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Mt. Cammerer, Great Smoky Mountains, TN
If it blossoms in Great Smoky Mountains–and 1,660 kinds of plants do, more than in any other park in North America–then Tom Harrington knows where to find it. He's a volunteer interpreter who annually hikes more than 800 miles in the park to issue timely wildflower alerts for the park service. Want big and blingy? Hike to Gregory Bald in mid-June to catch an entire mountaintop of flame azaleas bursting in yellow, orange, peach, red, white, pink, and lavender. For frills and fragrance, climb the Alum Cave Trail in late June, when scarlet petals of sweet-smelling Catawba rhododendron rain from above. To sample the house special–unmatched floral diversity–with an unexpected dose of solitude, hike this Mt. Cammerer loop in the third week of April. "The wildflowers are exceptionally beautiful, and the amazing thing is I'll rarely see anyone out there," says Harrington.
The 16-mile loop starts on the Low Gap Trail, climbing out of the Cosby Campground to the Appalachian Trail. Orchid-like spring beauties cover the forest floor like snow, and pockets of yellow trout lilies dance in the breeze. But that's just a warm-up for the exhibition on Lower Cammerer Trail, where trilliums not seen elsewhere in the park blossom and dwarf-crested iris (pictured) paint the ground purple for three consecutive miles. (Note: The trails are uncrowded, but not the shelters; peak wildflowers on this route coincide with thru-hiker season, which means Cosby Knob Shelter on the AT will likely be full. Pack a tent, or reserve a site off of the ridge, down at Lower Walnut Bottom.) Return to the trailhead or extend the trip by hiking a figure-eight loop up Snake Den Ridge, over Maddron Bald, with a return on Gabes Mountain Trail, which is known for its outlandish, late-June rhododendron bloom.
Season Spring through fall
Map Earthwalk Press Great Smoky Mountains National Park ($10, boredfeet.com)
Contact (865) 436-1297, nps.gov/grsm.
And go to the website springwildflowerpilgrimage.org for info on the park's annual wildflower festival.