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See the Flame Azaleas Bloom on Andrews Bald

By Johnny Molloy • Jun 10, 2018 at 4:00 AM

Have you ever been to Andrews Bald in the Smokies? It is the park’s highest open meadow at 5,800 feet. From the park’s highest trailhead, you can explore the spruce-fir forest community on the way to the meadow of Andrews Bald, resplendent with stunning views. June features great Catawba rhododendron blooms, and wild flame azaleas whose orange color reminds me of the Tennessee Volunteers. It is only fitting that such a colorful azalea should grow in the mountains of the Volunteer State.

Resplendent with stunning views, the Andrews Bald is the ideal backdrop for a picnic in the sky. Andrews Bald was historically known as Anders Bald until an errant mapmaker renamed it Andrews Bald, which stuck. The origin of these mountain meadows is not clear, although natural fires, clearing by Indians.

However, when pioneers settled the valleys of the Southern Appalachians, grazing their cattle certainly kept the fields clear. In summer, residents of these valleys would drive their cattle up to these balds to graze. When the practice ceased trees began reclaiming the meadows. Former meadows were lost. Now, only names recall the balds of the Smokies, save for Andrews Bald and Gregory Bald.

After leaving the busy Clingmans Dome parking area on the Forney Ridge Trail, hikers descend a gravel track bordered by boulders to reach a trail junction at 0.1 mile. The Clingmans Dome Bypass Trail heads right, but you stay left with the Forney Ridge Trail, which drops along a rocky section that allows views to the south. The smell of red spruce and Fraser fir waft into your nostrils while northern red squirrels, also known as boomers, scold you from cone-laden green boughs.

This area receives upward of 90 inches of rain per year, and the trail is built with water bars of stone and wood, along with steps and even boardwalks, to minimize erosion and allow hikers to focus on the unique surroundings. At 1.1 miles, pass the Forney Creek Trail. It leads right and downhill 10-plus miles to Fontana Lake, a descent of over 4,000 feet.

This hike continues along the undulating and rocky Forney Ridge to arrive at the northern end of Andrews Bald at mile 1.8. The highland meadow, dotted with bushes and occasional trees, stands at an elevation of 5,800 feet. The lush grass beckons you to lie down, letting the sweat dry off.

But that would deny you the expansive views of the southern range of the Smokies and beyond, as far south as the clarity of the sky allows. Fontana Lake is plainly visible on a clear day. Cool breezes drift in from the woods, countering a warm summer sun.

Trees border the meadow as it drops off Forney Ridge, and the Forney Ridge Trail disappears into the woods, aiming for Forney Creek. Most hikers find a grassy seat and enjoy the scene before backtracking to the Clingmans Dome Trailhead.

To access the trailhead Clingmans Dome Road must be open. This road, the park’s highest, is generally open from April through November. Call ahead at (865) 436-1200 then go to road conditions, if hiking the shoulder seasons. The Forney Ridge Trail starts at the southwestern end of the Clingmans Dome parking area, just before the parking area loop road curves away from Clingmans Dome.

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