This past weekend a good friend from college and I headed out to the Smokies to hike on some of the mountains known for their flame azaleas and rhododendrons. The second weekend of June this year seemed to be a bit early for the flame azaleas, but we lucked out and were able to see some bushes that were in full, glorious bloom.
The first hike we decided to tackle was Gregory Bald. During the time when Lisa and I were planning this trip, I saw lots of articles about how Gregory Bald is the best kept secret of the Smokies, how it’s the best place anywhere in the world to see flame azaleas, how it’s a must-see for adventurers who want views without the crowds…on and on. It was this description that clinched it for me though. The thing is, I completely agree with all those descriptions. Yes, the bald itself is incredible and I’ve never been in an environment like that before, part meadow, part blooming brushy hedge. However, the trail made me want to kill myself.
This is how the trail looked the entire way until we got to the top. Not terribly interesting forest with little air movement. Agh!
Maybe it was the fact that we’d had a little too much moonshine in Gatlinburg the night before, or maybe it was the lady problems we were both having, or maybe it was that we didn’t get the best night’s sleep in the dingy old hotel where we stayed, or maybe it was the giant biscuit we both ate for breakfast…all of these things combined in such a way that we felt really tired the morning we decided to do this hike. We got up pretty early and headed to the Cades Cove loop in an effort to beat the traffic only to discover that on Wednesdays and Saturdays Cades Cove doesn’t open to cars until 10 am. So we sat around and looked at the trail riding horses, waiting with hordes of people for the road to open. One hour later, after a visitor center stop and a bumpy dirt road, we were at the trailhead.
Once we had our gear strapped on, the ascent began. 5.5 miles up to the top with no downhill breaks whatsoever. We struggled 3,020 feet up the mountain through a sometimes-boring deciduous forest where at points there was zero air movement and sweat poured out of our gross, tired bodies. There were many stops along the way to catch our breath, grab a snack, drink some water, and then determinedly trudge on, ever thinking we were close because there wasn’t one damn sign or marker on that whole trail until you were .6 miles from the bald. Which, at least we knew we were .6 miles away, but hell, it seemed like we were surely closer than that.
When we finally did reach the bald I was at a loss for words. We started seeing bright dots of orange throughout the woods as we neared the bald, until we came out into a meadow covered in flame azaleas in every shade of orange, red, and bright pink. I’ve never seen anything like it. The trail led through an area of blueberry bushes, blackberry bushes, and azaleas so densely packed that you couldn’t see through them, then opened up into a grassy meadow where we could see farm fields and mountains for miles.
Lisa and I survived being music majors together in college, so this was a piece of cake in comparison to that. This year I’ve been so thankful for the adventurous women in my life who have literally climbed mountains with me…
At this point, the second weekend of June, the azaleas were just starting to bloom, so some of them were still budded and a few of them had already passed. If we’d been a week or two later, the explosion of color would have been dynamic. We sat and took in the scenery for a while before getting up to talk around the bald. A couple who’d been on the trail in front of us said there was a bear about 300 yards away in the bushes, so we immediately headed in that direction. There were several people on horseback who were yelling at the bear, and as we got closer a behemoth of a bear exited the azaleas, walked a short distance and went right back into the shrubbery. That was all we saw of him and I wasn’t able to get a picture, but he looked like the size of a small car and I took this picture in the gift shop to give some perspective on how utterly giant he was. We could see the bushes crashing around as he foraged for berries and eventually, he just wasn’t there anymore so we pet the horses and took some pictures with some really gorgeous shrubs.
As the day wore on, we decided to head back down the trail. We went back through the meadow and into the area where we first entered the bald. As we were neared the tree line of the woods we heard an enormous crash in the shrubbery directly next to us, like a semi was trying to make its way through the bushes. Lisa immediately grabbed the bear spray from my pack and we started yelling and banging our trekking poles together. The noise stopped and we stood there, hearts beating out of our chests, not knowing if the bear was going to keep coming or if it had decided to turn and retreat. We continued to listen and make noise and finally headed back down the trail…all 5.5 miles of downhill which eventually cost me my right pinky toenail due to boots that weren’t wide enough. I think I’ve finally made the transition to exclusively using trail runners since I can’t find a pair of boots that don’t kill my feet.
After an utterly exhausting day getting to Gregory Bald, we decided to head up to Andrews Bald, which is accessed at the Clingman’s Dome parking lot. The trail is 3.6 miles RT and leads out to another bald with sweeping views down to Fontana Lake. When we parked the car everything was shrouded in mist and looked like rain, but we made the decision to stay. As we headed down the trail the clouds began to clear and it turned into a glorious day. The forest on this trail is simply stunning, filled with Fraser firs and mossy logs. Even though it’s quite a bit more manicured than some of the other trails in the park, the separation from the crowds was immediate when we entered the woods. A really nice surprise on this bald was the blooming Catawba rhododendrons, which we hadn’t really seen any of on the other trails. There were also some flame azaleas up here and it was decided that we could have just skipped Gregory Bald and enjoyed this spot just as much if not more.
After the Bald we walked up to Clingman’s Dome to take in the views and were able to see where we were yesterday. It’s an incredible feeling to look across a mountain range to a peak you walked up the day before.
On the way down we saw a little bear crossing the road (right place, right time…bears move quickly!), which was the perfect conclusion to a trip spent in the woods, enjoying all the surprises we saw, dealing with the bugs, and taking in the beauty of wildflowers flung far and wide along grassy hills.
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