Late spring is reason enough to take a high-country hike. Temperatures are moderate, the Southern Appalachian hardwood canopy is just starting to pop, with its bright green hue, the humidity is still at civil levels. Throw in the prospect for rhododendron and mountain laurel blooms, however, and even the most casual hiker gets atwitter.
If you live in the Piedmont and are in a rare area with both plants, you know that the season has come and gone. But in the mountains (and in the mountains in the Piedmont; see Hanging Rock State Park), the show is just about to get underway. You’ll find both plants, along with mountain azaleas starting to bloom at lower elevations (above 2,000 feet), while the display is nearly a month off at the highest elevations.
Below are five North Carolina hikes for flower lovers that that offer good displays in the springtime. Two — Hanging Rock State Park and the Tanawha Trail at Grandfather Mountain — are currently in bloom and should make good viewing over the Memorial Day weekend. The remaining three should be blooming over the next month, culminating, a like a Fourth of July fireworks display, with Roan Mountain.
Interested in more hikes? Check out our GetGoingNC.com Hiking page.
1. Hanging Rock State Park
- Blooming in: May
This hike is for hikers who want their bloomin’ color now. Though not in the Southern Appalachian, Hanging Rock is in a mountain chain — the ancient Sauratowns, a ridgeline that essentially runs from Hanging Rock west for 30 miles to Pilot Mountain. Still, with elevations reaching 2,500 feet, the higher, cooler climes mean the rhododendrons and mountain laurel should still be flashing their whites, purples and pinks.
An especially good bet is the Indian Creek Trail; from the Visitor Center parking lot hike 0.4 miles to Hidden Falls and 0.6 miles to Window Falls; it’s a narrow, rocky trail choked with these flowering members of the heath family.
You’ll also want to hike the park’s signature path, the 1.3-mile Hanging Rock Trail to the park’s feature attraction, an exposed outcrop; the hike up offers more color, the summit provides great 360-degree views — west to the Blue Ridge, north into Virginia, east to the Piedmont and south to Winston-Salem, which you can see on a clear day.
For more info, visit NC Parks.
2. Tanawha Trail
- Blooming in: May
Another sooner-rather-than later option: the Tanawha Trail along the southeast flank of Grandfather Mountain. The Tanawha, part of the statewide Mountains-to-Sea Trail, runs a little more than 13 miles, from Beacon Heights to Price Park. The five miles or so from Beacon Heights to Rough Ridge offer your best viewing options. Rough Ridge in particular, accessed via the Rough Ridge parking area at Milepost 302.8 of the Blue Ridge Parkway, is ripe viewing: a rocky, exposed area covered in heath, including healthy communities of rhododendron and mountain laurel. There aren’t excessive elevation gains, but there are steep ascents and descents, and the often rocky footing demands your attention.
For quickest access, hike about a half mile south on the Tanawha from the Rough Ridge Access to the most pronounced outcrop. If you’re up for more hiking but of a more genteel variety, drive north on the Parkway about eight miles to Halloway Mountain Road and turn left. Park where the Tanawha crosses and head south, through open fields and meadows.
You can find more information here.
3. Shining Rock / Art Loeb
- Pisgah National Forest / Blue Ridge Parkway
- Blooming in: Mid-June
Another area where the hiking options can be dizzying. The Art Loeb Trail, which begins near Brevard, runs through the heart of Shining Rock and ends 31 miles later at the Daniel Boone Boy Scout Camp? The Mountains-to-Sea Trail, which runs about 20 miles through the area along the Blue Ridge Parkway? The Little Sam Knob area? Graveyard Fields? So many great options, but when it comes to rhododendron and mountain laurel, two stand out. One, the climb up to Sam Knob, which culminates in great views from a rocky outcrop, and two, passage along the Art Loeb from Ivestor Gap to Shining Rock, with passage over two heath balds so dense the trail unfolds on a need-to-know basis. Most of the area is above a mile in elevation, insuring mid-June blooms and cool weather hiking.
Romantic Asheville has more information about Shining Rock.
4. Craggy Gardens
- Blue Ridge Parkway, Milepost 364.4
- Blooming In: Mid-June
Located just down the parkway from Mount Mitchell, Craggy Gardens lives in the shadow of its famous alpine sibling, which at 6,684 feet is the highest point on the East Coast. And that’s great for folks who like stellar scenery and solitude. At 5,500 feet, the air is cool, which appeals to the hillsides of rhododendron that bloom around mid-June.
You have a variety of hiking options here. The Mountains-to-Sea Trail runs for about three miles through the area; for instant gratification take the 0.7-mile Craggy Pinnacle Trail to 5,892-foot Craggy Pinnacle. Other good hikes include the one-way Douglas Falls Trail (3.0 miles) and Snowball Mountain Trail (4.0 miles, also one way). The area’s exposure means great views in all directions — when you aren’t engulfed in a rhododendron tunnel.
5. ) Roan Mountain
- Blooming in: Mid- to late June
Here’s a case where procrastinating pays off. If you wait until the very end of the rhododendron blooming season, you’ll be faced with a visit to Roan Mountain, where you’ll be treated to one of the most remarkable floral displays around. According to Jennifer Bauer Wilson’s “Road Mountain, a Passage of Time”: “In a good year a single bush might boast over 100 clusters of flowers, while hundreds of bushes spread out over the mountain.” Plus, upon examination you’ll notice that no two blooms are alike, with each bloom doing its best to attract pollenating bees. Walkways make passage through the dense thickets of rhododendrons possible.
So impressive is the display that there’s even a Rhododendron Festival, to be held June 20-21 this year. And while you’re in the area, park at Carver’s Gap (where you pick up the road topping out on Roan Mountain) and hike north on the Appalachian Trail over Jane, Round and Grassy balds, for some of the best views in the Southeast.
For more details on Roan mountain, click here.