Spring in the South proves what we have, when it comes to the outdoors, is incomparable. People from California, Colorado, and Montana may look down on our tiny mountains, small rivers, and completely lopsided people-per-square-mile density, but we have warm winters and when spring finally arrives it’s here to stay. The days start getting longer, the trees and flowers bud and bloom, and small wildlife is seen running all over the woods. It’s also before the heat, mosquitos, and crowds start to move in before summer which is what makes spring one of my favorite times.
Lakes are always a great destination in the spring time, especially once the days warm up enough for boating and swimming. Devils Fork State Park and the surrounding area is home to one of the rarer species of wildflower: the Oconee Bell. First collected by a French expedition in the late 1700s, it was seen in an unnamed form by the famous American Botanist Asa Gray who spent nearly 40 years searching for it. It’s now an endangered species that grows sporadically in the mountains of the Carolinas. Your best bet to see them is on the appropriately named 1 mile Oconee Bell Nature Trail which starts near the parks headquarters. The rest of the weekend can be spent on the water, kayaking or boating to any of the waterfalls that plunge into the lake like Lower Whitewater Falls or Laurel Fork Falls or fishing for the monster trout that lurk beneath the surface. Nearby Gorges State Park in NC has more opportunities for hiking, but most of the trails are of the strenuous variety. It’s been a few years since I tackled the 3 mile Rainbow Falls trail, but it was a hard climb up and a fast descent down.
If you’re looking for something closer to home, and my repeated writing hasn’t convinced you yet, take the short trip down highway 21 and visit the Spider Lilies at Landsford Canal State Park. The largest grouping of the Rocky Shoal Spider Lily is in the middle of 40 acres of the Catawba River. You can either take the short hike to the viewing platform to view them from shore, or you can take the best route and actually kayak or canoe down the river and see them at eye level and arms reach. Nest bald eagles also have some juveniles flapping around this year, and if you take the Nature Trail about halfway there’s a viewing area where with some binoculars or a good lens you can see them in the nest. In mid-May is also the annual Lily Fest, and even if you’ve seen the lilies a hundred times help take some of the strain off the rangers by volunteering to help park cars, point people in the right direction, and just enjoy the company of people who enjoy the same things you do; that’s what I plan on doing at least.
If you’re looking for higher adventure, and maybe some more work for your reward, take a look at going to Roan Gap Tennessee. Rhododendron grows best at high elevations, and at 5000+ feet there are fields covering entire mountainsides with bright flowers right off NC 261 north of Bakersville. You have plenty of hiking options as well, especially since the AT runs right through which makes it a prime area for a section hike. Where US 26 goes near the Nolichucky River to just outside the town of Roan Mountain is a 43 mile section that traces the border between NC and TN and has some of the best both states have to offer. If you prefer for your nights to end with a plush bed, the nearby state park is alongside a river with great fishing and comfy cabins. 8 years ago my family spent a week in those cabins in the early spring and loved it. Most memorable though, was I wanted to go up to the living history farm but the road was closed; I figured how bad could it be, shouldered my camera bag, and started hiking up the asphalt. Apparently this road doubles as the local ski hill in the winter because the vertical incline felt like I was climbing a ladder more than walking a road. After 30 minutes, I finally reached the top and it was neat to have the entire farm to myself so I wandered around taking pictures of the old farm and the wildflowers that were just starting to bloom. Hiking back down the car only took 10 minutes and essentially involved me trying not to roll down the hill like a boulder.
Any balds at higher elevation will probably have a random scattering of wild flowers; Grayson Highlands in Virginia, Ivestor’s Gap in Pisgah, or any of the balds in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park will have a scattering of wildflowers through them. The GSMNP also has the open valleys of Cades Cove and Cataloochee Valley, which will have not only flowers but also fawns and elk calves and maybe even some bear cubs. Cades Cove also provides access to the Gregory Ridge Trail which has flowers all along and leads up to Gregory Bald for stunning views as well. I’ve got my eyes on trying a trail over on the Cataloochee side that doesn’t seem to get much use called the Little Cataloochee trail. About 6 miles long, it winds through abandoned, but restored, homesteading cabins and buildings from the valleys European residents. Elk wander through the area regularly, so even with the guarantee of cool buildings you might get the treat of having some massive wildlife appear as well.
Spring for me is a chance to hopefully get back outside and spend time in nature. I started a new job back in December, and since January I’ve only been home for 3 weeks; thankfully the travel is coming to an end and I’ll be able to shake off some of the dust that’s been forming on my backpacking and kayaking gear. I’m still planning on doing a speed hike of the Foothills Trail and Art Loeb Trail this year, and would like to build up to running Wilson’s Creek in my kayak this fall; that can only happen if I get out there this Spring and stay active.
Always remember when doing anything in the Spring, the 70 degree highs may feel great in the sun, but you’re still prone to hypothermia and chill if you get wet or don’t have the proper insulation once the sun goes down. Weather can also be unpredictable and April snows at high elevations aren’t unheard of. Also, if you’ve been sitting the couch all winter catching up on the latest Netflix releases, don’t immediately jump into a 10 mile day hike with 3000 feet of elevation gain. It’s a good way to get an injury that will keep you down until Fall.
Just get outside and enjoy nature; no season is ever exactly the same year to year and you’ll never see the differences if you’re stuck inside 4 walls.