Carole and I had decided to drive up to Roan Mountain where some of the best natural rhododendron gardens on the planet can be found. I've lived here in North Carolina for more than three decades and every year when the flowers are at their peak I have missed the show. I can't say why. So, this year we decided to drive up to Roan on Saturday, June 17 to see the flowers in what we'd been told were their peak.
We got to the area about 9:30 in the morning and immediately hit a traffic jam in Elk Park, TN. Why? Because the area was holding a RHODODENDRON FESTIVAL over the weekend. And we're not talking about a few hundred people. No. Tens of thousands had arrived as a mass to see the flowers and to attend a craft fair being held in Roan Mountain State Park. Bumper-to-bumper traffic. It was maddening stop and go as we approached the craft fair near the state park office.
After we passed the craft show, traffic opened up and got light the final ten miles to the trail head we wanted to use. Our plan was to park in Carvers Gap and hike a few miles up the Appalachian Trail to Grassy Ridge Bald where the best of the flowers were said to bloom.
Uh-uh. Wasn't going to happen.
Carvers Gap had become a mass traffic jam. The closest spot to park was about a mile either side of the Appalachian Trail. So a round trip distance of two miles would be added to any hike, and Carole was not up to that ridiculous shit. Truth to tell, even if I'd been alone I wouldn't have done it. The Appalachian Trail was like a human freeway. Hundreds of people were moving in a steady line headed for the ridges to see the rhododendron.
We stopped at a road block and spoke to a ranger and he suggested that we might be able to park and view the rhododendron at the old Cloudland Hotel site up on Roan High Knob. So we did this, only to find that the crowds were almost as bad there. The parking lots were almost full, but we found a spot to leave the car and began to hike the short loop trails near the summit. Only to find that they, too, were uncomfortably packed with humans. We often had to quite actually wait in line to walk past knots of people clogging the trail!
Yeah. It was about as close to a nightmare for me as it gets. Here I find myself in a place of natural beauty, but it's so crowded with goddamned people that I almost can't breathe.
With no other option, we chose to leave the area and head over to the Blue Ridge Parkway to hit Mount Mitchell State Park. Carole had not been there in a while and I had not made any backup plans for secondary hikes. Yes, I should have done a little more research, but I hadn't done that. If I'd known, we could have gone hiking somewhere else that was not being used by tens of thousands of people for a damned rhododendron festival.
We ended up on Mount Mitchell in alternating passing clouds and mild rain showers. Fortunately, the weather was good for some atmospheric photos (59 degrees!) and we ended up having a decent time, stopping to grill burgers and hot dogs at a picnic area. All in all, we did manage to salvage the day, which is a good thing. You know what they say: a bad day in the mountains is better than the best day in town.
|Carole hiking at the old Cloudland Hotel location. Only two other humans visible in this shot, which amazes me. I got lucky and was able to avoid the several hundred others wandering around stinking up the joint.|
|I have to say, the flowers were gorgeous and most of them were either in, or approaching, full bloom.|
This is the kind of crowds that make my skin crawl when I go to the mountains.
|We found a nice picnic area and grilled out.|
|Lighter hued rhododendrons at lower altitudes.|
|Lots of flame azalea, also.|
|And plenty of Mountain laurel were still in full bloom, too!|
|The modern handicap accessible lookout on the summit of Mount Mitchell. A couple was sitting on Elisha Mitchell's grave (he's buried on the summit) having a good ol' time, I reckon.|
|Clingman's Peak from the summit of Mount Mitchell.|