Tuesday, August 2, 2016
Spring ephemerals are that set of forest-dwelling wildflowers that are sun-loving, and therefore must live their dazzling-but-brief lives in that window of opportunity when the weather is warming but before the leaves on the trees are fully out. In other words, here in the Smoky Mountains these sun-loving forest-dwellers bloom in April.
One of the best (and best-known) trails for viewing this early spring extravaganza is the Porters Creek trail in the Greenbrier section of the park. Ten years ago, Greenbrier’s trails, trees, flowers, and rivers didn’t even exist. Or, rather, they didn’t exist to me.
At that time, I did my Smoky Mountain trout fishing in the Little River around Tremont and Elkmont and my hiking on established trails. Quite honestly, the trails in the Greenbrier section of the park are few in number and not very exciting. Ramsey Cascades trail is good, but the rest of them (Porters, Old Settlers, etc.) are extremely average, just wandering around in the woods, going no place special.
However, in the summer of 2007 I had several epiphanies. First, I realized that there are native brook trout in some of Greenbrier’s rivers. Second, I discovered off-trail hiking. Suddenly, I loved hiking in the Greenbrier section of the park for the same reason that I had previously disliked it – the lack of trails. Greenbrier is a wilderness wonderland. I also discovered that one of its trails – Porters Creek – has a well-deserved reputation as a great April wildflower walk. The park’s Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage (about the third week in April) makes the Porters Creek hike one of its premier events. People from across the US attend the Pilgrimage. The Smokies doesn’t have a lot of impressive wildlife (lots of salamanders, but no buffalo or wolves), but it is a botanical wonderland. And the opening act in this floral performance is the emergence of the early spring wildflowers – the spring ephemerals.
I’ve learned that I can trust the forsythia bushes in my yard to tell me when to go to Porters Creek. When they start to really, truly, fully bloom, I know the wildflowers on the Porters Creek trail are beginning their annual show. Some years I go to Porters every weekend in April, and each week the show is somewhat different. Hepatica and Bloodroot are replaced by Phacelia and Trout Lilies, which are replaced by Dutchmans Breeches and Trilliums, which are replaced by Bishops Caps and Wild Geraniums, which are replaced… well, the list goes on. These various species become old friends who show up every year, on schedule, just to say “hello.” It’s like a family homecoming, except that you are actually happy to see everyone… except maybe the Stinging Nettle, the one plant that is just plain mean-spirited and hard to get along with. Sort of like your old Uncle Bob who is always mad about something, so you say very little and try not to sit next to him at the dinner table. Don’t even think about asking him who he’s going to vote for.
The first mile of the Porters Creek trail is an old road. There is a fine and varied population of spring ephemerals in this portion of the trail, including some nice beds of Dwarf Crested Iris and a well-hidden set of Pink Lady’s Slippers – both are high-status flowers among wildflower fans. And don’t miss the sprinkling of delicate Bluets on the mossy rocks along the riverside, and the occasional Showy Orchis along the edges of the trail.
This first mile of the trail ends with a loop that can be a bit confusing. There’s a side trail that leads to an old barn and cabin, and another trail (Brushy Mountain trail) that leads to Brushy Mountain and Mount LeConte. The Porters Creek trail follows the creek by staying left. At this point, the trail changes from a wide dirt road to a narrow, rocky trail. The next half mile of the trail actually has very few wildflowers, and many people give up here because it appears that the show is over. They’re wrong.
Keep going up this barren half-mile until you reach the somewhat-scary, narrow footbridge at the 1.5 mile point. A few folks with vertigo can’t cross here, which is a shame, because the best part of the show is just beyond this footbridge.
Almost immediately after the footbridge the landscape changes into a park-like openness with a thick carpet of greenery. Early in the season, this carpet will be a breath-taking, snow-white bed of Fringed Phacelia, with a smattering of yellow Trout Lilies. Later, it become Bishops Cap and Trillium and Wild Geranium. I won’t list all the species. Instead, I’ll just repeat – don’t stop after the first mile. Go the second mile, all the way to Fern Branch Falls at the 2.0 mile point. The real show is that last half mile, past the footbridge.
I’ve had some agnostic friends over the years who just couldn’t bring themselves to believe in God. I understand their reluctance. An infinite spirit world inhabited by angels and demons and an omnipotent God who created all this out of nothing is an absurd idea. Preposterous. Utterly ridiculous. Childish.
But places like Porters Creek in April remind me that the only thing more ridiculous than belief in a Spirit-Creator is the belief that such beautiful places (and our ability to appreciate beautiful things) are the result of a long, lucky sequence of random events. I just don’t have that much faith… in Chance.
For me, Porters Creek in April is holy ground.