Friday, May 8, 2009

Blue Haze (Part 3 of 3)

Sunset and dusk from Andrews Bald were enchanting; although, really no more nor less than the view from dozens of other locations in the park, but that made it no less beautiful. The best part was the shaconage – the Cherokee word for “blue haze – that spread across the mountains. It’s the kind of gradual change that could be easily overlooked, especially if you focus on the sunset in the west. Yes, sunsets are great, but sometimes it’s good to look every direction except west. In the east you’ll see the ridges go from green, to yellow, to orange, to pink, to blue. It’s hard to detect while you are watching because it’s so smooth a transition. Only afterwards, as you think about the scene (and try to describe it), do you realize that there’s a range of colors between light and dark.

I can’t remember now if the south went through the same color sequence. What I remember best about the south was the innumerable ridges of the Nantahalas and the blue tint that seemed to seep out of the landscape and into the air. As the shaconage infused the valleys, the perspective, the distance, seemed to get sucked right out of the air. In the bright light of the sun, I could clearly see the distance between the ridges, but as darkness grew all those ridges just seemed to squeeze together. There was height and width, but no depth.

So I sat in the thick grass, letting the night take over. The moon was already high in the sky as the sun sank and darkness deepened. Walking around the top of Andrews Bald, I saw only a few, scattered, distant lights, plus the glow of Bryson City to the south. To be consistent, I should whine for a few sentences about the lights of Bryson City the way I whine about Pigeon Forge, but I can’t. I like Bryson City. It’s a small, simple, working-class town with only a small bit of tourist trade. It’s still small enough that its subtle radiance seems to emphasize the darkness that surrounds it rather than detracting from it.

Happily, there was one thing that was completely invisible at that moment: Pigeon Forge and Sevierville. Their glow was completely blocked by Clingmans Dome and the main ridge crest to the north. Having a 180 degree view rather than 360 is a small price to pay for eliminating the glow of Pigeon Forge and Sevierville. It was as if they had been wiped off the face of the earth. A bit drastic perhaps, but an idea worth considering.

An hour after sunset the full weight of the night had settled in, and the bank of clouds had moved in and blotted out the moon. My walk back would be by the light of a flashlight, not the moon. I suppose that’s the chance you take when you hike in the spring. There’s less humidity now than in the summer, so the views will be more expansive, but the weather is the wild card. I suppose I should have known – spring weather being what it is – that a clear blue sky during the day was no guarantee of a clear sky in the evening. But that’s okay. It’s good to see the mountains in all their moods. Wind, clouds, and rain are part of the package.

My next visit to Andrews Bald will probably be in late June or early July, when the catawba rhododendron and flame azaleas are blooming. Probably another evening hike because that will be the only way to escape June’s teeming masses that will fill every nook and cranny from exit #407 on I-40 to Clingmans Dome parking lot.

Every nook and cranny, that is, except Andrews Bald and those top two miles of Forney Ridge Trail about an hour before sunset.

[Visit for more information on making a memorable Andrews Bald trip.]

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This trip has the potential to be one of your most memorable Smokies experiences.

This story gave you most of the information you’ll need to do this hike. But let me give you one other tidbit. If I’m going to watch a sunset and then hike back soon after dark, I prefer to go 4 to 8 days before a full moon. That way, the half moon will be high in the sky when the sun sets, and I can walk back under a bright moon soon after the sun sets. (If the moon is full, it will be very bright but low in the sky for several hours.)

An interesting twist on this hike is to do it during peak rhododendron and flame azalea time, usually mid to late June, rarely early July. Don’t be surprised if you are not alone on this occasion. Quite a few people make these moonlit trips during the blooming season; although, many of them wait for a full moon, which is fine if you are willing to wait a couple of hours after sunset to let it get higher in the sky for your walk back, or if you intend to pull an all-nighter by starting your hike soon after sunset and walk back before dawn. (There’s a long-standing Smokies tradition of hiking to the top of Gregory Bald during a full moon of rhododendron and flame azalea season. This is a good strategy to avoid the day time traffic – arrive soon after dark and make your entire trip a night trip.)

I just checked the calendar and the full moons for 2009 are approximately June 7 and July 6. That means 4 to 8 days prior to that is about June 1 and July 1. On this schedule, I’d try the first few days of July for a moonlight and flowering shrubs walk. Walk to Andrews (or Gregory) in the late afternoon, let the sun set, then walk back under a half or three-quarters moon. I might bring a blanket and a star chart and make an evening of it. Watch the sun set and the stars come out. (I suspect many flower and moon hikers will hike on the weekend of July 4/5 – not because it’s the 4th but because it’s the weekend closest to a full moon, which many night hikers prefer.)

An alternative would be to go a few days after the full moon, which would put this hike in the middle of June or the middle of July. You could get up early and walk to Andrews before sunrise, under the light of the waning moon. The moon will be high in the sky not at sunset, but at sunrise. Then watch the sunrise in the east, hang around as the day awakens, then hike back in the morning sunlight.

This trail is heavily wooded in some spots, so be sure to bring a flashlight because even a full moon on a cloudless night won’t be able to shine though all those spruce and fir branches. There will probably be some dark sections, so the flashlight will come in handy.

Of course, always bring a rain jacket, a light jacket, water, snacks, and a modest sense of adventure.