With everything blooming on the early side this year, we decided to hit up Andrews Bald on a morning before returning to work.  It turned out to be a good choice since the rhododendron were already on their way out.
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When we arrived at Clingmans Dome we found ourselves above the clouds.
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Despite the dry conditions of the past two weeks, the Catawba Rhododendron that were protected by the woods were in peak bloom.
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The atmospheric conditions were stellar to say the least.
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One of the golden Flame Azaleas found near the bottom edge of the bald.
 
          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!