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Backpacker Magazine – May 2013

First Night Out: Flora

Three hikes with scenic wildflower vistas

by: Sarah L. Stewart and Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan

Crater Lake Trail (Glenn Randall)
Crater Lake Trail (Glenn Randall)
Flame Azalea (Pat & Chuck Blackley)
Flame Azalea (Pat & Chuck Blackley)
Rhododendron (Pat & Chuck Blackley)
Photo by BP0513FNO_Blackley_RoanMtountain_445x260.jpg
Rhododendron (Pat & Chuck Blackley)
Lupine and Redwoods (Ed Callaert)
Lupine and Redwoods (Ed Callaert)

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN/NC
Gregory Bald Trail

In late June, the finest seat in the Smokies just might be this grassy, 4,949-foot Appalachian bald. That’s when the patch’s hundreds of flame azaleas—which vary from small shrubs to bushes taller than a hiker—erupt into a rainbow of hues, ranging from oranges to creamy whites and yellows, riotous reds, and docile shades of pink (thank natural hybridization for the color-wheel results). For fit hikers, the effect—framed against a backdrop of 360-degree views over the park from Cades Cove to Tennessee state highpoint Clingmans Dome—is well worth the 4.4-mile, 2,300-foot climb from Parson Branch Road. Ascend steadily through sections of old-growth hardwood and hemlock forest, scanning for black bears and white-tailed deer as you hike, to campsite number 13 at mile 4.1; here, you’re only .3 mile from the bald. Can’t make it in June? Hold off until late summer to savor the bald’s second-most famous flora, wild blueberries ripe for the gathering.

Go June for peak azalea bloom; August for blueberries and better chance of bear sightings Get there From Cades Cove, take the Loop Rd. 6 miles to one-way Parson Branch Rd. Drive 5.5 miles to the trailhead. Permit & Reservations Required; $4/person/night Map Trails Illustrated Great Smoky Mountains ($12, natgeomaps .com) Contact nps.gov/grsm




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