.  Redbud trees in full bloom were everywhere along the ridge, even forming a purple tunnel over the trail for a few hundred yards.
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          Yellow trilliums and violets dominated the forest floor at this point with a handful of other plants just beginning to bloom.  Then came the biggest surprise of the day.  Shortly after ascending from the redbud gap, I literally stumbled over a lone crested dwarf iris growing out of the trail.  I was totally caught off guard and instantly rejuvinated for the rest of the hike.  To be on a hike and see something you had hoped to see elsewhere but did not expect to see here adds to the wow factor.
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          Not long after that I picked out a few small bellworts, also growing out of the trail.  After dodging all the horse droppings since Schoolhouse Gap, I was amazed that the horses hadn't trampled these delicate plants.  Much of the Scott Mountain hike involves a lot of up.  Combined with the fact that it was such a dry environment, I was in need of a mental boost to help me push on to the summit.  I got it about a mile up from the iris spotting in the form of a wildflower mother load.  Located in a ravine between two long, lush green ridges and centered around a feeder creek, wildflowers were in their glory.  I sighted four types of trillium all in bloom - white erect, large flowered, yellow, and for the first time this year catesby's trillium.  Purple, white, and yellow violets, anemones, bellworts, squirrel corn, hairy buttercups, dutchman's breeches, bloodroots galore!  There were even a few trout lilies still lingering.  Further up in a drier section where pines grew thick again were what I presumed to be the leaves of ladyslippers beginning to stand tall.
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          The rest of the ascent was dry and hot because the trees at this elevation have yet to leaf out, offering me no shade.  I finally reached the junction with two other trails atop Rich Mountain, which looks vastly different than it did when I passed through last fall.  It was nice to be done climbing and to finish out the hike with mostly downhill.  During the descent, I pondered why I have never come across the Scott Mountain Trail in any discussion regarding prominent wildflower hikes, when it certainly deserves to be.  My guess is that the miles and elevation gain serve as a turnoff to the average hiker when easier hikes exist elsewhere.  It sure made for good solitude in the wilderness.
          Just when I thought I had seen it all, on the drive back I caught a stretch of wild columbine growing between the road and a rocky hillside just east of the Wye.  I lucked out in that a pull off was located just ahead, enabling me to pull off and get a closer look.  Eventually I made it back into town, whooped but superbly satisfied from the days adventures.
 
          With the opportunity to get in a morning hike before my return to the Lodge, I wanted to fit in one more good wildflower hike.  I knew that Chestnut Top Trail was renowned for its floral display later in the month, but wondered what might be going on right now.  Those familiar with the trail realize that the majority of the wildflowers appear within the first half mile.  Right at the gate, white erect trillium were gracing the slopes in full bloom.  Moving up the trail, clusters of purple violets were intermixed with star chickweed, toothwort, yellow trillium, bishop's cap, bloodroots, and rue anemone.  Past the mega wildflower zone there were stretches of trailing arbutus and yellow violets.  The rest of the trail was a treat, despite the warm temps, because of its smooth ascents and constant views across the valley to the north with Thunderhead Mountain providing the backdrop.  I certainly look forward to returning here later this month to see what else spring has to offer.
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          With the incompletion of the reconstruction at The Sinks, I felt it necessary to alter my hiking plans away from doing Meigs Creek.  I still wanted to visit the Tremont area, but I didn't want to do any backtracking of trails.  So I decided to begin at Curry Mountain Trail and cut across Meigs Mountain and on down Lumber Ridge Trail.  Within the first mile there were numerous budding yellow trillium and bloodroots.  As I got higher in elevation, I was afforded views through the bare trees of the surrounding ridges and valleys.  Scattered everywhere were budding trees sporting pinks, reds, and oranges, as if it was the fall color season in reverse.  I was impressed with how smooth the trail was the entire way up.
          Shortly after turning onto the Meigs Mountain Trail, I took a side trail to unique cemetery.  It was nestled on a raised hill in the woods, just off the ridge, overlooking the valley below but boxed in all around by higher ridgelines.  It was obvious that whoever selected this location couldn't have picked a better spot.  The remainder of my stint on this section of the hike was where the wildflowers were in their glory.  Everywhere there were yellow violets, budding yellow and white trillium, bloodroot, rue anemone, wood anemone, and an occasional trout lily.
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          My descent of the Lumber Ridge Trail was greeted with a lot of trailing arbutus.  The rest of the trail offered very spacious woodlands because of area's logging history and wide views of Thunderhead Mountain and the AT.  Right before arriving at the GSMIT, there were several patches of longspurred violets and hairy buttercup.  A fitting end to a great hike.
 
          What better way to kick off the spring season than with a hike out on Porters Creek in early April.  There was a chance of showers, supposedly, but nothing ever happened except mostly cloudy skies.  Fine with me.  I was worried that the strange winter weather would delay a lot of the wildflowers from kicking into gear.  Fortunately, I wasn't disappointed.  Even before the parking lot, there were tons of bloodroot, violets, and budding yellow trillium.  About a quarter mile in where the trail rises high above the creek, I found three wild geraniums toward the bottom of the hillside.  If you weren't looking closely, you would have easily missed them.  Straight through to the homestead, yellow and purple violets and yellow trillium were the norm.  The real treat came after the long footbridge.  Rue anemone, spring beauties, trout lilies, and dutchman's breeches abound.  Each bloom so small and so intricate but in great abundance across the lush green slopes.
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          Further up near the falls, there were a few large flowered white trilliums that were budding and some were just beginning to open up.  The rocks scattered between Fern Branch Falls and the trail were covered in spring beauties.
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A small cluster in what seemed infinite Spring Beauties.
          A fabulous start for my first official spring hike of the season!  To see the rest of the photos from both of my spring hikes along Porters Creek click here.
 
          Finally, some consistency in the great weather.  Temps on the mountain tapped into the mid 60's this day.  There was one trail I had yet to tackle and for good reason.  Trillium Gap Trail runs along the northern face of LeConte, which is exactly where the snow remains the worst.  Up high and in shaded ravines the snow was deep, occasionally sinking down to my waist when I hit soft patches in the trail.  At least the blowdowns had been cleared the day before.  Along the way I managed to stir up ruffed grouse in three different locations, each sounding like a machine gun with the sudden flapping of their wings.  The views from Brushy Mountain were exceptional and the temps had become very warm.  I can't wait til the mountain laurel blooms in June and covers the heath bald in white and pink.  On the return trip, the sun's rays had been blasting the snow pack on the trail a mile before the lodge.  Each step the rest of the way was irritating and exhausting as I sank into the softening snow.  I would have preferred that the snow not melt so that I could at least have solid footing.  Now I know not to revisit this trail until the snow is completely gone, which I hope is soon.
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