June is my favorite month of the year in the Smokies. It's warm, the mountains have fully awakened from their wintery slumber, and the floral displays put on by the flame azalea and rhododendron are at their peak. Since I have all but wrapped up the Tennessee side of the park, the majority of my future hikes will lead me into North Carolina. I haven't been east of Kephart Prong Shelter or south of the AT when it comes to that corner of the park.
Today's hike would lead me to the very southeast corner out of the park near Cataloochee. The drive out of Cherokee along the Blue Ridge Parkway was most pleasant. The various overlooks offered exceptional views to the north and south, and the roadsides were occasionally lined with flame azalea and mountain laurel. It was also neat to checkout other mountain towns along the state highways, since I'm so used to the scene around Gatlinburg.
Based upon my research, I had high expectations for this hike, perhaps making my most anticipated of the year. I would take the Cataloochee Divide trail from the gravel road at Cove Creek Gap all the way out to Hemphill Bald. Right out of the gate, wildflowers were doing their thing. Flame azalea, spiderwort, bowman's root, fire pink, and goat's beard abound. What's so great about the divide trail is that it follows the ridgeline the majority of the time, so you're constantly feeling the breeze rising up from either Cataloochee to the north or Maggie Valley to the south. This was much appreciated since it kept the bugs away and battled the heat. Since the trail toes the park boundary the entire time, one walks beside an old fence the separates the trail from other trails and roads outside the park.
A little over a mile in, I stumbled upon a hillside clearing that dropped a few hundred feet away from the park border. An opening in the fence allowed me an entrance into a field of grasses, oxe-eye daisies, fire pink, yellow ragwort, woodland bluets, yarrow, mountain laurel, and flame azalea. Looking directly across the clearing one saw Purchase Knob, and through the trees in another direction out to the Pisgah National Forest. A small wooden shack with a bench sat atop the clearing with a sign that read "Taylor's Turnaround." Not a bad place to stop and take a break.
Pressing onward, the trail had fewer wildflowers to treat the eye, just the same old wooden fence and overgrown roads. When I came to a junction, there was a sign that provided directions along the divide trail, but made no mention of what is in the direction of the unmarked path leading south. It was well trodden, so I followed it in all my curiosity. As soon as I saw a sign that read Science Ed. Center, I realized I had arrived at Purchase Knob. I came out of the woods to an amazing sight. Situated in a gap covered only in tall grasses, there is a research facility that looks more like a cottage with a road that one needs special permission to drive. The trail I took comes out right by a small building that monitors air quality and possesses a web cam that looks out over the gap and into the Pisgah National Forest of North Carolina. Certainly a breath taking view, all the mountains in their shades of green and blue, the cotton like clouds breaking up the sun's rays that danced across the landscape. If you're interested in checking out the current view from the web cam, go ahead and click on the picture below, linked to the park service page.
I made my way back to the divide trail and noticed more flame azalea, ranging in color from the reddest oranges to the whitest yellows. After a short time past the Purchase Knob turnoff, one comes to yet another clearing atop Gooseberry Knob. I really got a kick out of this one. As I passed through another break in the fence and out of the woods, I walked out on to a well kept lawn that consisted of an entire mountain side offering grand vistas. Heck, you could see the wheel lines from the lawn mowers. The fun doesn't stop there! Scattered across the bald were picnic tables, wooden lawn chairs, and a gazebo with a hammock!!!!!!!! Who knew you could stumble across such fabulous amenities mid-hike? I couldn't stop laughing in disbelief and smiling in amazement at the great views. I usually don't take long relaxation breaks on my hikes, but I had to enjoy this one.
At this point, I knew I was getting close to reaching Hemphill Bald...mostly because I was looking right at it from the comfort of my lawn chair. The summit was several hundred feet up, but the green pasture that was ranch property extended from top to bottom outside the park. When I began to make the climb up the bald, it was an awesome sight to the breeze playing with the grasses, creating ripples and waves that blew up the mountain side. There were few trees, but a large population of mountain laurel bushes stood at the bottom of the climb. The trail itself was becoming rocky and muddy, likely due in part to the horse traffic. When you reach the summit of Hemphill Bald, there is another gap in the fence, big enough only for people, to entire an area that has a lone tree shading a stone table. The park side is completely forested, but the view out over the Cataloochee Ranch is unforgettable. The mountain side is blanketed in grasses and yellow flowers. There is a 180 degree view of endless ridges in their hues of blue and green within the Pisgah and Cherokee National Forests as well as the Smokies. Even though you're in close proximity to civilization below, it doesn't really phase you because the views are so breathtaking.
It was tough to leave such a majestic place. For being such a highly anticipated hike, it surpassed all my expectations. It did so well as to climb to the No. 2 spot on my list of favorite hikes behind Gregory Bald, overtaking Spence Field / Rocky Top...for now. That hike will get a chance to reclaim its spot next week when I hope to see the catawba rhododendron, flame azalea, and mountain laurel rocking out in an explosion of color. What a great way to kick off the month of June!