All the anticipation of hiking in the month of May couldn't come without a little adversity. On my way down the mountain for a few days off, I managed to lose my footing on some very wet and muddy rocks, crashing hard and hobbling away with several scrapes. When I arrived at the motel, I did all I could to clean the wounds and begin the healing process. My biggest fear was infection, and that my right knee might require stitches. Thankfully nothing was bruised or broken, but I was worried what the morning might bring. Obviously personal health is priority number one, but I had one of my most favorite hikes planned for the next day. I had no choice but to sleep on it.
When I awoke the next morning, I was amazed that nothing felt sore and that I had complete mobility. So I bandaged everything up and headed out as soon as I could, ecstatic for the day ahead. The skies were crystal clear and the temps warm. I thought the traffic for the drive out to Cades Cove would be heavy, especially with its recent reopening, but thankfully it was light. I would be heading up by way of Anthony Creek, for the last time I traveled to Spence Field via Lead Cove.
Early on there were a lot of crested dwarf iris, foamflower, false solomon's seal, showy orchis, catesby's trillium, thyme leaved bluets, and yellow lousewort. The trail has numerous stream crossings, but this hiker greatly appreciated all the footbridges. A ways past Campsite #9, I stumbled upon a couple of deer staked out in the middle of the trail. Oddly enough, they wouldn't budge from their position, even as I proceeded to move closer and closer. I tried talking, then shouting, then quick movements and they just tilted their heads, stared, and probably laughed. Finally with the clanging of my trekking poles, they politely decided to move a few feet off trail and let me pass. One of them I could have reached out and touched if I wanted to, but figured it was best to just move on by. I kind of wondered if they had ever seen a person before since they were so tame.
Bluets continued to dot the trail side up to and past the junction with the Bote Mountain Trail. The trail conditions became rockier and the ascent a little steeper. As I approached Spence Field and the AT, grasses, spring beauties, and violets were filling in the forest floor while trees became shorter and spread apart. My reason for choosing this hike at this time of year was to see the heralded display of serviceberry trees and their white blossoms that graced the bald and slopes of Thunderhead Mountain. I caught them right on in full bloom. They really stood out against the blue backdrop of the clear sky and the open meadowlike conditions of Spence Field. I took my time waltzing through the bald on my way to the base of Thunderhead soaking in my surroundings.
Trees at this elevation are either leafless or just beginning to bud, so the colors of the serviceberry trees and a few others added some character to the otherwise colorless slopes of Jenkins Ridge and Thunderhead. The entire hike up to this point, my knee had been fine, but I was curious as to how it would hold up on the ascent to Rocky Top, which is about 500 feet in 1/3 of a mile. If you constantly stop to soak in the views like I do, you'll never get tired. Skies were deep blue, the valleys were coated in fresh greenery, and the higher elevations were still dormant, offering a unique contrast. The panoramas from Rocky Top were impressive as always. To the east, Mount LeConte and Clingmans Dome could easily be defined without the presence of haze. To the south stood Blockhouse Mountain awaiting the arrival of spring. To the northwest, one could easily pick out the loop road around the lush fields of Cades Cove. And to the west, you could follow the AT up from Fontana Dam to Shuckstack, to the junction with Gregory Bald, and across the ridges to Spence Field. Just a few reasons why this is one my favorite places to be.
The fun didn't stop here, for I had more miles ahead of me that day. Descending Thunderhead went much faster than the trek up, for obvious reasons. It also gave me a chance to take in the sights at Spence Field one more time. Instead of turning back down Bote Mountain, I would remain on the AT and head out to Russell Field. The entire three mile section saw the trail lined with thyme leaved bluets, with several sections offering dense clusters of tiny blue flowers.
I have always enjoyed ridge walking along the AT, and on a warm day like this, one's fortunate to catch a cool breeze that shoots up the from the valleys. Being so high up, the canopy was very open affording views of the park in all directions. Before arriving at the junction with Russell Field, I came upon two sections where the trail was lined with impressive displays of white fringed phacelia. The better came at McCampbell Gap where the thick, snowy looking blanket adorned the entire ridge and for a good distance. It made up for not seeing it at Porters Creek in April and catching it early at Low Gap.
When I arrived at the Russell Field Shelter, I was surprised it hadn't been renovated yet. With its chain link fence still intact, a passing day hiker referred to it as a "nice bear cage." That's probably why it still looks the way it does. Now it was time for some serious downhill. Not far down from the shelter, one can take a spur trail out to the remnants of Russell Field. All that remains is a small clearing, relative in size to that of a little league baseball field. The encroaching tree line has obstructed any views.
Now that the remainder of the day's hike would be going down, I had to alter my hiking style as not to irritate or worsen my banged up knee. Step logs were the worst, in which I'm so used to bending and pushing with my right leg, so having to adjust with my left leg was quite different. I made it down, though, without a fuss. After completing the loop with the Anthony Creek Trail, I made a quick stop at the campground store for some ice cream. It hit the spot and capped off a fantastic outing. I can't wait to revisit this hike in June to see Spence Field with all the mountain laurel, catawba rhododendron, and flame azalea in bloom.