By Nye Simmons
Spring starts early on the Southern Coast, and the blooms don’t culminate until they reach the high ridges of Tennessee and North Carolina in mid-June. The early color from maple and serviceberry will be mostly gone by the time you read this, but there is still much to enjoy in the high country. Even though I live in the shadows of the Great Smokies, I would choose the Blue Ridge Parkway and nearby Roan Mountain for the best opportunities after mid-May.
Driving the Blue Ridge Parkway in Western North Carolina can yield delightful images at any turn, and if the cloud deck is low (aka fog) the opportunities for intimate nature scenes are almost endless. A day in the clouds with something blooming is a gift that happens only a few times each season. So I watch the skies and adjust accordingly.
There are a few iconic locations that new visitors should investigate, and you can branch out from there. Here are great places to begin:
Graveyard Fields (Milepost 418.8): In early May the blooming maple and serviceberry make this a visual treat that gives way later in the month (and into June) to Catawba rhododendron and mountain laurel. Prime time for the latter is usually the end of May into first week of June. Lower Yellowstone Falls is a short hike and is a local icon. Nearby Tennent Mountain is an excellent place for sunrise, as is Pounding Mill Overlook (MP 413.2). If the cloud deck is low and you are in fog, then the entire area is a target for photographers. Good opportunities can be found by hiking down to the falls and then following some of the short connecting trails.
If the weather indicates there will be light at sunrise, two spots can provide some memorable shots. The Tennent Mountain summit, accessed from FR 816 near Graveyard, with its 20–30-minute hike from the road is one of them, along with the more convenient Pounding Mill Overlook. Though late light can be attractive, a ridge to the west blocks such light at this spot. But last light at Cowee Mountains Overlook (MP 430.7) can be spectacular, and a low sun will back-illuminate any foreground blooms and fresh leaves. This overlook is about a 20-minute drive and is a Blue Ridge Parkway icon.
Lodging is most convenient in Waynesville, N.C. This is a bit of a resort town, so there are multiple choices of hotels and restaurants. The Pisgah Inn is nearby, but usually fills up months in advance. Its restaurant is a dining option, regardless. Keep an eye on the clock so as not to miss last seating.
Those prepared to camp can find dispersed camping near the trailhead to the Shining Rock Wilderness at the end of the spur road (FS 816). You can access this from the Blue Ridge Parkway near Graveyard Fields, or find a spot in the Mount Pisgah Campground, which is open seasonally, across from the inn.
Craggy Gardens (MP 364): Regionally known for its Catawba rhododendrons, peak bloom has traditionally occurred around mid-month. Short hikes will take you to the best scenes. A low cloud deck (fog) is ideal here. Often the mountain laurel along the higher elevations nearby will be good as well, though there are few to be found at Craggy itself. For last light, the parkway just north of Craggy and Graybeard Overlook (MP 363.4) offers strong options. The beech grove at Graybeard, meanwhile, can be enchanting.
Mount Mitchell State Park (MP 355): The spur from the Blue Ridge Parkway leads to the highest point in North Carolina, and its bloom often lags lower areas by a few days. It is only a few minutes’ detour to investigate the opportunities there. False hellebore (corn lily) grows here, too.
Lodging for both locations is most convenient in nearby Asheville with many options. Limited camping (tent only) is available at Mount Mitchell State Park.
Roan Mountain: If you are on the Blue Ridge Parkway, this is most easily accessed from the MP 331 exit to Spruce Pine, NC, and map it from there. A recent fire at Carvers Gap near the road burned several acres but Round and Jane Bald were spared, according to reports. Look for these balds to peak around mid-June, sometimes as early as the 10th of the month. It’s the middle of nowhere.
The closest lodging is Roan Mountain State Park, with some vacation rentals closer to the Gap. Dining options are limited in the little hamlet of Roan Mountain, TN, at least a 30-minute drive from the Gap. A vacation rental is likely the best choice for those seeking a measure of comfort and a place to nap during mid-day, and of course you can cook there. For those who are prepared, camping in the vehicle or tent at the trailhead saves a bit of sleep, as sunrise comes early in June.
How To Work It
The best way to approach these opportunities really depends on the weather and your personal vision. If this is your first trip, visiting the icons is not a bad start. After that, drive pilgrim. Most of my favorite photos from the Parkway are found images that were given up by light at the time. It’s about 70 miles from Mitchell to the Smokies, and each mile can offer up a great image in the right conditions.
I like fog, so a low cloud deck is my jam, and the thicker the better. If the skies will cooperate for first or last light, then consider the options above. Blue sky of death? Look for back-illuminated leaves and intimate settings in the shade. This is also a great time to look for images than work well in black and white. The white blooms of Rosebay rhododendron may be going at lower elevations, providing yet another option to investigate.
Editor’s Note: If you want more detailed information, Nye wrote Best of the Blue Ridge Parkway with photographers in mind. It’s available at Parkway visitor centers and from the Smokies Association. The e-book can be found on his website at www.nyesimmopns.com.
A retired emergency medicine physician, Nye Simmons is a photography educator who has been freelancing and self-publishing for many years. He’s the sole author of Best of the Blue Ridge Parkway, Blue Ridge Parkway Celebration, Tennessee Wonder and Light, and The Greater Smoky Mountains Photographer’s Guide, while co-authoring four other books. His upcoming photo workshops include the Smokies, Blue Ridge Parkway, Colorado fall color and Death Valley.