A piece of the Appalachian Trail shows off its flora, breathes its frost, and plays parts of every season
GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK — In a mere day and a half of two weeks of hiking, we ambled through Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.’’ The initial two miles of a 12-mile day in this park along the Appalachian Trail comprised the first movement. It involved an ascent of 5,500-foot Thunderhead Mountain. The summit was enveloped in an impenetrable fog. The obliteration was a blessing because at my toes was the most dense cluster of painted trillium I have ever seen. Glowing in the grayness, this white flower with maroon veins was an exclamation of mountain spring.
The fog burned off as my wife, Michelle Holmes, and I moved on along the ridge for many more miles at about 5,000 feet. In a windless haze, we began sweating in summery heat. But at this altitude, tens of thousands of still-leafless trees were budding red and orange, giving the ridges a soft patina of autumn.
In the late afternoon, the most dramatic movements in this masterwork of a park began. As if commanded by timpani and cymbals, black clouds blasted up out of the valleys. A horizontal lightning bolt flashed on the ridge a quarter-mile ahead of us. Rain pelted us the final two miles to our next shelter. Moments after we hunkered down safe inside, the heavens opened in an even more relentless torrent.
The temperature, once somewhere between 75 and 80, plummeted. At 2 in the morning, nature forced me from the warm cocoon of my sleeping bag and into the outdoors. Living out Vivaldi’s most violent visions of weather, my tired limbs were pelted by snow, hail, and sleet, all whipped by winds that were growing colder still.
Dawn brought an unusual brightness. We poked our heads out to discover a forest encased in ice.
After working up the courage to venture into the 25-de gree morning, we began a 4-mile ascent up to the highest peak along the entire 2,175 miles of the trail, 6,643-foot Clingmans Dome. We gawked upward at tree canopies transformed into blinding chandeliers and outward to frosted windward sides of nearby mountains. The summit of Clingmans was Christmas in May with all the pines coated in white crystal.
Cold as it was, it was a glistening reminder why Vivaldi’s sonnet has endured for nearly three centuries: Winter in the middle of spring, even as our teeth chattered, still brings joy.
We were here because Michelle is on a midlife project of section-hiking the Appalachian Trail. She started from Springer Mountain in Georgia in March 2007 and made it 163 miles to Fontana Dam on the southern border of the Smokies. She was halted by a howling mid-April snowstorm that buried the trails and blew 200 trees down onto the main auto road.
So we returned. We chose the first two weeks of May to hike nearly 100 miles of the trail’s North Carolina section in hopes of being amongst some of the most legendary patches and meadows of wildflowers in the nation.
This included a 72-mile traverse of the Smokies, which are among the most biodiverse 800 temperate square miles known on earth. They contain more than 1,600 kinds of flowering plants, more than in any other US national park. They flower from spring to fall in procession from trilliums and trout lilies to lady slippers, columbine, and rhododendron to Turk’s cap lilies and sunflowers.
A big reason for the abundance is that the region was untouched by the glaciers of the last Ice Age and received many northern plants that were pushed southward. What remains today is a natural garden so concentrated and complex that Great Smoky Mountains National Park has five forest ecosystems, with five times more tree species than, for example, Yellowstone. With an elevation range of 875 feet to 6,643 feet, and with rainfall as much as 85 inches a year at the summits, the park is a vertical replication of Appalachian plant life from Georgia to Maine.
A signature shrub of the park and the southern Appalachians is the flame azalea. In his 1913 book “Our Southern Highlanders,’’ Smokies outdoorsman Horace Kephart recalled how the early American botanist William Bartram said the orange, red, pink, peach, and white flowers so dramatically contrast against the shade that “we are alarmed with the apprehension of the hill being set on fire.’’
The azaleas are no less impressive today. From April in the lowlands to early July in the highlands, they explode in such a spectacular display that park volunteer Tom Harrington, 71, who has hiked these mountains for nearly three decades, says, they “come together in the size of a pickup truck.’’
Michelle and I met many other backpackers who were here to see flowers. Roxana Atwood, 74, a retired Presbyterian minister from Arlington, Va., has completed 1,700 miles of the trail.
“What really strikes me,’’ Atwood said, “is the contrast between the fragility of the flowers and the permanence of the mountains. When you see those two together at the same moment, you realize the magnificence of the world.’’
We shared the same shelter for a couple of nights along the trail with Mary Touchton, 58, a nurse from Knoxville, Tenn. She trekked the entire Appalachian Trail in 1976 (making her what’s known as a thru-hiker).
“It’s just a joy to be back out here,’’ Touchton said. “The lushness of this area and the blankets and blankets of flowers are so calming and humbling. The raw beauty of this place hasn’t changed.’’
The beauty is not lost on today’s thru-hikers, no matter how young. “Every single person I have met told me that when I get to the Smokies to stop and smell the roses,’’ said Tom Clarke-Hazlett, 19, a junior at Tulane University. “I’ve taken pictures of 15 different kinds of flowers and I don’t know what a lot of them are, but they’re amazing.’’
The profusion of flowers is also due to the three decades of anti-logging preservation efforts beginning at the turn of the 20th century that ultimately led to the park’s founding in 1934. Kephart called the mountains an “Eden still unpeopled and unspoiled.’’
The future success of the park seemed assured when John D. Rockefeller Jr. matched local fund-raising efforts with a $5 million donation in 1928. But then came the Great Depression, continued resistance from logging interests, and flower poaching that reached the point where the National Park Service was being warned about people “hauling truckloads of wildflowers, rhododendron, mountain laurel and flame azalea out of the park almost every day.’’
Finally, in 1934, in the spirit of the New Deal, the federal government for the first time ever purchased land directly for a national park. President Franklin D. Roosevelt formally dedicated the park in 1940, saying, “We shall conserve these trees, the pine, the redbud, the dogwood, the azalea, the rhododendron, the trout, and the thrush for the happiness of the American people.’’
Roosevelt could have added the trout lily. For Michelle and me, happiness came in the very first hours on the trail. As we came up out of Fontana Dam at 1,800 feet, we passed a grove of pink lady slipper orchids, including quadruplets bunched tightly together. They are endangered in Tennessee, important to remember as, for most of the trail in the Smokies, one foot is in that state and the other in North Carolina.
As we continued up between 3,000 and 4,000 feet, we were greeted in the deep woods by carpets of softly serrated, large-flowered white trillium. The older the trillium gets, the more pink it becomes, creating a forest that Laura Ashley would treasure for wallpaper. Native Americans, according to the 2003 book “Wildflowers of the Smokies,’’ chewed on the stem of the plant as an antidote to snakebite.
There were many more trillium to come, including the more sharply triangular reddish-purple and white wake robins. The trail edges were constantly fringed with bluets and various tiny white flowers that floated up to the ankles. Groves of tiny white-fringed phacelia spread out from the trail like flour spilled on a countertop.
Patches of bluish-purple crested dwarf iris gave way to yellow trout lilies, which beautifully unfurl from an oblong little ball into an upside-down star. Roman soldiers, according to the 2006 book “Wildflowers of the Appalachian Trail,’’ used the plant for foot blisters and corns and Native Americans made a tea out of it for stomach cramps.
White mountain laurel and lavender rhododendron were just beginning to puff out. Ever present were purple violets. Each individual trillium flower is a trial of at least six years, beginning with a seed being carried underground by ants. Lady slippers need such a precise interaction with a fungus that it may take several years to reach maturity and they are almost impossible to transplant (though many poachers try). But once established, they can live 20 years.
Scott Hangen, 49, a paper company mechanical engineer, from Birmingham, Ala., was backpacking with his sons Michael, 17, and Andrew, 14. The father said, “It’s like hiking through ‘The Sound of Music.’ ’’ Michael, an Eagle Scout, added, “The way the flowers are under your feet, you see the world through a different set of eyes.’’
David Brickley, a former Virginia state legislator and former state director of conservation, said, “It’s like going through a fairy tale forest.
Atwood, the retired minister, said, “If I had the skill, I’d try to paint a picture of how fragile and precious this is. A verse comes to mind where the point is, if God can care so much to make something this great for you to see, then God must care about you.’’
As great as were the flowers on the Appalachian Trail, I would later find out that Michelle and I had not seen what others consider the most fantastic parts of the fairy tale forest. “That’s nice what you saw,’’ said Nancy Gray, a spokeswoman who has worked for Great Smoky Mountains National Park for 21 years. “But because of the harshness and the weather and the fact you were at 5,000 feet and above most of the time, you didn’t see all the types of flowers. The most dramatic displays are in the most nutrient-rich soils located in the lower elevations where a greater variety of life thrives.’’
We were not in the least distressed by this news. What we saw was still Eden.
Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at email@example.com.