In order to beat some impending storms, I elected to complete the short stretch of Rich Mountain from the park boundary to the mountain summit.
A black swallowtail enjoys one of the first Flame Azalea bushes to bloom this year.
The time for the Mountain Laurel has come with summer right around the corner.
          With this week's potential for rain and storms, I needed to figure out which trail I wanted to do while the weather was still nice.  From my recent treks to the Cades Cove area, I knew that the mountain laurel and flame azalea were kicking into gear.  I also know that their blooms can easily get weather beaten, so seeing them on a clear day is preferrable.  That said, it was off to the cove to hit up Rich Mountain.
          With the loop road finally open, vehicles going in and out of the cove is more like normal.  Fortunately, I haven't had to get tangled up in the stop-and-go traffic by starting my hikes around the cove.  Today would be no different, with hopes of completing the popular Rich Mountain Loop that goes up, across, and down the mountain.  The first time I did this hike was in late October of last year, so I was curious to see all the differences between seasons.  There were many.
          Early on, the petals from tulip tree blossoms blanketed the forest floor instead of crunchy leaves.  I found myself looking down for wildflowers instead of up toward a colorful canopy.  The air was hot and humid instead of mild and comfortable.  Instead of hundreds of butterflies, moths, and grasshoppers, there were only a handful.  If there was one similarity it was that the Rich Mountain Loop Trail coming down was as rocky as I remembered.
          Despite the rain from the day before, there wasn't a lot of water pouring over the Crooked Arm Cascade.  Continuing up Crooked Arm Ridge, the trail was often lined with princess trees, yellow ragworts, white milkweed, and galax.  All the way across the mountain the buttercup blooms of mountain laurel trees were in peak bloom.  At one point I was admiring the numerous bloom clusters that adorned a large tree at a switchback in the trail when I made the turn and nearly stepped on a small critter.  To my dismay, it was something I had never seen before and almost missed as it was camouflaged with the rock and dirt of the trail.  It was a northern fence lizard, intent on remaining motionless as if I hadn't seen it.  So I took my pictures and wished him well before moving on.
           When I reached the junction with the Scott Mountain Trail, I was quick to take note of the differences in my surroundings since my last visit here a month prior.  The trees were full, the underbrush tall, the forest green and dark.  Last time everything was bare and bright without a canopy to block the sun's rays.  Now making my way across the mountain along the Indian Grave Gap Trail, mountain laurel was the constant, but with a new element thrown into the mix...flame azalea.  In several places there were blooms and buds in various shades of orange.  There were a few bushes with weather beaten blooms that were redder than the others as well.
          A surprise came when I stumbled across a pair of pink lady's slippers close to the summit.  Of course it made sense to see them since the Ace Gap Trail from last week's hikes is located just downhill of Rich Mountain, but today's total was far less impressive.  As I passed by the places where the trail dances along the park boundary, I managed to have views north toward Townsend, though this time the land was in spring green and blue rather than the yellows, reds, oranges, and browns of autumn.  I made a quick stop by the site of the old firetower that used to sit upon Cerulean Knob.  Now only the large cement blocks of the foundation remain.  Imagine the views one could be afforded if it was still there.  I had reached my high point for the day, but I still had some ascending to do.
          The stretch of Indian Grave Gap Trail between the Rich Mountain Loop and the Rich Mountain Road, a little more than a mile, was something I hadn't hiked yet, so it was necessary to check it off the list.  It meant descending to the gravel one-way road, but then hiking back up to the loop trail.  When I reached the actual Indian Grave Gap, the trail conditions changed dramatically.  At the gap, there were the fruits of wild strawberry's, some still blooming sweet shrub, and daisies.  After the gap, I almost didn't recognize where I was.  The forest canopy disappeared with dead trees sticking out everywhere.  The trail was wide, dry, and sandy.  Grasses and brush were competing for space at ground level.  The good that came from it were the nice views down into the cove and south to the Smokies crest.  In time, I reached the road, guzzled some water, and headed back up.  When I returned to the area of unusual terrain, the air became instantly hot, humid, and heavy.  Wiping the sweat from my forehead became a pointless endeavor.  The look of the scorched and butchered forest combined with the climate made me feel like I was on an African safari during the dry season.  Getting back into the shade of the woods was welcome relief after that stretch.
          As soon as I reached the Rich Mountain Loop, it was all down the rest of the way.  Again, I found myself scanning over my surroundings, now all green, but imagining them in the collage of fall colors.  At one point I made a sharp turn to cross a small creek, coming face to face with a deer.  The doe was completely unphased by my presence, even after my abrupt arrival.  It continued to stand in the trail and search for food even as I stepped closer.  She refused to move, shooting me the occasional glance in between bites.  I could have jumped on her back if I was crazy enough, but I elected not to startle her and gave a simple wave for her to move to the side.  She gladly obliged, strutting off a couple yards to watch me pass.
          When I came out at the John Oliver Cabin, I assumed there would be masses of people everywhere, especially since it was a weekend and tourist activity in the park is on the rise.  A park volunteer appeared to be leading some sort of presentation on one of the porches for a crowd of people, while other visitors made their way in and around the cabin.  Amazingly, I was able to get in the arbitrary picture of the cabin during a brief a moment where no person could be seen.  Score!
          Since I was in the open, I looked up and saw that the clouds were moving in fast and that rain was beginning to hit the mountains in the distance.  There was no time to linger, so speedily I went on to finish out the loop.  Before leaving the cove for the day, I had to stop by the campground store for some ice cream, nice after such a hot day.  The drive back to Gatlinburg was mostly uneventful, only one car jam for a bear.  Shortly after arriving at the motel, the heavy rains came in full force.  Looks like I timed everything just right this day.