Springtime is a very unpredictable season for us in East Tennessee. Warm, sunny days can quickly shift back to winter as severe storms swoop through, followed by snow and freezing temps. Soft breezes which make ideal kite-flying weather can whip up into devastating tornadoes within minutes. Budding leaves begin to take away some of the dull winter grays, but with them comes allergy season for many. Despite the erratic weather, this is one of the most beautiful times of the year to get out and enjoy the outdoors thanks to the plethora of wildflowers which cover the forest floor and sweep across open fields.
Here in Appalachia, we have several full months to enjoy the blossoms. They begin in the sheltered valleys and along moist streams in March. The delicate flowers of bloodroot, spring beauty, and trailing arbutus are the first to poke through the leaf litter, sometimes as early as February. The real party starts in mid-April and continues into the first part of May. During this time the lower and mid elevations are home to trilliums, bleeding hearts, orchids, Solomon’s seal, foam flower, phlox, and dozens of other species. May brings lady’s slippers, cardinal flower, butterfly weed, flame azalea, and mountain laurel. If you missed the April blooms, all you need to do is go to the higher elevations. June wraps up the spring blooms with rhododendron and the flame azalea blooms on the higher peaks and balds.
April is by far the best month for wildflower hikes, and we’ve chosen several of our favorite hiking locations where a variety of species are guaranteed. Just a half hour from Johnson City lies Roan Mountain State Park. Twelve miles of hiking trails crisscross through the forests and campgrounds, providing ample opportunity to find different species. The two-mile Moonshiner’s Run Trail follows the frolicking Doe River. Wildflowers love the moist environment near the water and can be found in great abundance here. Forest Road Trail is the longest in the park at just under three miles. While not as easy as the previous trail, the extra work to complete the trail is well rewarded with carpets of blooms which blanket the forest floor.
Frozen Head State Park and Natural Area is one of our largest state parks, with over 20,000 protecting one of the most pristine areas of the Cumberland Mountains. Probably our favorite state park, the slopes erupt in a riot of blooms each year which bring hundreds of visitors to the park’s more than fifty miles of backcountry trails. This preserve really is an underappreciated gem of our park system, offering camping, hiking, waterfalls, scenic views, amazing fall foliage, fishing, and biking in an environment that rivals the Smokies with almost none of the crowds.
Almost any trail you choose in the park during the next month is sure to provide amazing blooms. Sheltered stream valleys and north-facing slopes tend to hold the most moisture, and therefore are the best places to look. Panther Branch Trail begins near the park’s main campground and follows its namesake stream. As an added bonus, the trail passes two waterfalls and a short spur trail grants access to a third. Springtime has these flowing at full capacity, so make the time to stop by Debord Falls for sure. The North Old Mac Trail climbs the ridge high above Panther Branch; its four miles make a leisurely climb up the main ridge of the park. Trillium, trout lily, and wild columbine are just a few of the species you’re sure to find here.
If you’re not sure where to hike in the park and would like an introduction to the area, the park is holding several wildflower hikes in the park this coming weekend on the 15th and 16th. These are led by park rangers and naturalists who are very knowledgeable and can provide info on the history and importance of each species. Another hike is scheduled for May 20th when the mountain laurel is at its peak. All these hikes are free and open to the public! Visit www.tnstateparks.com/parks/about/frozenhead to find more information.
Of course, the best place in the state to find wildflowers is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This year is special, compared to most, as the park is still recovering from the massive wildfires which swept through the area last fall. Several hiking trails, such as Chimney Tops, Road Prong, and Sugarland Mountain, still remain closed. It’s best to check the park’s official website at www.nps.gov/grsm before visiting to see which trails are affected. It will be interesting to see how nature reclaims its hold on the charred landscape over the next few months.
The majority of the park saw no damage, so favorite wildflower trails such as Chestnut Top, Schoolhouse Gap, Little River, and Porters Creek all remain and are as lush and green as ever. If you want to avoid some of the crowds there are several overlooked trails which have just as many blooms. Roundtop and Little Greenbrier trails in Tremont, Old Sugarlands Trail just outside Gatlinburg, and Kanati Fork Trail in North Carolina all stand out as amazing wildflower trails. Wherever you decide to go, be sure to remember the number one rule of the outdoors: Take only photos and leave only footprints.
Photo: Springtime hikes will show the East Tennessee trails popping with colorful flowers during April and May.