I knew coming into this week that my hikes would entail a lot of elevation gain and loss.  Many of my hikes do, but most have been over four or five days across many miles if you include the commute up and down Alum Cave.  This week only involved two trails outside of Alum Cave, and less total distance.  Today, I would be tackling the Low Gap Trail, one of the park's steeper sustained ascents, so I had my work cut out for me.
          The terrain was different compared to when I was here a month prior.  There were no wildflowers growing down low, just green brush and saplings.  Since I was so concerned about maintaining a good cadence on such a climb, I never stopped for pictures.  The more time I spend in the mountains, the more in tune I become with the air and my ability to travel very long distances without needing to catch my breath, drink water, or have a snack.  I was curious to see how I would hold up climbing Low Gap out of Cosby.  Without ever really breaking a sweat, I managed to cross the gap in fifty minutes without stopping, a testament to my physical conditioning.  Low Gap looked so strange this time around.  There was little sunlight.  The spring beauties, white fringed phacelia, trout lilies, and violets were all gone and replaced with tall overgrown brush.  The forest was thick and dark.  Certainly not nearly as impressive a sight as it was a month ago.  The worst of the up was behind me, and it was time to drop down the other side.
          The southern leg of the Low Gap Trail takes one down a steep and rocky path for about two miles before leveling out near Walnut Bottom.  Obviously the less popular half of the trail, it isn't as wide and already overgrown with grasses and brambles in many places.  When I reached Walnut Bottom, you could hear the roar of the nearby Big Creek.  Between the campsites, the trail is that of an old roadbed and easy on the feet.  The trees that grew trailside were noticably tall and proud.
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          I would follow the creek for the next few miles as I made my gradual ascent up toward Camel Gap.  Everything about the creek is big.  It is wide, the boulders are large, and the various falls, cascades, and slides are bigger than average.  The trail reminded me a lot of the upper part of the Little River Trail...narrow, overgrown, paralleling the creek, flies buzzing around your face, and relatively flat terrain.  Along the way I almost stepped on a foot and half long snake.  I've noticed that I almost step on snakes a lot.  Of all the places, they have to sun themselves right in the middle of the trail.  I knew it wasn't any threat to me, so I took his picture then watched him slither back into the brush.
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          Much of the climb up to Camel Gap was monotonous until the it leaves creek and swings to the northeast.  At one point, the trees make room for mountain laurel, catawba rhododendron and an open view to the green and blue wall that is Balsam Mountain.  Luftee Knob stands front and center along a ridge that extends over to TriCorner Knob and the towering Mount Guyot, both just in sight.  It was nice to finally reach the AT at Camel Gap because it meant I was on a maintained trail, break from all the grasses, nettles, and other junk most of the way up.  From here to Cosby Knob, the trail follows much of the ridgecrest covered in ferns.  I was impressed by the long and dense patches of false solomon's seal still blooming.  They were more abundant here and with bigger blooms compared to what I had come across elsewhere in the park.
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          After a quick lunch at the Cosby Knob Shelter, it would be all downhill the rest of the way.  I completed the loop when I reached Low Gap and began my descent down to Cosby.  Things got real interesting about a mile down, when I rounded a corner and came face to face with two yearling bears.  At the onset of me, one of sprinted uphill and out of sight.  The other one didn't move, his eyes fixated on me.  Reaching for my camera was the furthest thing from my mind.  I began the process of going through all the steps one should take to stave off a bear.  I began yelling, clapping, waving my arms, standing tall to give an impression of dominance.  The fuzzy bear did nothing but remain on the trail.  Thankfully, on Low Gap Trail, there are a lot of rocks lying around, so I grabbed several and started throwing them close to but not at the bear.  I wanted to spook him away, not aggravate him.  He didn't budge, so I threw closer.  Still nothing.  So I said what the heck, maybe he needs a few shots to get the hint.  One rock hit him in the side, then a second, and a third right on his forehead.  The silly thing didn't even flinch.  I began to laugh, and I'm sure he already was.  The next item I could use in my arsenal was my backpack, so I took it off and began waving it around in the air combined with more yelling. FINALLY, he trotted up the hill a few feet.  He was still close by and watched my every move.  I kept my eyes on him as I crab stepped down the trail, holding my pack in one arm like a shield, and in my other hand, a sharp and shiny item that I hope I wouldn't have to use in case he charged.  I made it by without a fuss and left him in the dust.  I held onto a few rocks the rest of the way down in case I ran into some of his friends.  An interesting finish to another great hike in the park.
          Thus comes the end of May.  It has been a month that exceeded my every expectation.  And now comes June, when the mountain laurel, flame azalea, and rhododendron kick into high gear.  I'm looking forward to some great hikes, expanding my horizons deeper into North Carolina, all leading up to the culmination at Gregory Bald.  Until next time, Happy Memorial Day to all!
 
          Only a handful of the park's original balds remain, and only two are being maintained.  Most have already disappeared back into the clutches and canopies of the forest.  Today's hike up Newton Bald would demonstrate nature's ability to dramatically change the landscape.  There were no views to be had this day, especially since the trees have filled in, and with little light penetrating the forest floor, the spring wildflowers have come and gone.  Mountain laurel and flame azalea were common at first with blooms and buds, and the first of ground flowers didn't appear until the trail's latter half. 
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          When I neared the upper reaches of the day's hike, there was a constant breeze rising up from the valley to the east.  Quite refreshing during a hike that is all up.  Speckled wood lily, pink lady's slippers, and wild geraniums grew in bunches.  Once you pass the junction with the Mingus Creek Trail, the actual bald is situated to the right.  You wouldn't know it because of all the beech trees and ferns that have grown in.  At this point, red and yellow lousewort were everywhere, all the way to Campsite #52.  I hit the trail's end at the Thomas Divide and turned back to the campsite for some lunch.  The nice breeze kept the annoying flies away.  The whole time I was there I heard an unusual sound, one that I would not expect...the chirping of a tree frog.  Definitely a first for me in the Smokies.  I never saw him, but his call followed me for about a half mile down from the campsite.  I completed the hike in the early afternoon, before any storms might show their reary head.  The drive from North Carolina over Newfound Gap was once again a pleasant one, especially since the mountains have filled in with green.
 
          The month of May can be most memorable on the mountain when the mountain myrtle blooms. (How's that for alliteration, all you teachers out there?)  Visiting places like Cliff Tops, Myrtle Point for which it is appropriately named, and the connecting trails like Rainbow Falls' Rocky Spur or Alum Cave's Inspiration Point at this time of year makes for quite a scene.  Sure, there are great patches of the myrtle in bloom trailside, but you've got to be willing to climb a few rocks and get scratches from tree branches if you want to see the best displays.
          On LeConte, there are so many areas to explore in one's free time, and since the sand myrtle prefers to grow on cliff sides and rocky mountain faces, it made sense to wander around those famous points right in my backyard.  Bushwacking up the ridge of Cliff Tops may seem daunting, but is a relatively easy climb once you figure it out, and the rewards are commendable.  The views from the handful of vistas along the way and the dense patches of myrtle that cling to the cliffs continue to get better as you make your way up.  Another great bushwack is to take a path that leads down the face of Cliff Tops, taking one about a third of the way down to the Alum Cave Trail just below.  When the cliff itself angles inward to the mountain, you know that means it's time to stop going down, or else bad news bears.  There you get views of Cliff Tops from the middle, with rocks, sand myrtle, and rhododendron growing all around you, a change from the typical view one gets up top.
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          Obviously, Myrtle Point is the place to be.  Not many of the bushes around the immediate vicinity of the point are in bloom, mostly do to the erosion of the soil that the bushes like, but a good number produce decent blooms.  There are a number of ridges that extend down from the point and run down to meet The Boulevard on opposite sides of the mountain.  If you're willing to push your way through the brush on those, you won't be disappointed.  Taking the ridge that turns to the north has the best display of sand myrtle you'll see anywhere.  The bushes are large and abundant with blooms forming a dense blanket of white, red, and pink.  Add to the mix the fact that your on a narrow ridge with great panoramic views of the valley below and the slopes of LeConte.  I also discovered this week that the same ridge makes for a great place to watch the sunset, another break from the traditional Cliff Tops.
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          On Monday, I woke up with a ton of energy and ambitious plans for a hike.  I had the afternoon to myself and wanted to venture far.  Even though the weather was a little sketchy at times, I wouldn't let it bother me, for I just wanted to be out and about.  I had been to The Jumpoff before, but wanted to go further this time.  Charlies Bunion would add more miles, but I was just there a week ago.  Then I thought, aim farther east of the bunion, an area I've only ever seen in the clouds and rain.  It was ambitious, but it was just the drive I was looking for that day.  All the way across The Boulevard, I was moving in and out of clouds, sunshine, and mists.  I was up and over Mount Kephart before I knew it and made it to the bunion in just over an hour and a half.  Before I even left for the day's hike, I determined that wherever I was after two hours of hiking, I would stop and turn around to make it back to the lodge in time.  So at this point, I pushed eastward along the AT.  When I got to the clearing just before Dry Sluice Gap, I had a clear view of the valley to the south that is the Kephart Prong watershed.  Past the gap I began to make my way up and over the start of The Sawteeth.  Appropriately named because the ridges at this point are jagged like a saw blade and extremely narrow in places, like two or three yards wide with drop offs.  The trail was often lined with thick patches of yellow bead lily in full bloom.  The views are outstanding on a clear day...something I had never experienced here....until now!!!  One can look back along the Smokies main crest and see the steep, scarred slopes of Charlies Bunion and another point which almost looks like a miniature Half-Dome.  I remembered seeing the side trail that led the point's summit, so at an hour and fifty minutes in, I decided to turn back early and make my way up to the unheralded vista.  As I ascended the rocky trail, it started to sprinkle, but luckily the clouds remained high enough for me to take in the views.  The panorama is nearly identical to that of Charlies Bunion...rocky ledges with vertical dropoffs, overlooking the valley into Porters Creek and the spine of the Smokies to the east.  A few differences are that you are higher up and instead of sand myrtle there was Catawba Rhododendron in bloom.  Another sign that summer is just around the corner.  This time I couldn't afford to linger, but I look forward to returning to this great lookout in the near future.
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          A few weeks ago I had intentions of hiking the Kanati Fork Trail, but I opted to cut back on my miles and ventured elsewhere.  I wondered what I may have missed, since I plan my hikes to hit them at just the right time of year when something unique is happening.  It's a popular wildflower hike, but I wasn't sure what I would this time, if anything.  Regardless, I didn't have any other hike planned for the day, so I figured I would give this one another go.
          I awoke at sunrise to find that the storms had gone but several interesting cloud formations remained, adding to the scenic beauty of the drive over into North Carolina.  The air was cool and the forest dark.  I left the sounds of traffic behind me and ascended into the wilderness.  Not much was blooming at this point, just an occasional foamflower.  Most of the trillium I passed were well past peak and losing their luster.  Then I received a nice surprise when I stumbled upon my first vasey's trillium of the year.  It is similar to the catesby's trillium in that the dark maroon flower dangles below the leaves.  I managed to count only a handful in prime condition the remainder of the hike, but it was certainly great to finally see one.  The higher I got, the more abundant other wildflowers became.  The speckled wood lily was the most populous, lining much of the trail in an impressive display.
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           Others included solomon's seal, false solomon's seal, violets, foamflower, and another first...putty root.  There were several stretches of trail where one had to dance around rocks and mud, or blaze through overgrown grasses and other plants.  Still the ascent was gradual and the rising sun made the surroundings seem pleasant.  
           Before reaching the trail's terminus atop the Thomas Divide, I was treated to one more surprise, the last elusive type of trillium...purple wake robin.  This flower is similar to the vasey's in that they share the same maroon color, but it's closest relative is the white erect trillium.  Both have thinner flower petals that stand above the leaves.  Its most interesting characteristic is the odor; hence, it's other name...stinking benjamin.  The find thus completed my goal of successfully seeing and photographing all of the park's diverse trillium...at least according to my Smokies wildflower books.
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          There were no views afforded along this trail, but occasionally one could gaze through the forest canopy toward the surrounding ridges.  The sun shone brightly between the remaining clouds and the dense fog swirled at the lowest reaches of the valleys.  The descent passed quickly and before I knew it I was enjoying the scenic drive back to Gatlinburg, still early in the morning.  Another great few days spent in the park for sure!  April was great, May has been fantastic, and my favorite time of year in June is fast approaching.  But before I get ahead of myself, it's time to head back up the mountain.
 
          Despite the heavy rains from the previous night, the morning saw breaks in the clouds with a ceiling above the mountains.  The forecast called for more rain to develop throughout the day, but there was a window of opportunity to get in a good hike early.  Regardless of the weather, I was going to start out at Newfound Gap and complete the loop that takes one down Sweat Heifer Creek Trail, up Grassy Branch and Dry Sluice Gap Trails to Charlies Bunion, and across the AT back to where I began.  Usually this is the kind of hike you want to do on a clear day with so many view points along the way.  I realized that I might not catch any of them if the clouds stuck around, but also felt that the prospect of completing new trails and seeing different wildflowers would make for a great hike anyways.
          When I arrived at Newfound Gap, the cloud base had dropped just below 5,000 feet, so I would begin in the coolness of the clouds.  I started out wearing my rain gear but quickly shed it when it was making me hot.  It's not like I needed it anyways since the only precipitation was the occasional mist which actually felt nice as I made the ascent.  When I reached the junction with the Sweat Heifer Creek Trail, I was still in the clouds, although there was jubilation.  I had passed by this trail sign countless times, but now I would finally be turning to the right to explore a new path.  Since I was doing a loop hike, I could have chosen to take the AT to the bunion first and reverse the ups and downs.  At this stage, I figured it was best to get the downhill out of the way while it wasn't raining, and who knew, maybe the clouds would break by the time I reached the bunion.  It was a gamble, but it was also my original plan, so I stuck with it.
          Shortly after leaving the AT one comes to a clearing in the trees where a small bench is situated to soak in the views south into North Carolina.  There would be none of the valleys below, just the white wall of the clouds.  The trail then made a switchback and quickly dropped.  There wasn't a whole lot for wildflowers along the way except for some white erect trillium, toothwort, and foamflower.  I received a surprise when I came across a lone pink lady's slipper, the only one for the day.  Neat to see one all the way up here and far from the Cades Cove vicinity where they seem to prosper.
          Further down I came to a point where a chunk of the mountain was missing.  Apparently this is where an old roadbed belonging to the Champion Fibre Company cut through the ridge to form a turn.  Shortly there after the trail comes to a level area where old rusty parts are scattered around the forest floor.
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          Still continuing the descent, I began to make several stream crossings, one being the Sweat Heifer Creek.  The creek was wide and had several cascades as it plummeted down the ravine.  This was also the area where I saw the first of the yellow bead lilies and brook lettuce in bloom.  On several previous hikes I had only been seeing the leaves and a few buds.
          Eventually I reached the Kephart Prong Shelter, nestled in a valley next to the creek.  It was a good time to have a bite to eat and reenergize before making the ascent to the bunion.  When I was here two years prior it was on a rainy day, and this time came under similar circumstances.  With several miles ahead of me, I was ready to press on.  Now the average hiker might be discouraged by the start of the Grassy Branch Trail.  It goes up immediately, and I mean up.  Plus one has to traverse two landslides that obviously need some work.  No worries, since after that point the trail becomes very pleasant and the ascent passes with ease, despite how it might look on paper.  For much of the way, the trail is lined with blackberry brambles and tall grasses; hence, the name.
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        About halfway up, I noticed a few breaks in the clouds where sunlight was penetrating through to the valleys.  The upper elevations remained socked in and patches of fog were present down below.  Foamflower was still blooming much of the way up, and you could see random sections where tall Norway spruces stood out in the forest, planted by the Champion Fibre Company and never harvested.  They are similar to the native red spruce, but possess branches that hang like a weeping willow.  The higher I got in elevation, the taller the grasses got that covered the trail, dampening my rain pants above my knees.  I can only imagine what this trail would be like in the summer, blackberries included.
          Once I reached the junction with the Dry Sluice Gap Trail, I was back in the clouds again.  Shortly after I made the turn toward the AT it began to mist...and then shower...and then rain heavily.  I have only but a few pictures from this portion of the hike since I needed to protect my camera from getting drenched.  I was hoping I could have had clear skies at this point because there were several stretches where the trees were open enough for views to the west and probably the backside of the bunion.  It was not to be.  As soon as I reached the AT at Dry Sluice Gap, I ran into the first person of the day, an older, bearded gentleman thru-hiking his way through the rain.  Again, views I should have had to the north were blocked by the white wall.  I knew this was the likely scenario, but it would have been nice to have the views.  The last time I was out this far was five years ago on a backpacking excursion, in which the weather was the same.  Eventually I'll hit it on a clear day.
          Less than a quarter mile before the bunion, I came to a clearing on the ridge's southern slope.  It was surreal because as soon as I stepped out of the woods and into the open the rain ceased, the clouds above formed a hole, and I was offered a view into the valley from which I just ascended.  At the same time, three more thru-hikers stopped for a break, also intrigued by the momentary break in the weather.  Oddly enough, I reentered the woods on the opposite side and the rain and clouds returned.  On my way up to the bunion I had no idea of what to expect other than a white out and wet rocks.  What was about to happen I'm not sure can ever be duplicated.
          As I took the trail that loops around the face of the bunion, I could see but a few feet in front of me.  I noticed that sand myrtle trail side were in bloom, so that was a bonus.  The clouds were becoming less dense as I went along and I could see further out to the bunion.  More of the blooming sand myrtle that clung to the rocky slopes could be seen up and down in colors of white and pink.  I was almost to the popular rocky outcrop when the rain ceased and I stopped to remove my rain coat.  I stuffed into my backpack, and looked up to an amazing sight.  The clouds were beginning to break up and disappear all around.  Suddenly I had views into Porters Valley, of green ridges in the distance, various cloud formations, and blue skies above.
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          The trend continued and my heart began to race with excitement.  I wasted no time in climbing the bunion to observe what was unfolding right in front of me.  The sun was shining brightly, enhancing the fresh spring greenery of the surrounding mountain sides, the cottonlike clouds, and the blue background of the sky.  Easily one of the most awe inspiring moments I've ever had in these majestic mountains.  The only way to serve the moment justice would be simply to describe it as perfection.  It begins with the timing.  Imagine if I decided to come out here first and reverse the loop.  I would have missed it all.  Stepping out of the rain to have the skies clear at this exact location, the sand myrtle all in bloom, and having the entire bunion to myself...I couldn't have even dreamed that one up.  Mother Nature sure knows how to work her magic!
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          Shortly after leaving the bunion, the clouds began to thicken and recover the ridges.  On my way up Mount Kephart, I passed several hikers who looked dejected from the weather conditions, and here I was all giddy and shaking from what I just witnessed.  I tried to explain to them what had happened without rubbing it in their faces, recommending that they have patience when they get there in that the clouds might break again.  I would assume they didn't since it began to rain by the time I reached Icewater Spring.  These conditions persisted most of the way back to Newfound Gap with occasional rays of sunshine and views into North Carolina.  It just amazes me how one moment with such timing made an okay hike into an incredible one.  I think I'll be talking about this one for a while to come!
 
          With this week's potential for rain and storms, I needed to figure out which trail I wanted to do while the weather was still nice.  From my recent treks to the Cades Cove area, I knew that the mountain laurel and flame azalea were kicking into gear.  I also know that their blooms can easily get weather beaten, so seeing them on a clear day is preferrable.  That said, it was off to the cove to hit up Rich Mountain.
          With the loop road finally open, vehicles going in and out of the cove is more like normal.  Fortunately, I haven't had to get tangled up in the stop-and-go traffic by starting my hikes around the cove.  Today would be no different, with hopes of completing the popular Rich Mountain Loop that goes up, across, and down the mountain.  The first time I did this hike was in late October of last year, so I was curious to see all the differences between seasons.  There were many.
          Early on, the petals from tulip tree blossoms blanketed the forest floor instead of crunchy leaves.  I found myself looking down for wildflowers instead of up toward a colorful canopy.  The air was hot and humid instead of mild and comfortable.  Instead of hundreds of butterflies, moths, and grasshoppers, there were only a handful.  If there was one similarity it was that the Rich Mountain Loop Trail coming down was as rocky as I remembered.
          Despite the rain from the day before, there wasn't a lot of water pouring over the Crooked Arm Cascade.  Continuing up Crooked Arm Ridge, the trail was often lined with princess trees, yellow ragworts, white milkweed, and galax.  All the way across the mountain the buttercup blooms of mountain laurel trees were in peak bloom.  At one point I was admiring the numerous bloom clusters that adorned a large tree at a switchback in the trail when I made the turn and nearly stepped on a small critter.  To my dismay, it was something I had never seen before and almost missed as it was camouflaged with the rock and dirt of the trail.  It was a northern fence lizard, intent on remaining motionless as if I hadn't seen it.  So I took my pictures and wished him well before moving on.
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           When I reached the junction with the Scott Mountain Trail, I was quick to take note of the differences in my surroundings since my last visit here a month prior.  The trees were full, the underbrush tall, the forest green and dark.  Last time everything was bare and bright without a canopy to block the sun's rays.  Now making my way across the mountain along the Indian Grave Gap Trail, mountain laurel was the constant, but with a new element thrown into the mix...flame azalea.  In several places there were blooms and buds in various shades of orange.  There were a few bushes with weather beaten blooms that were redder than the others as well.
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          A surprise came when I stumbled across a pair of pink lady's slippers close to the summit.  Of course it made sense to see them since the Ace Gap Trail from last week's hikes is located just downhill of Rich Mountain, but today's total was far less impressive.  As I passed by the places where the trail dances along the park boundary, I managed to have views north toward Townsend, though this time the land was in spring green and blue rather than the yellows, reds, oranges, and browns of autumn.  I made a quick stop by the site of the old firetower that used to sit upon Cerulean Knob.  Now only the large cement blocks of the foundation remain.  Imagine the views one could be afforded if it was still there.  I had reached my high point for the day, but I still had some ascending to do.
          The stretch of Indian Grave Gap Trail between the Rich Mountain Loop and the Rich Mountain Road, a little more than a mile, was something I hadn't hiked yet, so it was necessary to check it off the list.  It meant descending to the gravel one-way road, but then hiking back up to the loop trail.  When I reached the actual Indian Grave Gap, the trail conditions changed dramatically.  At the gap, there were the fruits of wild strawberry's, some still blooming sweet shrub, and daisies.  After the gap, I almost didn't recognize where I was.  The forest canopy disappeared with dead trees sticking out everywhere.  The trail was wide, dry, and sandy.  Grasses and brush were competing for space at ground level.  The good that came from it were the nice views down into the cove and south to the Smokies crest.  In time, I reached the road, guzzled some water, and headed back up.  When I returned to the area of unusual terrain, the air became instantly hot, humid, and heavy.  Wiping the sweat from my forehead became a pointless endeavor.  The look of the scorched and butchered forest combined with the climate made me feel like I was on an African safari during the dry season.  Getting back into the shade of the woods was welcome relief after that stretch.
          As soon as I reached the Rich Mountain Loop, it was all down the rest of the way.  Again, I found myself scanning over my surroundings, now all green, but imagining them in the collage of fall colors.  At one point I made a sharp turn to cross a small creek, coming face to face with a deer.  The doe was completely unphased by my presence, even after my abrupt arrival.  It continued to stand in the trail and search for food even as I stepped closer.  She refused to move, shooting me the occasional glance in between bites.  I could have jumped on her back if I was crazy enough, but I elected not to startle her and gave a simple wave for her to move to the side.  She gladly obliged, strutting off a couple yards to watch me pass.
          When I came out at the John Oliver Cabin, I assumed there would be masses of people everywhere, especially since it was a weekend and tourist activity in the park is on the rise.  A park volunteer appeared to be leading some sort of presentation on one of the porches for a crowd of people, while other visitors made their way in and around the cabin.  Amazingly, I was able to get in the arbitrary picture of the cabin during a brief a moment where no person could be seen.  Score!
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          Since I was in the open, I looked up and saw that the clouds were moving in fast and that rain was beginning to hit the mountains in the distance.  There was no time to linger, so speedily I went on to finish out the loop.  Before leaving the cove for the day, I had to stop by the campground store for some ice cream, nice after such a hot day.  The drive back to Gatlinburg was mostly uneventful, only one car jam for a bear.  Shortly after arriving at the motel, the heavy rains came in full force.  Looks like I timed everything just right this day.
 
          I've been super fortunate to have such fine weather any time I've had days off to spend in the park.  The decent weather also helps bring the wildflowers out.  Today's hike proved just how amazing of a spring we've been having.  I began at the Ace Gap Trail where the two-way road ends at the park boundary with hopes of reaching Campsite #3 along the Beard Cane Trail.  To complete the task would allow me to reach the 300 mile mark in my quest of 900.  I was also curious what wildflowers I would see along the way.  Was I in for a treat!
          Early on there were several firsts for the year: white milkweed, starry grass, daisy fleabane, bristly locust, speckled wood lily, and galax.  Even some of the big dogs have decided to rear their heads, like the mountain laurel and flame azalea.  That got the hiking juices flowing!  I was hoping for more out of the fire pink when I repeatedly visited Chestnut Top, but today there were tons to go around as well.
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          But today's gameball went to another kind of wildflower, and the competition wasn't even close.  I had managed to see one lone yellow lady's slipper back at White Oak Sink, and my research told me that I could find the pink ones here.  I presumed they too would be a rare find, so when I saw my first, I was ecstatic.  Not sure how many more I would stumble upon, I took several pictures before moving on.  Then one became two...and then four............and well......let's just say I lost count when I got to sixty.  I'm positive I missed others since I was constantly having to clear my face of spider webs (you're welcome subsequent hikers).  To be able to see so many made up for any other wildflower misses the last month.
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          After descending the Beard Cane Trail a little ways, I came to the tricky stream crossing of the creek at Campsite #3.  In the process, I also surpassed the 300 mile benchmark.  Now I feel like I'm starting to get somewhere in this park, but there is so much hiking left to be done.  In my return trip back, I managed to spook a young bear along a ridgetop just west of Campsite #7.  It was a decent size and moved quickly, but I could tell it was between one and two years of age.  It wasted no time charging through the brush downhill to get away from me, which was quite alright.  And then a few miles after that, I narrowly missed stepping on the head of a three foot long black snake.  I jumped like a kangaroo on caffeine to avoid any repercussions, but amazingly, the snake didn't flinch at all.  Even when I came back, it cared more about sunning itself on a log than dealing with me.  As to its identity, I'll have to check, but I knew right after that it wasn't venomous.
          One thing is for certain, the month of May is in full swing and after three fantastic hikes, I can't wait to hit the trails some more.  Oh, the anticipation for next week!
 
          With my scars continuing to heal and quickly, why waste time sitting around?  So it was another early morning start out of Elkmont.  Today's hike would chalk up 8 new miles of trails as I would ascend Jakes Creek and take Miry Ridge across to the AT.  I selected this hike with hopes of seeing the Frasier Magnolias in bloom.  I had seen one the day prior along Laurel Creek Road in bloom, but had my doubts about those at higher elevations because of the prolonged winter and strange start to spring.  Such would be the case this day, as none were seen on the hike up.  But with so much to be offered on a clear and warm day, I wasn't about to get discouraged.  Along the first half of the Miry Ridge Trail, there were more stretches of Thyme Leaved Bluets and a handful of Painted Trillium in bloom.  As the trail passes over the summit of Dripping Spring Mountain, one has panoramic views to the north of the AT and Smokies main crest.  It was a neat feeling to look over to Thunderhead Mountain with the fact that I was just up there less than 24 hours prior.
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         Trail conditions were fairly decent up to the junction with the Lynn Camp Prong Trail halfway across Miry Ridge.  That is because this section is also used by horses.  The latter half of this trail was the extreme opposite.  It is not used by horses, and thus appears to be one of the park's more neglected trails.  Rocks, roots, erosion, and downed trees were the norm, and most annoying.  I swear I lost count of all the blowdowns when I hit 50.  And with trying to avoid bending my right knee, it became frustrating.  The bad.
          About a half mile past the junction with Lynn Camp Prong, the trail took a sharp turn into an open ravine.  As soon as I entered the area, I heard the loud sounds of something crashing through the brush, kicking rocks and snapping branches along the way.  As I looked toward the noise, I witnessed a massive black body rumbling downhill in a hurry.  Much to my amazement it was a large mama bear, obviously startled by my entrance.  As she sat at the bottom of the ravine, I looked straight out and saw a smaller black body clinging to the trunk of a tree.  There sat a cub watching me in curiosity and looking around for its mother.  I didn't want to be seen as a threat, or food, and certainly didn't want to linger since mothers will look to protect their cubs.  So I got in some pictures and quickly headed out of the ravine, giddy at my first bear sighting in the wild for the year.  The cuddly.
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          Despite the less than commendable trail conditions of the second half of Miry Ridge, the trail possesses one of most impressive displays of painted trillium.  Several long stretches were lined with the flowers and in great abundance.  It would be accurate to call it the Cove Hardwood Nature Trail of the upper elevations in terms of trillium abundance.  The good.
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          Thyme leaved bluets, star chickweed, and white erect trillium, and witch hobble were also common the rest of the way.  There were even a few patches of bluets that are the variant white.  The canopy was still open higher up and the ridges were covered in grasses the closer I got to reaching the AT.  Through the trees I could look back along Miry Ridge and to the west there stood Silers Bald and Clingmans Dome.  I finally reached the junction with the AT near Cold Spring Knob in time for lunch beneath sunny skies and a slight breeze.  The descent the same way was mostly uneventful except for passing a quintet of horse riders.  I hate having to dodge their feces on such trails and the destruction they cause, but seeing them in person can make you forget.  Anyways, I moved a step closer to completing the Elkmont section of the park and am now on the cusp of reaching 300 miles.  Despite the absence of the frasier magnolias, there was plenty to go around to make it another great day on the trails.
 
          All the anticipation of hiking in the month of May couldn't come without a little adversity.  On my way down the mountain for a few days off, I managed to lose my footing on some very wet and muddy rocks, crashing hard and hobbling away with several scrapes.  When I arrived at the motel, I did all I could to clean the wounds and begin the healing process.  My biggest fear was infection, and that my right knee might require stitches.  Thankfully nothing was bruised or broken, but I was worried what the morning might bring.  Obviously personal health is priority number one, but I had one of my most favorite hikes planned for the next day.  I had no choice but to sleep on it.
          When I awoke the next morning, I was amazed that nothing felt sore and that I had complete mobility.  So I bandaged everything up and headed out as soon as I could, ecstatic for the day ahead.  The skies were crystal clear and the temps warm.  I thought the traffic for the drive out to Cades Cove would be heavy, especially with its recent reopening, but thankfully it was light.  I would be heading up by way of Anthony Creek, for the last time I traveled to Spence Field via Lead Cove.
          Early on there were a lot of crested dwarf iris, foamflower, false solomon's seal, showy orchis, catesby's trillium, thyme leaved bluets, and yellow lousewort.  The trail has numerous stream crossings, but this hiker greatly appreciated all the footbridges.  A ways past Campsite #9, I stumbled upon a couple of deer staked out in the middle of the trail.  Oddly enough, they wouldn't budge from their position, even as I proceeded to move closer and closer.  I tried talking, then shouting, then quick movements and they just tilted their heads, stared, and probably laughed.  Finally with the clanging of my trekking poles, they politely decided to move a few feet off trail and let me pass.  One of them I could have reached out and touched if I wanted to, but figured it was best to just move on by.  I kind of wondered if they had ever seen a person before since they were so tame.
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          Bluets continued to dot the trail side up to and past the junction with the Bote Mountain Trail.  The trail conditions became rockier and the ascent a little steeper.  As I approached Spence Field and the AT, grasses, spring beauties, and violets were filling in the forest floor while trees became shorter and spread apart.  My reason for choosing this hike at this time of year was to see the heralded display of serviceberry trees and their white blossoms that graced the bald and slopes of Thunderhead Mountain.  I caught them right on in full bloom.  They really stood out against the blue backdrop of the clear sky and the open meadowlike conditions of Spence Field.  I took my time waltzing through the bald on my way to the base of Thunderhead soaking in my surroundings.
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          Trees at this elevation are either leafless or just beginning to bud, so the colors of the serviceberry trees and a few others added some character to the otherwise colorless slopes of Jenkins Ridge and Thunderhead.  The entire hike up to this point, my knee had been fine, but I was curious as to how it would hold up on the ascent to Rocky Top, which is about 500 feet in 1/3 of a mile.  If you constantly stop to soak in the views like I do, you'll never get tired.  Skies were deep blue, the valleys were coated in fresh greenery, and the higher elevations were still dormant, offering a unique contrast.  The panoramas from Rocky Top were impressive as always.  To the east, Mount LeConte and Clingmans Dome could easily be defined without the presence of haze.  To the south stood Blockhouse Mountain awaiting the arrival of spring.  To the northwest, one could easily pick out the loop road around the lush fields of Cades Cove.  And to the west, you could follow the AT up from Fontana Dam to Shuckstack, to the junction with Gregory Bald, and across the ridges to Spence Field.  Just a few reasons why this is one my favorite places to be.
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          The fun didn't stop here, for I had more miles ahead of me that day.  Descending Thunderhead went much faster than the trek up, for obvious reasons.  It also gave me a chance to take in the sights at Spence Field one more time.  Instead of turning back down Bote Mountain, I would remain on the AT and head out to Russell Field.  The entire three mile section saw the trail lined with thyme leaved bluets, with several sections offering dense clusters of tiny blue flowers.
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          I have always enjoyed ridge walking along the AT, and on a warm day like this, one's fortunate to catch a cool breeze that shoots up the from the valleys.  Being so high up, the canopy was very open affording views of the park in all directions.  Before arriving at the junction with Russell Field, I came upon two sections where the trail was lined with impressive displays of white fringed phacelia.  The better came at McCampbell Gap where the thick, snowy looking blanket adorned the entire ridge and for a good distance.  It made up for not seeing it at Porters Creek in April and catching it early at Low Gap.
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          When I arrived at the Russell Field Shelter, I was surprised it hadn't been renovated yet.  With its chain link fence still intact, a passing day hiker referred to it as a "nice bear cage."  That's probably why it still looks the way it does.  Now it was time for some serious downhill.  Not far down from the shelter, one can take a spur trail out to the remnants of Russell Field.  All that remains is a small clearing, relative in size to that of a little league baseball field.  The encroaching tree line has obstructed any views.
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          Now that the remainder of the day's hike would be going down, I had to alter my hiking style as not to irritate or worsen my banged up knee.  Step logs were the worst, in which I'm so used to bending and pushing with my right leg, so having to adjust with my left leg was quite different.  I made it down, though, without a fuss.  After completing the loop with the Anthony Creek Trail, I made a quick stop at the campground store for some ice cream.  It hit the spot and capped off a fantastic outing.  I can't wait to revisit this hike in June to see Spence Field with all the mountain laurel, catawba rhododendron, and flame azalea in bloom.
 
          After not hiking for an entire week due to work and weather, it was time get the legs churning again.  I also wanted to start the month of May off with a bang, a time of year I have never been in the park.  To say I'm excited about this month would be an understatement.  That morning the mountain saw rain and clouds, but around lunch time the skies began to clear.  I was full of energy and felt it would be a great opportunity to stretch the envelope and head as far down as Grotto Falls.  Along the way, there were already Thyme Leaved Bluets blooming.  Around Trillium Gap, spring beauties, trout lilies, and common blue violets carpeted the forest floor.  On this hike, I also experimented with listening to my ipod, which may have aided in my fast pace, especially the songs with faster beats.  I pulled into Grotto Falls in 1 hour and 15 minutes, and entertained the idea of going all the way to the Roaring Fork, but enjoying the moment took precedent.  For the first time ever, I had the entire falls to myself, thanks in part to the road closures.  It was a hot afternoon and it was nice to soak myself under the falls for a few seconds to cool off.  There were no people, no loud voices, no kids rock hopping against their parents will, just me and the sound of the falls.  I doubt I'll ever get such an opportunity again.
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