Prospective Appalachian Wildflower Expedition

This is one of two alternate threads. I am thinking ahead to next spring and wildflower season. I am contemplating making a wildflower expedition – likely only one of the two described in this pair of threads.

One of the regions I am contemplating is the central Appalachians; specifically, the region of Shenandoah National Park, Monongahela National Forest, and Green Ridge State Forest. My criteria are: duration of 7–10 days; I want to spend more time walking and hiking than driving; and I want to maximize the number of species of wildflowers encountered. Not being familiar with the area, I am looking for advice as to the best times (week and month) and locations to accomplish this.

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For anywhere in appalachia my preference would be spring wildflower season - probably mid May. In the right places the spring ephemerals carpet the forest floor, its absolutely gorgeous.

That said, I’m not super familiar with the Shenandoah area myself - I’m more familiar with the smokies, and I do know a good trail for spring flowers - Trillium Gap trail to summit Mt. Leconte (https://hikinginthesmokys.com/mount-leconte-via-trillium-gap/). The trail has about 3k feet elevation gain and is about 16 ish miles round trip - so its totally doable in a two day trip, I’ve done it. You traverse several different climate zones during the mountain summit, and this trail has a great mix of stands of deciduous trees, meadows, hemlock stands, and further up ones of the last remaining Fraser Fir forests stands on top.

Not to sound like a tourist board for the smokies, but Mt. LeConte is the third highest peak in the smokies and has at its peak the highest lodge east of the Mississippi (reservations are a lottery.) There is also an Appalachian trail shelter at the peak I’ve camped at before, you just need to reserve it. The peak also hooks up to the applachian trail so you have the option of exploring that a bit, going back down the trail you came up, or trying a different trail - there are six main trails that go up to leconte, and the Rainbow Falls trail (if I’m remembering correctly) lets out at a similar spot to Trillium.

and some flowers I snapped on the trail ( I don’t usually take that many pictures on long hikes like this because I’m trying not to get too distracted, but I do have some)







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I’ve only been through Shenandoah during fall color season and that was before my iNat time, so I don’t have much experience with the wildflowers there. I remember we saw a bear running across the trail in front of us so there’s certainly wildlife! There’s also a big fire burning right now (https://www.nps.gov/shen/planyourvisit/quaker-run-fire-information.htm), which might be worth considering if you’re interested in fire ecology.

All the National Parks have projects on iNaturalist. I recommend checking those out as that might be informative about which plants are blooming when and where.

Oh, and if you do decide that checking out the Smokies would be worthwhile, remember the Blue Ridge Parkway connects Shenandoah and the Smokies. I’ve driven the entire length of it and there are lots of good places to stop for wildflower hikes along the way.

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Oh man yeah, doing a blue ridge trip with stops along the way for hikes is a pretty great idea.

Here’s a quick and dirty comparison of number of flowering plant species (Angiospermae, verifiable observations) observed per month in the main units of the National Park system in the central and southern Appalachians. Bottom line: For spring bloomers (April-May), the Smokies rule (or maybe there’s just a lot posted at this time due to the annual Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage). Peak in terms of number of Angiosperm species observed for the Blue Ridge Parkway and Shenandoah appears to be in June, maybe shifted a little later for Shenandoah, which makes sense since it is the northern continuation of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Curiously, the Smokies show a bit of a dip at that time.

AngiospermSpeciesObserved

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Having recently completed a trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there were definitely plenty of gorgeous wildflowers. I was there for a week in late May/early June and observed 54 different plant species, with the vast majority being wildflowers, including some very charismatic species like fringed phacelias, cancer-root, a couple different milkweed species, and the iconic mountain laurels.

I would also advise that you don’t knock driving as an option for flower viewing as opposed to hiking. Especially given the number of visitors GSMNP gets (and Shenandoah to a lesser extent), the trails can be crowded, and you might have trouble finding those pristine, untrampled areas. As others mentioned above, Blue Ridge Parkway is a nice escape from the crowds and offers wildflower views away from tramping feet. There are many pullouts along the way with grassy areas full of wildflowers and plenty more lining the ditches and roadsides. That’s where I found many of the nicest wildflowers.

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If you do decide on a drive along the Parkway, let me know and I can give you some mileposts/trails to target. May to June is probably the best time for wildflowers with various rhododendrons and azaleas peaking during that time period, October is peak tourist season and the Parkway turns more into a parking lot during that time. It runs north-south and through quite a bit of elevation gradient as well, so in late spring to early summer you can cover at least two seasons and still see the first spring bloomers and trees just starting to leaf out at the higher elevations while finding lush vegetation and the first summer bloomers in the valleys.

If you prefer to hike all the way, one option connecting all these places is the iconic Appalachian Trail. Maybe ditch the one-week plan and the car and make it a three month hike starting in April in the Smokies and ending in July in Shenandoah? That sort of thing may not be feasible for everyone, but would take you through some unique places with rich botanical history. Even if you go with more of a road trip you can access the trail in various places for day hikes.

I’m assuming the dip is the period between the spring ephemerals starting to wane and when the rhododendrons start really going off.

Less people is kind of why I suggested doing one of the longer summit trails - in my experience, Trillium Gap isn’t that crowded of a trail, especially once you get past grotto falls since most people just want to go take pictures behind it.

Alum Cave trail is really the super-crowded leconte summit.

But certainly more front-country trails are going to be very crowded once the weather starts warming up.

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Nine replies ansewring the question people wish I asked rather than the question I asked. Did it cross your minds that I had reasons for choosing the area I did?

I just dont know trails in shenandoah man. wildflowers are going to be similar across all of appalachia, and a chart was posted with peak bloom times.

I was somewhat serious about the Appalachian Trail though. We hiked a few miles here and there when driving along Skyline Drive all those years ago. About 100 miles of it run through Shenandoah National Park. I suppose that’s doable in 7-10 days as a section hike if hiking is a priority over driving. There’s a project on iNat that might be informative in terms of what blooms when and where along the trail.

In doing a bit of my own searching, I came upon this blog about wildflowers in the Monongahela. It mentions Dolly Sods a lot. Monongahela National Forest - Nature & Science (usda.gov)

I appreciated your chart. Thank you.

Do you know the name? I think I would like to check it out.

iNat has three place maps for the Appalachian Trail (differing in width of area around the trail) and several projects. You can find them by searching either places or projects with the trail name and use them in Explore in combination with selecting your target month, phenology etc. I would start with the official NPS project. The Flowers and Fauna project has a focus on phenology using observation fields that might be informative about bloom times.

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I know you asked for dates, and I see someone already answered you. Now if you want to maximize species, consider that the shale barrens (various counties, Eastern WV), Dolly Sods and Cranberry Glades National Botanical Area are highly diverse habitats and not that far from each other. When you add that to typical species found in lower elevations in the same counties (like Pocahontas, for example), you’d have a truly memorable experience.