Newfound Gap – AT – The Jump Off (Mount Kephart) – The Boulevard – Myrtle Point (Mount Le Conte) – Cliff Top (Mount Le Conte) – Rainbow Falls Trail (Rocky Spur – Rainbow Falls) – Cherokee Orchard (25,5km/15.8M, 950m/3120ft elevation gain, 1700m/5580ft elevation loss)
This was my first trip to Mount Le Conte and my first try to find R. smokianum in other places besides the well known stretch along the road from Gatlinburg to Newfound Gap. I knew from stories told by Don Hyatt that there were plants at the Jump Off, an enormous escarpment on the Lester Prong side of Mount Kephart. However, I wondered if the species would grow elsewhere in that region of the Smokies. From afar towering Mount Le Conte with its many steep and woodless edges seemed to be a highly promising candidate.
From Newfound Gap following the Appalachian Trail until Mount Kephart I found just a single specimen of R. smokianum. However, this did not make me wonder, because the ridges in this area were not very steep and were completely forested. At the Jump Off I enjoyed fantastic views in the morning mist across the far down lying valley of Lester Prong towards the nearly vertical ridges of Charlies Bunion. On top of these chines the Appalachian Trail was winding its way through one of its best sections. At the Jump Off and along The Boulevard R. smokianum was in full bloom. Especially along The Boulevard all stages of succession could be observed: from naked anakeesta rock to the first appearance of R. smokianum and its later area-wide spread, further the establishment of Sorbus americana and Betula alleghaniensis and then the slowly shading out of R. smokianum and finally the coming up of all kinds of forest trees and shrubs.
The real surprise was waiting for me on top of Mount Le Conte. At Myrtle Point and Cliff Top there were large fields of R. smokianum stretching as far as I could look, light slopes were as much covered as vertical abysses. Only sometimes Kalmia buxifolia managed to stand its ground. It seemed unlikely that other plants should ever get a chance to grow here and take over these dense carpets. Up here R. smokianum seemed not just to be a pioneer plant but also part of a climax vegetation. None of my American rhododendron friends had ever been up here in 2000m/6560ft altitude nor had they known about this. Unfortunately I was about a week too early since most plants were still in tight bud. At the right time the slopes must be of a spectacular pink or magenta tone.
To get down to Gatlinburg I took Rainbow Falls Trail. In its upper parts every now and then there was R. smokianum despite the fact that there was no anakeesta rock. Nevertheless in earlier times there must have been huge landslides in this area. Today this was still visible in areas covered with in many large rocks. There were now overgrown with trees and R. maximum, but in some places there were some much thinned out R. smokianum left. If trees had fallen R. smokianum got more light and had started to grow and bloom again. Beyond Rainbow Falls there was only R. maximum to be found in the woods.