Back in June, I spent about ten days down in the Smoky Mountains. My old friend RD, whom longtime readers of this blog will recognize from many posts but especially the summer of 2014 saga in the Hundred Miles Wilderness, was along again, even joining me for the drive south from Washington, DC. I enjoyed introducing my friend to the Bible Belt.
|Someone has seen a bear. I have never seen RD get as angry as he did on these occasions.|
Unfortunately, our initial plan to do a substantial backpack in the southeast part of Great Smokies National Park was stymied by bear activity. Rumor had it that one had mauled someone sleeping in a hammock tent. Whatever the truth, many of the campsites we had planned to use were closed. Ultimately, we decided to do a series of day hikes, with one overnight on top of Gregory Bald. So we did see a great deal of the park, but we never got too far from the road, which was unfortunate because we shared it with a great many Southerners who were very, very excited about seeing bears from their cars.
|Morning tea on Gregory Bald.|
Several memories in particular stick with me I fumble toward another winter solstice – the bright red azalea blooms on top of Gregory Bald (they're actually called Flame Azaleas), roaring streams roofed by enormous rhododendron in full flower, and a sense of the deep human history and isolation that still characterizes a few pockets of these southern Appalachians. RD and I also spent a two very enjoyable nights in Asheville, ending, as all good trips should, with a deep and broad exploration of local beers.
|Great trail name.|
|Rhododendron, but from the National Park, not Roan Mountain.|
By far the most spectacular day, both in terms of weather and terrain, was on Roan Mountain. This long ridge, which Wikipedia optimistically describes as a massif, initially caught my attention because a nearby state park hosts a Rhododendron festival in late June, precisely when we hoped to visit. In fact, our arrival coincided with its first day. We enjoyed looking at souped-up birdhouses and snacking on onion rings, but there was no trace of the flower the occasion was designed to honor. Instead, we drove to see it up on the mountain ridge itself, where an extensive alpine “garden” is accessed via parking lots and concrete wheelchair-accessible paths. The dark pink blossoms of the flowers were lovely, however, and with their twisted, gnarled branches and the heavy fog all around us they seemed exotic indeed.
|One of the Roan Mountain locals.|
Roan Mountain also has the longest stretch of “grassy bald” terrain on the Appalachian Trail, running for about four unbroken miles. I hadn’t hiked on this kind of terrain before and so will provide a brief explanation. Various southern peaks are trees near their summits, but it is inaccurate to refer to them as being “above treeline” because climatic forces did not create the grassy balds. In fact, it’s not quite clear why they exist. Weather may play a role, but fire, grazing, and human agency are also likely factors. One source I read speculated that wooly mammoths used to congregate near these peaks, munching on their rich pasture.
|This fence keeps cattle off of the balds.|
In any case, unlike the northern peaks on the AT, balds have good topsoil, making the hiking easy and pleasant. The views are wonderful, and lovely grasses and shrubs line the path. I didn’t have a guide to the flora and fauna, but it would be a marvelous place to botanize.
Our day actually began at the Mountain Harbor Hostel, a welcoming spot where, for a modest fee, we could pitch our tent and have access to the bathrooms in the morning. Catering mostly to hikers, including a great many folks who are on the AT for long haul, the place is surprisingly well-known for its breakfast, which was indeed enormous and excellent quality. No oatmeal for us that morning. We also caught a shuttle ride to our trailhead, up at Carver’s Pass, near the rhododendron garden we had visited the previous day. Encounters with paved roads are depressingly frequent in the southern Appalachians, at least along the AT, but they can be convenient.
|Might as well be Scotland.|
The trail began quite near the top of one of the balds, from which we proceeded southwest over Round Bald, Jane Bald, and Grassy Ridge Bald, gradually worked out way back to the hostel. People along the trail were friendly. We spoke to a mountain steward about some of the local plants, a dad and his daughter out for a hike with his new girlfriend, and a former thru-hiker who vividly remembered New Hampshire granite. We also came across a group of SCA volunteers mowing blackberry bushes. If succession gets too far, trees will replace these bushes and the balds will be lost. I’m glad the local environmental group does not possess a Manichean view of conservation. In fact, the bucolic nature of landscape was one its great charms, though development, in the form of ridgeline trophy houses, is having a distressing impact on the views.
|...with a long ways to go.|
We covered the 15 or so miles a lot faster than I expected, especially for the first day of the trip (subsequent ascents were considerably more challenging for yours truly). We picked up the car early enough so that we could explore some back roads on the drive to Asheville, coming across an old tourist village called Little Switzerland.
|Not a bad day.|