Andrews Bald hike to see the flame azaleas
About 15 people joined the Andrews Bald hike on Friday, June 16 hosted by Great Smoky Mountains Association and led by Liz Domingue of Just Get Outdoors.
Mid-June is the perfect time to embark on this short hike to see the flame azaleas and rhododendrons at the high-elevation grassy bald in bloom.
The Forney Ridge Trail is accessed at the Clingman’s Dome parking lot and is a moderate 3.6-mile round trip hike to the bald.
It was sweatshirt weather as the group gathered at the trail head around 8:30 a.m. on Friday. The trail, recently renovated through Friends of the Smokies’ Trails Forever program, is a descent including well-constructed steps and pathways mostly in the shade with breaks that offer stunning views of the Smokies.
Taking a guided hike often means you go at a slower pace, especially in a large group, but the benefit of this slow pace is seeing the details of your surrounding unfold.
Along the trail, naturalist and wildlife biologist Domingue spotted salamanders and shared insights into the flora and fauna.
The Southern Appalachian mountains are known for their biological diversity.
“The Smokies are incredible because you see so many species here that are northern because of the high elevation,” Domingue said.
Hikers got to name and identify plants including tiny bluet flowers, elderberry bushes and learned the difference between beech and birch trees. Hikers also were encouraged to smell the air that at the beginning of the hike is filled with the crisp scent of Fraser fir.
The first leg of the trail passes through spruce-fir forest, similar to much of the high-elevation areas of the Smokies.
Even from Clingman’s Dome parking lot you can see the skeletons of many trees. These are fraser firs that have been killed by balsam wooly adelgids, first introduced into the U.S. in the early 1900s that have decimated much of the population of Fraser fir in the park.
The fate of the firs is similar to that of hemlocks, which have been destroyed by hemlock wooly adelgids. The big difference is the fraser firs grow big enough to produce cones and have regrowth, offering more resilience against total devastation.
“All the things that are killing our trees are exotic, and that’s the problem because our trees cannot adapt to that,” Domingue said.
Losing a species like the hemlock is a big deal, she explains. The hemlock, a lower-elevation species, is found primarily along streams and keeps them cool. A lot of things depend on that. While many are aware that trout rely on cooler water, so too do other species like invertebrates and salamanders.
In the 1960s, Domingue said, lots of research was done on hemlocks and neo-tropical migrant birds like warblers that used them. It’s not clear what impact the loss of the trees will have on the birds.
“Just because we don’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not happening, and that’s not all good,” Domingue said.
Once hikers get further down the trail away from the crowded path to Clingman’s Dome, it’s easy to be struck by how quiet it is. The loudest sound is likely your feet hitting the trail, and even that can overpower some of the other sounds of the forest.
On many of the stops along the way, the group focused on listening—and took advantage of Domingue’s knowledge of bird calls and species. Some birds even responded to her calls. The veery thrush with its unique reedy song and the call of a red-tailed hawk were highlights.
While Forney’s Ridge trail is still rocky, it’s no longer the shin splitting trail it has been called in the past. Still, just looking around to some of the trees that are literally growing up around rocks gives you an insight into the rocky, wet landscape.
“This entire forest is growing on rock,” Domingue said. The first thing to grow on the rocks is lichen followed by mosses, ferns and herbaceous plants and then woody plants. Before you know it, you have a forest. Of course, that is over hundreds of years.
After about 1.7 miles, you reach the Andrews bald. This June’s display of flame azaleas and rhododendron in bloom is no disappointment. Exploring the meandering paths on the bald leads hikers to a varying display of brightly colored azaleas—ranging from light yellow-orange to deep red-orange.
Grassy balds like Andrew’s Bald are a phenomena of Southern Appalachia. There are two types of balds, grassy and heath like Charlie’s Bunion in the park.
There is a lot of mystery behind grassy balds and how they came to be, with several theories surrounding them. In pioneer times, the people would bring their cattle to the balds to graze during the hot summer months.
Some believe the Cherokee and other Native American tribes maintained the balds previously through fire in part to have lookout points.
Grassy balds, like Andrews Bald, would eventually become heath balds if they were not maintained.
The azaleas were certainly the stars of the day, but the hike back included its own highlights. Among them were a red squirrel, a dusky salamander, and two garter snakes.
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