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.
 
          What better feeling than to leave the clutches of winter in Michigan for the 60+ degree spring teasers of Tennessee.  My first day of many to come here in the Smokies was greeted by sunny skies and friendly new acquaintances.  Soon I will begin work at LeConte Lodge, so I arrived a few days early to get acclimated and psych myself up for being here.  I hadn't hiked since the end of October, so it was time to shake off the dust and get the legs churning again over roots and rocks.  (Oh...and to see if I remembered how to use my camera.)  After arriving at the motel and a quick bite to eat, I was curious to see what work had begun in Cherokee Orchard.  Large trucks were cycling up and down the roadway and tourists couldn't drive past the Ogle Place.  I took some of the typical shots of the old buildings and decided to take a stroll on the Junglebrook loop trail.  I thought I might see a wildflower peaking out of the forest floor, but none were to be seen this day.  I ran into three tame deer searching for food and that was about it for the action.  If you make it to the upper reaches of the trail that parallel the road, you'll see that all of the pavement has been torn up.  It'll be nice to return here in April when the Dogwoods have opened up with their numerous white blooms.
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Road construction along Cherokee Orchard
          With the threat of rain in the forecast, I wanted to get up to Newfound Gap to see the snow and ice I'd been hearing about for weeks, and maybe take in some views in case the ridges get clouded over.  Along the upper reaches of the highway, several impressive columns of ice had formed.  Places where the ice turns blue are particularly attractive.  Makes me wonder what I'll run into at spots like Alum Cave Bluffs, renowned for its car sized ice chunks that rocket downward toward unsuspecting hikers, should cool temps keep the ice hanging around.
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Looks like a Church Organ made of Ice
          Good to be back in the mountains.  Put more miles on in the wheels than the boots today, but ya gotta start somewhere.  If you would like to see the rest of the day's photos from the Ogle Place and Newfound Gap Road, just click on the two links.  Until next time!
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