The unusually wintery March and relatively dry month of April has kind of thrown the spring wildflower patterns out of whack. Some types of flowers have been slow to come to life while others have pulled through seemingly unaffected. Everywhere I've been this month, trillium, spring beauties, and anemones are prominent, while other notable wildflowers like white fringed phacelia and fire pink seem to be lagging relative to springs past. At least that's what my research tells me. So to be sure that I didn't miss anything on those renowned spring wildflower hikes, I had no problem visiting places like Chestnut Top and White Oak Sink three times each.
It has been a treat to see these areas progress this month from bare, open woodlands with few early bloomers, to greenery that covered the forest floor, and most recently colors stretching from ground level up to the tree canopy.
I got off to an early morning start in an attempt to beat the crowds and catch the slopes of Chestnut Top before the sun doused the slopes of the popular wildflower half mile. The white erect trillium and violets that greeted me at the trailhead during prior trips had now faded and been replaced by lots of foamflower, purple phacelia, meadow parsnip, and false solomon's seal. With the periods of rain the entire day before, the majority of the delicate flowers were rain soaked and drooping. The most affected were the crested dwarf iris, though they were still a treat to see.
More fire pink had bloomed since last week, but there still wasn't a lot to be seen. I was impressed at how large a number of the yellow trillium had grown. I had seen them when they first sprouted weeks prior and now several of them had leaf spans wider than my outstretched hand. Just as the morning light had come over the neighboring ridge, that was my cue to head on down. Good timing because several large groups with guides were leaving the parking lot. My guess is they had something to do with the wildflower pilgrimage. So, onward to the Sink.
Aware that this next part of my hike is quite popular this time of year, I was worried about the limited parking spaces at the Schoolhouse Gap trailhead. Sure enough, there were plenty of early risers eager to check out the wildflower mecca, but luckily I got the very last spot without having to block somebody in. The first mile of the trail saw the arrival of foamflower and catesby's trillium this week, but one constant throughout the month has been the presence of white, yellow, and purple violets. Wasting no time, I made my way straight to the area adorned with blue phlox. Everywhere, the forest floor was blanketed with the blue of phlox and green overarching leaves of may apples.
Although the flowers were weather beaten, the rain actually gave them a fresh shine in the morning light. Taking any number of side trails offered other treats. One offered the first of the shooting stars mixed in with hairy buttercups. Another to some wild columbine. But perhaps the biggest treat of the morning came when I took a side path that resulted in finding my first yellow lady's slipper of the season. And aware of the fact that such a wildflower is a sensitive and cherished one in these parts, I made sure to enjoy the moment. I understand that the poaching of lady's slippers occurs in the park, so I will not be the one to reveal its location, just its beauty.
Many more miles were in front of me, for my plans were to complete the triangle of trails that centered around Laurel Creek Road, beginning and ending at Schoolhouse Gap parking. I would add in the Crib Gap Trail out to Cades Cove just for good measure. The elevation change was meager, remaining within the confines of about 600 feet the entire way. Each of the trails made for pleasant hiking, with the only problem being the loads of horse crap. I swear, I was dodging the stuff every couple hundred feet. Eventually, I ran into the army of horses coming down the Crib Gap Trail. Along the same trail was where I found my first showy orchis of the year. It was a nice surprise, nestled safely under a rotting log and out of the horse path. Each of the trails the rest of the way - Turkeypen, Crib Gap, Finley Cane, and Bote Mountain - saw crested dward iris and catesby's trillium often and in good numbers. With the conclusion of the day's satisfying hike, it meant that over this month of April I had knocked out the trails between the Wye and Cades Cove. Now I was looking forward to heading elsewhere in the park...far to the east to be exact!