An absolute must-see while you visit Huffman Creek Retreat are the glorious Flame Azaleas (Rhododendron calendulaceum) in bloom and we're just about to reach peak viewing season minutes from our corner of Appalachian paradise. Just down the road atop Hooper Bald off the Cherohala Skyway is a magical, secret-ish garden where tunnels of overhead red, orange, and golden blooms stretch as far as the eye can see. Ready to experience the magic? Come explore these stunning views now until June 15th-ish.
Hiking map of the blooms atop Hooper Bald available at the bottom of this post.
William Bartram (1739-1823), son of America's first botanist, John Bartram, embarked on a long journey in the Southeast, documenting the plants he saw and collected along the way. He wrote about the flame azaleas in his book and his description still resonates to this day.
“The fiery Azalea, flaming on the ascending hills or wavy surface of the gliding brooks. The appearance of it in flower, which are in general of the colour of the finest red lead, orange and bright gold, as well as yellow and cream colour; these various splendid colours are not only in separate plants, but frequently all the varieties and shades are seen in separate branches on the same plant, and the clusters of the blossoms cover the shrubs in such incredible profusion on the hill sides, that suddenly opening to view from dark shades, we are alarmed with the apprehension of the hills being set on fire.
This is certainly the most gay and brilliant flowering shrub yet known: they grow in little copses or clumps, in open forests as well as dark groves, with other shrubs, and about the bases of hills, especially where brooks and rivulets wind about them.”
The flame azaleas that grow on the top of Hooper Bald are unique. The plants have extremely large blossoms that can reach 3.5 inches in diameter. Most of the mountaintops in the southern Appalachians are covered with heavy forest growth. There has been a great deal of research compiled to try and explain why some mountain summits are “bald”. The current popular theory is to blame it on the vicious winds that blew at the high elevations of the balds during the last ice age. Native Americans may have kept the balds clear by fire, too, perhaps maintaining them in order to make easier hunting of the beasts that feasted there. As time passed, many of the balds filled back in with trees, wild blackberries, hawthorne and various types of other vegetation, choking out the flame azaleas.
In 2004 representatives of the Middle Atlantic Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society met with the Chief Botanist for the Nantahala National Forest. They asked if the Forest Service would allow them to find ways to preserve the rare plants on the bald. An agreement was reached and the Hooper Bald Project was initiated. The Society collected seeds from the unique forms of flame azaleas on Hooper Bald and shared them with many groups, hoping to plant the best seedlings back into the wilds of Hooper Bald. Volunteers traveled to the Bald two or three times a year to clear encroaching vegetation away from the huge azaleas.
Hooper Bald is relatively easy to reach and has a lovely paved parking lot and a gravel nature trail that leads out to the Bald. Flame azaleas can be seen blooming on the sides of the Cherohala Skyway as you drive from Robbinsville towards Hooper Bald. More can be seen along the walking trail leading to the Bald. The real breathtaking surprise is when you see the explosion of color as you reach the end of the trail. If you turn to the right, you will find a huge meadow with plenty of spots to have a picnic lunch and see incredible views of the surrounding mountains. However, if you turn to the left and walk about 200 yards you will see the flame azaleas in abundance. They are breathtaking and you should definitely bring your cameras.
As you walk through the knee-high meadow grasses you may be lucky enough to find some of the wild strawberries just waiting to be picked and added as dessert to your picnic lunch. Plus, you should watch for the various species of butterflies that are feeding from the blooming azaleas. In 2015 a researcher named Mary Jane Epps from North Carolina State University discovered that, due to the flame azaleas’ unique reproductive structure, butterflies (and specifically their beating wings) are the key to the plant’s pollination. She and three other researchers discovered that azalea pollen was carried from flower to flower by the butterflies wings. The three butterflies you will most commonly see feeding on the huge azalea blossoms are the Tiger Swallowtail, the Great Spangled Fritillary and the Black Swallowtail.
On a sunny day the orange, gold and red blossoms are as bright as, well, a flame. But you must not hesitate to visit on a cloudy or foggy morning. The different lighting creates all sorts of photo opportunities. You also may wonder whether there are flame azaleas on the adjacent Huckleberry Bald. There are, but fewer. Volunteers are attempting to encourage the spread of the unusual forms of the flame azalea to the surrounding areas, but for now, they seem to prefer the exact environmental conditions provided by Hooper Bald. That is where you will see the blossoms that are significantly larger than any other flame azaleas in the world, as far as we know.