The month of May can be most memorable on the mountain when the mountain myrtle blooms. (How's that for alliteration, all you teachers out there?) Visiting places like Cliff Tops, Myrtle Point for which it is appropriately named, and the connecting trails like Rainbow Falls' Rocky Spur or Alum Cave's Inspiration Point at this time of year makes for quite a scene. Sure, there are great patches of the myrtle in bloom trailside, but you've got to be willing to climb a few rocks and get scratches from tree branches if you want to see the best displays.
On LeConte, there are so many areas to explore in one's free time, and since the sand myrtle prefers to grow on cliff sides and rocky mountain faces, it made sense to wander around those famous points right in my backyard. Bushwacking up the ridge of Cliff Tops may seem daunting, but is a relatively easy climb once you figure it out, and the rewards are commendable. The views from the handful of vistas along the way and the dense patches of myrtle that cling to the cliffs continue to get better as you make your way up. Another great bushwack is to take a path that leads down the face of Cliff Tops, taking one about a third of the way down to the Alum Cave Trail just below. When the cliff itself angles inward to the mountain, you know that means it's time to stop going down, or else bad news bears. There you get views of Cliff Tops from the middle, with rocks, sand myrtle, and rhododendron growing all around you, a change from the typical view one gets up top.
Obviously, Myrtle Point is the place to be. Not many of the bushes around the immediate vicinity of the point are in bloom, mostly do to the erosion of the soil that the bushes like, but a good number produce decent blooms. There are a number of ridges that extend down from the point and run down to meet The Boulevard on opposite sides of the mountain. If you're willing to push your way through the brush on those, you won't be disappointed. Taking the ridge that turns to the north has the best display of sand myrtle you'll see anywhere. The bushes are large and abundant with blooms forming a dense blanket of white, red, and pink. Add to the mix the fact that your on a narrow ridge with great panoramic views of the valley below and the slopes of LeConte. I also discovered this week that the same ridge makes for a great place to watch the sunset, another break from the traditional Cliff Tops.
On Monday, I woke up with a ton of energy and ambitious plans for a hike. I had the afternoon to myself and wanted to venture far. Even though the weather was a little sketchy at times, I wouldn't let it bother me, for I just wanted to be out and about. I had been to The Jumpoff before, but wanted to go further this time. Charlies Bunion would add more miles, but I was just there a week ago. Then I thought, aim farther east of the bunion, an area I've only ever seen in the clouds and rain. It was ambitious, but it was just the drive I was looking for that day. All the way across The Boulevard, I was moving in and out of clouds, sunshine, and mists. I was up and over Mount Kephart before I knew it and made it to the bunion in just over an hour and a half. Before I even left for the day's hike, I determined that wherever I was after two hours of hiking, I would stop and turn around to make it back to the lodge in time. So at this point, I pushed eastward along the AT. When I got to the clearing just before Dry Sluice Gap, I had a clear view of the valley to the south that is the Kephart Prong watershed. Past the gap I began to make my way up and over the start of The Sawteeth. Appropriately named because the ridges at this point are jagged like a saw blade and extremely narrow in places, like two or three yards wide with drop offs. The trail was often lined with thick patches of yellow bead lily in full bloom. The views are outstanding on a clear day...something I had never experienced here....until now!!! One can look back along the Smokies main crest and see the steep, scarred slopes of Charlies Bunion and another point which almost looks like a miniature Half-Dome. I remembered seeing the side trail that led the point's summit, so at an hour and fifty minutes in, I decided to turn back early and make my way up to the unheralded vista. As I ascended the rocky trail, it started to sprinkle, but luckily the clouds remained high enough for me to take in the views. The panorama is nearly identical to that of Charlies Bunion...rocky ledges with vertical dropoffs, overlooking the valley into Porters Creek and the spine of the Smokies to the east. A few differences are that you are higher up and instead of sand myrtle there was Catawba Rhododendron in bloom. Another sign that summer is just around the corner. This time I couldn't afford to linger, but I look forward to returning to this great lookout in the near future.