We made sure to get an early morning start to enjoy the beauty of White Oak Sink and Chestnut Top before we returned to the mountain for work.
Here were are standing in a small portion of the sea of blue phlox at White Oak Sink.
The Fire Pink was out in full force at Chestnut Top.
Admiring a few of the White Dogwoods at the Sugarlands Visitor Center before calling it a day.
The unusually wintery March and relatively dry month of April has kind of thrown the spring wildflower patterns out of whack. Some types of flowers have been slow to come to life while others have pulled through seemingly unaffected. Everywhere I've been this month, trillium, spring beauties, and anemones are prominent, while other notable wildflowers like white fringed phacelia and fire pink seem to be lagging relative to springs past. At least that's what my research tells me. So to be sure that I didn't miss anything on those renowned spring wildflower hikes, I had no problem visiting places like Chestnut Top and White Oak Sink three times each.
It has been a treat to see these areas progress this month from bare, open woodlands with few early bloomers, to greenery that covered the forest floor, and most recently colors stretching from ground level up to the tree canopy.
I got off to an early morning start in an attempt to beat the crowds and catch the slopes of Chestnut Top before the sun doused the slopes of the popular wildflower half mile. The white erect trillium and violets that greeted me at the trailhead during prior trips had now faded and been replaced by lots of foamflower, purple phacelia, meadow parsnip, and false solomon's seal. With the periods of rain the entire day before, the majority of the delicate flowers were rain soaked and drooping. The most affected were the crested dwarf iris, though they were still a treat to see.
More fire pink had bloomed since last week, but there still wasn't a lot to be seen. I was impressed at how large a number of the yellow trillium had grown. I had seen them when they first sprouted weeks prior and now several of them had leaf spans wider than my outstretched hand. Just as the morning light had come over the neighboring ridge, that was my cue to head on down. Good timing because several large groups with guides were leaving the parking lot. My guess is they had something to do with the wildflower pilgrimage. So, onward to the Sink.
Aware that this next part of my hike is quite popular this time of year, I was worried about the limited parking spaces at the Schoolhouse Gap trailhead. Sure enough, there were plenty of early risers eager to check out the wildflower mecca, but luckily I got the very last spot without having to block somebody in. The first mile of the trail saw the arrival of foamflower and catesby's trillium this week, but one constant throughout the month has been the presence of white, yellow, and purple violets. Wasting no time, I made my way straight to the area adorned with blue phlox. Everywhere, the forest floor was blanketed with the blue of phlox and green overarching leaves of may apples.
Although the flowers were weather beaten, the rain actually gave them a fresh shine in the morning light. Taking any number of side trails offered other treats. One offered the first of the shooting stars mixed in with hairy buttercups. Another to some wild columbine. But perhaps the biggest treat of the morning came when I took a side path that resulted in finding my first yellow lady's slipper of the season. And aware of the fact that such a wildflower is a sensitive and cherished one in these parts, I made sure to enjoy the moment. I understand that the poaching of lady's slippers occurs in the park, so I will not be the one to reveal its location, just its beauty.
Many more miles were in front of me, for my plans were to complete the triangle of trails that centered around Laurel Creek Road, beginning and ending at Schoolhouse Gap parking. I would add in the Crib Gap Trail out to Cades Cove just for good measure. The elevation change was meager, remaining within the confines of about 600 feet the entire way. Each of the trails made for pleasant hiking, with the only problem being the loads of horse crap. I swear, I was dodging the stuff every couple hundred feet. Eventually, I ran into the army of horses coming down the Crib Gap Trail. Along the same trail was where I found my first showy orchis of the year. It was a nice surprise, nestled safely under a rotting log and out of the horse path. Each of the trails the rest of the way - Turkeypen, Crib Gap, Finley Cane, and Bote Mountain - saw crested dward iris and catesby's trillium often and in good numbers. With the conclusion of the day's satisfying hike, it meant that over this month of April I had knocked out the trails between the Wye and Cades Cove. Now I was looking forward to heading elsewhere in the park...far to the east to be exact!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.