April in the Smokies features many wonderful things – longer days, warm sunshine, cool evenings, rain, new leaves on the trees, and of course, wildflowers. Visitors often come to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in spring specifically to see the wildflowers, which bloom for a few short weeks each year. Hillsides dotted with delicate white, pink, purple, and yellow flowers beckon all to step into the forest and savor spring’s sweetest offering.
With elevations ranging from 850 feet in the foothills to 6,643 feet at Clingmans Dome, the park offers numerous forest types and climatic conditions to meet the habitat needs of a wide variety of plants and animals. There are more than 1,500 species of flowering plants in the park—more than are found in any other national park in North America! Some have referred to the Smokies as “Wildflower National Park” because there are so many flowers to enjoy throughout the bloom season. The location of selected wildflowers can be identified using the Species Mapper feature on the park website: https://science.nature.nps.gov/parks/grsm/species/
Many early wildflowers are classified as ephemerals for their short-lived appearance each spring. These plants emerge from the ground before deciduous trees leaf out, when sunlight is most intense on the forest floor. They flower, fruit, then decay so that by mid-late summer there is no visible evidence these plants exist. April is the peak month for spring ephemerals, though some will bloom at high elevation well into May. Popular spring ephemerals include bloodroot, hepatica, trillium, trout lily, phacelia, columbine, bleeding heart, dwarf iris, and lady slipper orchids. There are ten species of trillium and four species of phacelia that bloom in spring in the Smokies.
Impact of wildfires
In late November 2016, the Chimney Tops 2 wildfire burned thousands of acres inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park in scattered locations from the Chimney Tops, across Sugarlands Valley to the western ridges of Mount Le Conte, and to Twin Creeks and Cherokee Orchard Road. Most of the areas in the burn zone only suffered mild to moderate damage. In the lesser-affected areas, native plants are emerging from the scorched and barren earth and wildflowers are blooming. In some burn locations, the blooms are especially impressive given the fire’s impact. Wildflowers can be viewed from trails in burn zones, including Gatlinburg, Old Sugarlands, and Twin Creeks trails; and the Noah “Bud” Ogle and Cove Hardwood Nature trails.
Places to see wildflowers
You don’t have to look hard to find spring wildflowers in the Smokies. They are readily visible along park roads, at overlooks, and near visitor centers, campgrounds, and picnic areas. But the best way to enjoy wildflowers is to take a hike into the forest. Each year in mid-April the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage (http://www.springwildflowerpilgrimage.org) offers guided walks and hikes with experts, who assist participants in locating and identifying wildflowers in the park. For those not participating in the pilgrimage, information about wildflower trails is available on the park website: https://www.nps.gov/grsm/learn/nature/wildflower-walks.htm. Popular trails include Porter’s Creek, Chestnut Top, Deep Creek, and Little River trails, and Cove Hardwood Nature Trail.
While spring is prime wildflower season in the Smokies, a succession of flowering trees, shrubs, and wildflowers continue to bloom well into summer and fall. If you plan to visit the Smokies later in the year, there will still be wildflowers to enjoy. Stop by a park visitor center for guidance on what is blooming at the time of your visit and enjoy the wildflowers of the Smokies!
Editor’s Note: This guest post is written by Kristina Plaas, a Knoxville-based nature and landscape photographer and volunteer at Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP). Learn more about her here. You might not be aware, but GSMNP is designated a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site and International Biosphere Reserve. The park is world-renowned for its biologic diversity. The Smoky Mountains truly are #someplacespecial