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March 1, 2001

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The warm sun plays against the morning chill; that sort of sweet-and-sour effect that occurs only on a perfect spring morning. Take your time enjoying the beautiful days and the scattered groups of spring flowers along the trails and drives of the Smokies.

This was our first hike to Porter’s Flat – all we knew was “the wildflowers are good about a mile up the trail.” With small children in tow, we weren’t looking for a very challenging excursion, just a chance to kill off the cabin fever of a late and long winter. The kids were getting whiney, and the flowers had been only average; we were about ready to turn around to go back to the car when BAM! Like Emeril throwing around his Cajun essence – there it was.

“Good” didn’t describe it – what an understatement – carpets of white phacelia stretched as far as we could see, around the next bend, for all we could tell to the ends of the earth. We had gone through the looking glass at Porter’s Flat; Alice never had it so good.

Come with me to my favorite places in the Smokies for the spring bloom, places I return to year after year for the best flowers in the park. In general, good displays start in mid-April at the lower elevations (around 2,000 feet) and continue at various higher locations to the end of the month. The past three years have given us earlier-than-average blooms, sometimes by almost two weeks, so there is some year-to-year variability. The third and fourth weeks are fairly reliable if you have to request your time off in advance.

The 2001 Wildflower Pilgrimage will be April 26th-28th; a variety of activities and naturalist-led walks are part of this excellent yearly program. By the end of April often into early May the highest elevations like Newfound Gap will show their colors if you missed it down lower. The bloom seems to proceed upward at about 100-200 feet of altitude per day if there aren’t any major frosts to slow things down. The park backcountry desk at 865/436-1297 will probably have the most current and reliable information on what’s blooming and where. Many splendid displays can be seen from the car, and several short easy walks add to the possibilities. The hike to Porter’s Flat is the longest walk of the bunch, and the most rewarding.

Porter’s Flat

Though it’s not listed by name on all maps, finding this special place is easy. The road to the Greenbrier area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park turns off of U.S. 321 about five miles east of Gatlinburg. At 2.7 miles you will pass a small picnic area with a pit toilet, 1/4-mile farther brings you to an intersection with a left turn crossing a bridge towards the Ramsay Cascades trailhead. Proceed straight ahead past this turnoff approximately 1/2 mile to the Porter’s Creek trailhead, which has ample parking. The easy hike follows an old roadbed a little over a mile to the Porter’s Flat area; gradually the roadbed gives way to a wide, well-maintained trail. This is an easy hike, a bit more difficult than mall walking, but not much. For the first mile the flowers will be about average and you will wonder what the hoopla is all about. After you cross the third footbridge however, you will be in wildflower heaven. The peak bloom varies a bit depending on weather, but mid-April in an average year will be quite pretty; I am always surprised at how early Porter’s Flat seems to peak for its elevation – about 2,400 feet.

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March 1, 2001

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