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.
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.
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.
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.
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.