I had originally planned to hit the Forney Ridge Trail out to Andrews Bald on my very first day, but the continual delays in the Clingmans Dome Road reconstruction forced me to hike elsewhere.  Since everything has been blooming ahead of schedule, I figured the catawba rhododendron display would be done, but since the flame azalea usually don't peak there until early July, it seemed something good would still be in store.  In order to beat the mass of humanity that would ensue with the newly reopened road, I wanted an early start.  There was a single lane closure due to some remaining work to be done along the shoulders, a minor delay, but the parking lot was basically empty when we arrived.  Now we had been to this bald many times, but now was a great chance for me press on beyond the bald and rake in some new miles and complete the entire Forney Ridge Trail.  As for the folks, they would have to left in my wake on this one.
          The first mile of this trail is extremely rocky, and easily throws a hiking pace out of whack.  At least the lingering thyme leaved bluets, blackberries, and purple fringed orchids feasted the eyes long enough to get me through it.  A lot of trail maintenance has been done to this trail.  There are several stretches were single log boardwalks have been placed to get hikers across muddy sections.  Much appreciated!  In other places there are new stair cases to aid in the climb.
          When I entered the bald, my predictions were true, unfortunately.  The purple catawba rhododendron display that graces this spot had already come and gone.  Of course, with the road being closed into June, who knows if many people even saw them at all.  The flame azalea on the other were still trucking along.  Up top several of them were past peak, but toward the bald's lower half, most of the bushes were in full bloom in various shades of orange.  The skies were mostly clear and low lying fog could be seen in the valleys below.
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          If you make your way toward the bottom of the existing bald, you'll be treated to a yellow flame azalea bush right next to the path.  There were even a few mountain laurel bushes still loaded with their white and pink buttercup blooms.  Since I knew I would return, I didn't stay to long, so I left the open air of the bald to closed in confines of the woods down Forney Ridge.
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          As soon as I left, it was obvious I had crossed into a much ignored territory.  In many places during the descent, the trail was rocky and overgrown with grasses, blackberries, nettles, and other plants with claws.  In some instances the brush over the trail was at head level.  I pushed onward despite the beating my shins took.  The path along Forney Ridge takes many ups and downs, most of which are gradual.  During one flat section I passed by a massive oak tree right by the trail.  This monster was certainly spared by the lumber company that tore it up through Forney Creek.  I was curious to see how large it was in diameter, so measured it against my wingspan and I still couldn't match it.  I estimate that it comes somewhere between 6.5 and 7 feet across.  The steepest part of the hike comes right before you enter the junction with the Springhouse Branch Trail situated in a broad gap.  When I got there, there wasn't much to see, so I wasted no time making the trek back up Forney Ridge.  I took notice of some occasional views through the trees in which the knob of Andrews Bald and the parking lot at Clingmans Dome could be seen.  Even though they looked high and far away, I just took it as motivation to hike faster.  When I got back to the bald, the clouds and haze had started to roll in.  Good thing I got that early start.  About a half mile below the parking lot, I caught up with the folks.  When we pulled into the parking lot, it was overflowing with traffic and people.  There weren't enough parking spots and the traffic was getting backed up in both directions due to the road work.  The early bird got the worm this time!
 
          With the folks in town, the great trend in sunny weather, and my desire to play golf at least once this year, I figured it was a wonderful time to hit the greens.  So I traded in the boots, camera, and trails for some shoes, clubs, and fairways...just this once.  It was neat to have the mountains in the distance serving as a backdrop to the course, Mt. LeConte being the most obvious.  Not having played in a year, I was a bit skeptical about how things would play out.  Surprisingly, I found my swing right away and drove the ball quite well.  The putting, however...well, I won't go into details.  A great break regardless, but I'm anxious to hit the trails once again tomorrow, especially with such great weather.
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          With all my talk about choosing the best hikes around the flame azalea and catawba rhododendron blooming schedule, one would probably wonder how I chose to do this hike.  Well, I had two of the big three done, saving Andrews Bald for later.  Plus I had two other days off to plan something, so I figured I would give the climb out of Tremont up to the AT a go.  It was a change of pace from the upper elevation hikes because this started low and afforded numerous waterfalls, cascades, and streamside walking.  I was looking forward to it because hardly any of the hikes I had done this year were centered on such features, but rather vistas and wildflowers.
          The last time I visited the Middle Prong Trail out of Tremont was last fall with my uncle.  We had seen some impressive colors, and the fact that we did the first stretch in the rain saw the numerous cascades of Lynn Camp Prong as loud, raging, and overflowing with water.  Since the park hadn't seen much rain as of late, I figured the water scenes would be more subdued this time around.
          The first several miles of the trail are easy and enjoyable.  It follows an old railroad grade next to the river and barely ascends.  Early on you come around a long bend that overlooks the lower portion of the Lynn Camp Cascade.  This lower section is much flatter and longer than the other parts of the cascade series.  A little further up the trail you pass the upper part of the cascade in which the various falls are shorter and terraced.  As I predicted, there was less water coming across the rocks, but a very pleasant scene to behold regardless.
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          The cascades now behind me, I was able to focus more on the surrounding wildflowers, greatly dominated by the purple heal-all.  I was amazed at how well it flourished, not only beside the trail, but even in it.  It was everywhere for miles.  At one point I came to a clearing that was the location of a former CCC camp, and it too was overrun with heal-all.  Some old rusty parts could be found scattered across the old camp including an entire piece of train track.
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          Towards the end of the Middle Prong Trail, the trail widens as it makes a sharp switchback heading uphill.  If you look off to the right, you'll see a narrow but well trodden path heading into the woods.  If you follow it for about a tenth of a mile, you'll descend into Indian Flats Falls.  It's an enclosed swimming hole with several individual waterfalls pouring in and out from all around.  If you're ever looking for a place to cool down and relax in solitude, I would recommend going here for sure.
          After returning back to the main trail and approaching the junction with Greenbrier Ridge I came across a doe.  She kept trotting uphill in a zigzag pattern as I got closer, but never left the actual trail.  When I came to another switchback she eventually stepped to the side and watched me pass but never seemed quite sure what to make of me.  Now following the Greenbrier Ridge Trail up to the AT, the trail conditions changed dramatically.  It was now you're typical narrow path, sometimes overgrown in places, and a much steeper climb than that of the old railroad bed.  I already come halfway, but in terms of elevation gain, you wouldn't think so.  Wildflowers at this point included rosebay rhododendron, more heal-all, some red bee balm, and even blooming ramps.
          About halfway up the Greenbrier Ridge section, the most interesting part of my day happened.  I stumbled across an eight point buck on the trail that was startled by my arrival.  But it didn't run off into the woods because the hillside was too steep and overgrown for it make an escape, so it had to remain on the trail.  It would gallop ahead of me for a ways...stop...look back...wait for me to catch up...then repeat the cycle.  This must have gone on for a half mile or more.  I could never get to a point where both of us were stopped to get a good picture.  Since we were going uphill, each time he stopped to look back he had his tongue drooping way out like a panting dog.  Another interesting feature about this buck had to do with his antlers.  They were atypical in which they didn't curve upwards and above the head like you usually see, but extended straight out like that of longhorn cattle.  Eventually we rounded a ridgetop where he could step off the trail and find cover in the brush, which was also where we were closest, only a few yards apart separated by a rhododendron.  We parted ways and I thanked him for the excitement.
          When I reached the AT, I had a decision to make.  I could stop right there and have my lunch in the cool breeze and wooded ridgetop, or I could push on a few more tenths of a mile to the Derrick Knob Shelter.  It would entail the steepest climb of the day, but I figured that since I was in one of the more remote areas in the park, plus not knowing when I would return, that I better suck it up and pay the shelter a visit.  The first and last time I was there was eight years ago on a backpacking trip with my father and uncle in which we stayed at the shelter before it was renovated.  Coming into the clearing and seeing it all redone was neat and sitting inside while enjoying my lunch was nostalgic.  A couple that had stayed there the night before was about to leave on a day hike and warned me of timber rattlesnake down by the spring.  As much as I would have loved to get a picture,  I thought it smarter to pass on it.
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          I wrote a little something in the log book at the shelter, finished reminiscing, and headed back down the mountain.  Since I was doubling back, the miles became menotonous, especially since there were no views, few wildflowers, and no more deer to chase, but still an incredible day of hiking with all things considered.  It ended up being my longest hike of they year thus far, coming in at 17.4 miles.  Come August I have several longer hikes planned, but none of them will entail the elevation change that I encountered today heading up from Tremont to Derrick Knob.
 
          Having already been to my favorite destination the day before, I probably could've gone the rest of the week without doing another hike and still been happy.  But alas, other favorite hikes were beckoning and so was the fabulous weather.  Since the azalea and rhododendron had already peaked across the park, it didn't matter which order I did my remaining hikes in other than those that required good weather and visibility for views.  So the obvious choice for today was a return trip to Spence Field and Rocky Top along the AT.  And the path I had planned to get there also meant no new miles would be added.
          My purpose for today's hike was to hopefully see the catawba rhododendron, flame azalea, and mountain laurel display grace Spence Field and the slopes of Thunderhead Mountain in unison.  They typically peak there this time of year, but the crazy blooming schedule had me feeling skeptical.  It was a sight I really wanted to see.  I've been there in early July when the white rosebay rhododendron are in bloom, and I was just there the first week of May to catch the serviceberry trees kick off the arrival of spring at high elevations.  I also look to return to this spot in October to soak in some fall color.  So as you can see, Spence Field / Rocky Top is one of my favorite destinations for several reasons across several seasons.  It was recently my No. 2 on my all-time Smokies list of favorites, but got passed up by the spectacular trip out to Hemphill Bald via Cataloochee Divide.  Today I would give it a chance to regain its stature, but much of that depended on the floral display.
          There weren't many miles to be traveled today, but I still wanted an early start to beat the traffic and enjoy the afternoon back in town with my folks.  My ascent would begin along the Lead Cove Trail, a route that is all up and somewhat rocky from what I remember, but nothing too strenuous.  It's also the shortest way to the top, convenient for what I wanted to accomplish.  This stretch isn't even two miles so it passed quickly at my pace.  The highlight along the way was seeing the first of the crimson red bee balm and a relative flower I had never seen before...basil balm.  It's a smaller, white variation of the bee balm and I actually foudn more of it than the more common red.
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          I reached the junction with Bote Mountain in no time, at which point I began to see more wildflowers alond the wide path, formerly and old road.  Daisy fleabane, whorled loosestrife, purple asters, rosebay rhododendron, coreopsis, and lyre-leaved sage were in abundance.  I even spotted some flame azalea which was promising.  Shortly after the junction with Anthony Creek the trail ceases to be the old road becomes a narrower, dry, and very rocky route.  At this point the only wildflower really doing anything was the galax.  I was making such good time that I had already passed everybody that hit the trail before I did that morning...just like yesterday.  It's always nice to get to a cool place first and be able to enjoy it in solitude, which also helps for taking people-less pictures.  I knew I was nearing Spence Field because there a few switchbacks, but the major difference this time around compared to May was the filled-in canopy.  My arrival on the AT kind snuck up on me just because everything was so grown up.  The grasses in the field were taller and the numerous serviceberry trees were no longer white but green, also sporting their round red berries, a future feast for many critters I'm sure.
          As I made my way up through Spence Field, I spotted two turkeys grazing off to my right.  Typically when I come across the big bird the freak out and fly away in a fury, but these two were tranquil and patient, so I slowed it down as well.  Luckily they didn't mind my presence and I was able to get a shot of one.
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          Pushing on ahead, my skepticism unfortunately became reality.  The catawba rhododendron had already come and gone, the flame azalea were far and few between, and some mountain laurel was still lingering in places.  Certainly not what I had seen in pictures and hoped to witness this day, but that's just the way it goes sometimes.
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          Looking up towards Thunderhead with the early morning light in the background gave it a hazy and glary appearance with patches of light passing through the clouds.  I knew the clearer views would be the west at this time of day, so I wasted no time making my way up toward Rocky Top for such views.  The steep climb up Thunderhead was very different from the trek in May.  The canopy went from bare to full, the woods from bright to dark and green, and the forest floor from all the spring beauties and trout lilies to just tall grasses and brush.  I eventually reached the top and had the entire vista to myself.  The views were a bit hazy all around, but not as bad as yesterday.  The clouds also blocked Clingmans Dome and Mt. LeConte to the east.  At least the panoramc to the west across the AT and down into Cades Cove and Fontana was visible.
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          The climb to reach Rocky Top is a heck of a haul, no matter where you start, but when you get there, especially on a clear day, there isn't any place like it elsewhere in the park.  Sure I was disappointed that I missed the peak bloom, but just being there was enough to make up for it anyways.  I look forward to returning in the fall, in which I'll give it another chance at regaining the No. 2 spot.
 
The Gregory Bald page is complete with new pictures from this year's hike, while the journal entry will be coming soon!
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Variation of yellow
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One of many pink hybrids
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Bear feeding in tree at Parson Bald
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Galloping across Gregory Bald
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Bright blooms and hazy skies
 
          If I plan a hike on the day I am to return to the mountain, I either make sure it's short in length, or at least minimal in its elevation change.  The uppermost five mile stretch of the Thomas Divide Trail starting from Newfound Gap Road seemed like a good fit.  Along the way I would pass through the junctions with Kanati Fork and Newton Bald Trails of hikes prior, sort of like connecting the dots on a map.  It had its share of ups and downs, but nothing that would cause me to break a sweat.  Plus my research told me that the ridges were dotted with occasional stands of flame azalea that bloomed in early June.  What great timing for me.  Every so often there were azaleas in varying shades, from the reddest oranges to the whitest yellows.  Perhaps a little teaser for next week's display at Gregory Bald.
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          The trail follows the ridge crest so the constant breeze coming up from the valley was refreshing, plus it kept the flies away.  Many of the ridges, now with forest canopies, still have grassy floors, remnants of the old balds that used to exist here.  Now the divide is completely covered, and there were no views to be had with everything leafed out.  There were some neat surprises at several points in the hike.  I came across a lone pink lady's slipper as well as several grand clusters of wild columbine in full bloom.  The latter were even more impressive than what I had seen growing along roadsides or at White Oak Sink.
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          When I reached my turnaround at the junction with Newton Bald, I found a few yellow lousewort still blooming, but many of them had faded since my last visit.  The trek back to Newfound Gap Road was obviously repetitive, but pleasant.  As soon as I got back to my vehicle, shut the door, and started the engine, a torrential down pour of rain struck.  Talk about timing, and I didn't even pack my rain gear for that morning's hike.
          Thus concludes the hikes of early June.  We all know what's coming next.  Conversation among hikers is that the crazy spring weather has done a number on the blooming progression of wildflowers, with the rhododendron and flame azalea peaking early in places.  Guess we'll have to see what happens in a week.
 
 
          I've got to be honest, Low Gap Trail isn't on the list of favorites.  And since going anywhere out of Cosby involves a lot of up, it's still the one to take since it's the shortest.  This meant I would be taking this route for the third time in a month and a half.  Like my last ascent, I wanted to just get it behind me as soon as I could, so I tucked the camera away and focused on my cadence.  Along the way, there was still some mountain laurel in bloom, but many more woodland bluets.  When I rounded the corner about a mile below Low Gap, I had visions of running into the two yearling bears again.  Thankfully, no repeat encounter occurred and I passed without incident.
          Before I knew it, I had scaled Low Gap.  The forest was even greener and fuller than last time, but there was a welcomed surprise.  The workers from Trails Days the past weekend had done a great job of clearing the AT of debries and overgrown brush.  You could hear my shines give a big sigh of relief with the absence of crud like nettles.  Heading west on the AT, I was going in reverse of last week's hike.  Even at this elevation, far fewer plants were in bloom.  The amazing displays of false solomon's seal were gone, but a good number of catawba rhododendron were still blooming, especially the higher I got.
          After moving through Camel Gap, I was once again on new terrain.  This 2.3 mile section from Camel Gap to Inadu Knob was all I needed to have completed all the AT between Gregory Bald and Lower Mount Cammerer Trails.  Usually when you're hiking the AT through the Smokies, you're following the contours of the main crest; thus, higher than the rest of your surroundings.  This portion, though, is interesting in that several vistas along the way afford a hiker the chance to look up at a more dominant mountain ridge extending from the main crest.  From a vantage point of about 180 degrees, one can see the entire range from the park's second highest summit, Mt. Guyot, out across the long ridge of Balsam Mountain, then Big Cataloochee Mountain, finally ending at Mt. Sterling with the old firetower visible.  The clear skies and heath covered slopes ablaze in reds, whites, pinks from all the mountain laurel and rhododendron added to an already impressive sight.
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          Continuing westward, the AT ascends toward Inadu Knob, sometimes along a narrow ridgeline and even rockier trail conditions.  At one point I spooked a deer off the trail and out of sight, but the sound of its snorting could be heard through the trees.  It's a sound I've heard before when a deer is digusted with something.  They exhale air rapidly through their nostrils and the subsequent sound is like screeching car brakes.  I took it that my presence there was unwelcome, so I scooted along.  I eventually reached Inadu Knob and knocked out another section of the AT.  The last time I was here was five years prior on a backpacking trip with my father.  We had come from Newfound Gap and descended from this junction down Snake Den Ridge toward Cosby in two days time.  To complete today's loop hike, I too would descend Snake Den Ridge yet again.
          This time I would take a side a trip out to Maddron Bald, now a heath covered ridge, to soak in some views and see what was still blooming.  I found that the bald holds a striking similarity to Rainbow Falls' Rocky Spur.  Both are well forested at their edges, far enough away as not obscure the views.  Sand myrtle, galax, low growing rhododendron, and mountain laurel dominate the immediate vicinity of the overlooks.  And with both, one will see the arm of a ridge extending left and upward toward a much higher mountain crest whose slopes form a wall directly in front of you.  At the Rocky Spur, one sees the crest of Mt. LeConte on down to Balsam Point of the Bull Head Trail.  Here at Maddron Bald, your eyes follow the roller coaster of a ridge left from Inadu Knob, over Old Black, and right across the long Pinnacle Lead.
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          Choosing to press on, I returned to the Snake Den Ridge Trail and dreaded the descent.  As I remembered it was steep and rocky the entire way down to Cosby.  Well, in those five years since, nothing had changed.  About halfway down, though, I ran into several teams of trail maintenance crews for the park clearing out culverts in the trail to help divert water flows.  They had covered a lot of territory earlier that day, so the majority of my trek down had me taking long strides and leaps over the numerous ditches.  There was only one viewpoint the entire way, a place where the trees had been purposely cut to allow a glimpse of Mt. Cammerer to the west.  Looking closely, the windows and triangular top of the firetower were discernible.
          Before long, I had strolled into the Cosby campground, recently renovated and reopened entirely to public access.  After today's hike, I'm another step closer to completing this corner of the park, and now just ten miles away from finishing the Smokies' portion of the AT.
 
 
          June is my favorite month of the year in the Smokies.  It's warm, the mountains have fully awakened from their wintery slumber, and the floral displays put on by the flame azalea and rhododendron are at their peak.  Since I have all but wrapped up the Tennessee side of the park, the majority of my future hikes will lead me into North Carolina.  I haven't been east of Kephart Prong Shelter or south of the AT when it comes to that corner of the park.
          Today's hike would lead me to the very southeast corner out of the park near Cataloochee.  The drive out of Cherokee along the Blue Ridge Parkway was most pleasant.  The various overlooks offered exceptional views to the north and south, and the roadsides were occasionally lined with flame azalea and mountain laurel.  It was also neat to checkout other mountain towns along the state highways, since I'm so used to the scene around Gatlinburg.
          Based upon my research, I had high expectations for this hike, perhaps making my most anticipated of the year.  I would take the Cataloochee Divide trail from the gravel road at Cove Creek Gap all the way out to Hemphill Bald.  Right out of the gate, wildflowers were doing their thing.  Flame azalea, spiderwort, bowman's root, fire pink, and goat's beard abound.  What's so great about the divide trail is that it follows the ridgeline the majority of the time, so you're constantly feeling the breeze rising up from either Cataloochee to the north or Maggie Valley to the south.  This was much appreciated since it kept the bugs away and battled the heat.  Since the trail toes the park boundary the entire time, one walks beside an old fence the separates the trail from other trails and roads outside the park.
          A little over a mile in, I stumbled upon a hillside clearing that dropped a few hundred feet away from the park border.  An opening in the fence allowed me an entrance into a field of grasses, oxe-eye daisies, fire pink, yellow ragwort, woodland bluets, yarrow, mountain laurel, and flame azalea.  Looking directly across the clearing one saw Purchase Knob, and through the trees in another direction out to the Pisgah National Forest.  A small wooden shack with a bench sat atop the clearing with a sign that read "Taylor's Turnaround."  Not a bad place to stop and take a break.
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          Pressing onward, the trail had fewer wildflowers to treat the eye, just the same old wooden fence and overgrown roads.  When I came to a junction, there was a sign that provided directions along the divide trail, but made no mention of what is in the direction of the unmarked path leading south.  It was well trodden, so I followed it in all my curiosity.  As soon as I saw a sign that read Science Ed. Center, I realized I had arrived at Purchase Knob.  I came out of the woods to an amazing sight.  Situated in a gap covered only in tall grasses, there is a research facility that looks more like a cottage with a road that one needs special permission to drive.  The trail I took comes out right by a small building that monitors air quality and possesses a web cam that looks out over the gap and into the Pisgah National Forest of North Carolina.  Certainly a breath taking view, all the mountains in their shades of green and blue, the cotton like clouds breaking up the sun's rays that danced across the landscape.  If you're interested in checking out the current view from the web cam, go ahead and click on the picture below, linked to the park service page.
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          I made my way back to the divide trail and noticed more flame azalea, ranging in color from the reddest oranges to the whitest yellows.  After a short time past the Purchase Knob turnoff, one comes to yet another clearing atop Gooseberry Knob.  I really got a kick out of this one.  As I passed through another break in the fence and out of the woods, I walked out on to a well kept lawn that consisted of an entire mountain side offering grand vistas.  Heck, you could see the wheel lines from the lawn mowers.  The fun doesn't stop there!  Scattered across the bald were picnic tables, wooden lawn chairs, and a gazebo with a hammock!!!!!!!!  Who knew you could stumble across such fabulous amenities mid-hike?  I couldn't stop laughing in disbelief and smiling in amazement at the great views.  I usually don't take long relaxation breaks on my hikes, but I had to enjoy this one.
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          At this point, I knew I was getting close to reaching Hemphill Bald...mostly because I was looking right at it from the comfort of my lawn chair.  The summit was several hundred feet up, but the green pasture that was ranch property extended from top to bottom outside the park.  When I began to make the climb up the bald, it was an awesome sight to the breeze playing with the grasses, creating ripples and waves that blew up the mountain side.  There were few trees, but a large population of mountain laurel bushes stood at the bottom of the climb.  The trail itself was becoming rocky and muddy, likely due in part to the horse traffic.  When you reach the summit of Hemphill Bald, there is another gap in the fence, big enough only for people, to entire an area that has a lone tree shading a stone table.  The park side is completely forested, but the view out over the Cataloochee Ranch is unforgettable.  The mountain side is blanketed in grasses and yellow flowers.  There is a 180 degree view of endless ridges in their hues of blue and green within the Pisgah and Cherokee National Forests as well as the Smokies.  Even though you're in close proximity to civilization below, it doesn't really phase you because the views are so breathtaking.
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          It was tough to leave such a majestic place.  For being such a highly anticipated hike, it surpassed all my expectations.  It did so well as to climb to the No. 2 spot on my list of favorite hikes behind Gregory Bald, overtaking Spence Field / Rocky Top...for now.  That hike will get a chance to reclaim its spot next week when I hope to see the catawba rhododendron, flame azalea, and mountain laurel rocking out in an explosion of color.  What a great way to kick off the month of June!
 
          I was feeling the need to hike a lot of miles.  I also felt like in the two and half months of life on the mountain, I had been neglecting Bull Head.  So I figured a loop hike down Rainbow Falls and up Bull Head was in order.  Most of the upper elevations had been cloaked in clouds all day, but things got a bit sunnier as I descended.  The catawba rhododendron were blooming nicely in the vicinity of the Rocky Spur.  I breezed past Rainbow Falls because there was an infestation of people, plus the falls was more like a trickle on this day.  The trail conditions between the falls and the parking lot were dispicable to say the least.  Muddy, rocky, rooty, and there were eroded side paths everywhere.  I didn't remember it being so bad down here.  The worst places are along the switchbacks, where people have created their own short cuts, even hurting wildflowers in the process.  It was neat to see the improvements made at Cherokee Orchard.  The newly installed bathroom facility and paved road were a much needed facelift.  With no time to waste, it was up Bull Head I went.
          The first half of the trail was the best.  The forest was full of life.  Lush a nd green it was, while galax, violets, mountain laurel, and catawba rhododendron were out in force.  I even managed to spot a few flame azalea and two pink lady's slippers along the way.  The second half wasn't as exciting, but still pleasant nonetheless, offering great views into the valley.
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          I trucked it up the last leg of Bull Head, wishing to complete it in two hours time, plus I still needed to make it back in time to clean up before work.  Where the trail skirts the crest of LeConte, I noticed how much different things looked than they did the last time I was out here, when the spring beauties and trout lilies blanketed the ridges.  When I pulled into the lodge and rounded the corner of the food storage building, I was given quite the surprise.  I saw two figures sitting on my porch and wondered who they might be.  After a few choice words once I realized who they were, I was greeted by two good friends from home.  Kyle and Brandon Yarger, on their way out to Arizona, decided to take a slight detour from Michigan to pay me a visit on the mountain.  Our time together was brief since I had to start work, so I invited them back to the mountain as guests for a night later that week.  It gave them a chance to relax and experience something new in the Smokies, and allowed me to show them some of the great things about my new home.  The day they left, we were able to get in a hike together down to Brushy Mountain to soak in some views.  All in all, they succeeded in surprising me and it was surely great to see them.  I wish them both the very best in their journey ahead and welcome them back to the mountain anytime!
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