Thursday, June 21, 2018

Rhododendrons in the Mist: Hiking Roan Highlands

Finally, I made it to the southern Appalachians to see the native rhododendrons and azaleas blooming in the wild.  Don Hyatt of the Potomac Valley chapter of the American Rhododendron Society (ARS) is largely responsible for luring me to this visual feast.  Also a member of our local rock garden  chapter (again  a 'Potomac Valley' chapter, but of the North American Rock Garden Society, NARGS), Don has been visiting the native azaleas and rhododendrons (all are botanically classified as rhododendrons) for a couple of decades.  He has shared his travels in presentations for our rock garden chapter, including tantalizing images of expansive views and big swaths of rhododenrons and azaleas in awe inspiring hues. I wanted to see them for myself. 

Don's hiking companion, George Mclellan, unbelievably almost 80-years-old, ( I hope I have his endurance when I am his age), has been coming even longer.  They know the plants so intimately they have named several with exceptional characteristics -- 'Big Bird', a big yellow R. calendulaceum, Flame azalea; 'Molten Lava', a glowing yellow-orange one.  There are others I can't remember.  

Rhododendron catawbiense, Catawba rhododendron -- in the mist 

The infamous Don Hyatt

The rest of our motley crew (l to r) Joe, Halit, Mike, Charlie, and George, who has been visiting for
something like  25 years.
By the time we hiked Roan our group had grown to seven (five of us began the trip in southwestern VA several days earlier), including Charlie Andrews, president of the Azalea chapter of ARS (Georgia), a passionate native azalea expert, and Mike Bamford, also from that chapter and a newbie like me, as neither of us had walked this way before.  For Joe or Halit it was a repeat visit.

Starting at Carver's Gap, 5512 foot elevation, the hike takes you over three balds -- Round Bald, Jane Bald and, finally, Grassy Ridge Bald at 6,165 feet.  Beginning in North Carolina, the trail crisscrosses the North Carolina-Tennessee border and follows the Appalachian Trail until it veers off to the right towards Grassy Ridge Bald.

From a distance, the Catawba rhododendrons appear pruned as they are compact, their lower leaves mostly gone, exposing lichen-covered trunks and their rounded tops are relatively a uniform height. "So patterned is their arrangement that one might think this is a portion of some great estate, a detached portion, perhaps of the fabled Vanderbilt holdings near Asheville," wrote Maurice Brooks about the Roan Highlands in 1965 in The Appalachians

It is somehow comforting to know that Brooks, a Professor of Wildlife Management at West Virginia University for more than 30 years, retiring in 1969, and an authority on the ecology of the whole Appalachian range, saw more than 50 years ago what I saw.  Charlie says the deer are grazing on them, but the altitude and winds have shaped them too, as has the grazing of livestock by local farmers and the Catawba Indians before them.

The trail dips before rising over the next bald.  Clouds rolled in and out. 
Views appeared and disappeared as clouds floated in and out, over and around us.  The sun dodged about, suddenly shining on a stretch of landscape set off by darker terrain in the distance still under overcast skies.  The changeable light was dramatic. 

Dare I say some of the R. calendulaceum were more beautiful in bud than in flower?  The striations of color can be exquisite.  These plants typically produce flowers ranging from deep orange-red to pale yellow and everything in between.  They bloom for about a four tsix weeks, usually beginning in mid-June.  The Flame azalea is the only species on Roan, according to Charlie's excellent article in The Azalean, Spring 2018 issue. 

Balsam and Fraser fir grow on the slopes of the balds.  Mike and I began trading stories of hiking on Mt. Washington in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, as we are both originally from New England, perhaps sparked by seeing vegetation reminiscent of Mt. Washington?  As Brooks points out, the "Southern peaks [of the Appalachians] in the 6,ooo-foot range, all of them in North Carolina and neighboring Tennessee, are clothed in spruce and fir forest, in appearance almost identical with the one on Mount Washington just below the 5000-foot contour."   The tallest of the southern Appalachians, Roan among them, are as tall or taller than Mt. Washington.  However, the southern mountains never reach above the treeline, unlike their northern cousins, yet they share some similar plants and habitat but at slightly different elevations.  

Mike looks back at  the view behind.  

George leads the way over the bald with Charlie behind.  They look as if they might leap into the clouds. 

Below you can see the range of color in R. calendulaceum, yellow to orange, growing together.  Azaleas tend to grow in protected areas like this southern slope and are sometimes confused with R. cumberlandense, which can have vivid red to orange flowers, rarely yellow.  The Cumberlands bloom later, however, generally have smaller flowers, and the undersides of the leaves can have a whitish or blueish cast.

Stone, conifer, and rhododendron beautifully arranged along the slope.

The veteran members of the group told us the bloom on Roan this year was not at its most spectacular.  Some of the Flame azaleas were still in bud -- how nice that they take their time -- and the Catawbas simply did not have as many blossoms as  they can during a banner year.   I will take their word for it, but can't complain as the scenery was fabulous.   The bloom was plentiful if not its most robust.  
A plant with tight congested flowers

Charlie leaves the trail to check on old friends

The bright green in the lower left mayld be Bracken fern 

Big patches of vaccinium like the ones below are also here and provide brilliant red fall color, a reason to return later in the season, if not for the blueberries!

Not a bad view for a cloudy day! 
Those "pruned" rhododendrons again.  

 As you begin and end the hike, the trail passes through a forest of conifers, which is quite a contrast going from cloistered woodland to open meadows.  


Alas, this was my last day with the group. They continued on the following day to Robbinsville, NC, and then into the Smokies.   Our adventure began in Grayson Highlands State Park in southwestern VA, and also included visits along the upper Blue Ridge Parkway south of Fancy Gap (the Linville Falls was a highlight) and to Elk Knob, where more flora and fauna dazzled.  (A post on that to come.)  The Roan Highlands were exceptional, however.  My appetite is whetted for a return to the south mountains next year when I hope to get into the Smokies.  Go if you can; it is a wonderland!  


  1. Sarah, Thank you for sharing this, it was a pleasure meeting you and trekking about these Southern balds. I have an image of this blog's photographer on this bald, and a few other pics you might like.

  2. Is that you Charlie? Sure, love to have your pics. Thanks.