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Through the fog

The boardwalk leading to Andrews Bald disappears into thick fog. Photo provided by Holly Kays.

At 9 a.m., the air in Waynesville was a sweetly perfumed 60 degrees, and the day’s warmest hours were still ahead. Even after ascending three thousand feet to the Clingmans Dome parking lot, I figured, I’d be fine in a t-shirt and fleece zip-up. The puffy jacket and raincoat I’d thrown in the back of the car were pure overkill for the short hike to Andrews Bald.  

The boardwalk leading to Andrews Bald disappears into thick fog. Photo provided by Holly Kays.
The boardwalk leading to Andrews Bald disappears into thick fog. Photo provided by Holly Kays.

The clouds closed in somewhere around Whittier, North Carolina, about five miles south of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Just last night, the forecast had called for dry skies all day, but the first drops of rain were sputtering across my windshield, with a new forecast predicting showers into the ten o’clock hour. No matter, I thought—this eastward-moving system should clear out just in time for me to reach the trailhead and enjoy what I still believed might be a sunny amble to a panoramic view.

But the mountains make their own weather. As I climbed Newfound Gap Road, the rain fell harder. I drove slowly through fog so thick I could barely see 20 feet ahead. The temperature was rapidly falling away from spring toward winter, dipping to 41 degrees by the time I reached the Clingmans Dome parking lot, which also serves as the trailhead for Forney Ridge Trail leading to Andrews Bald. I could no longer hold on to my earlier faith in the sun’s return. I knew I’d be wearing both the raincoat and puffy jacket on the trail, and I wished I’d brought a knit hat too.

The typically crowded area was nearly empty, but that was no surprise. There was nothing to see at the top of that observation tower except the same fog shrouding the parking lot. I turned the heat on full blast as I waited for my hiking companions to arrive, listening as gusts of wind slung waves of water against my car.

Thick fog obscured the view from Clingmans Dome. Photo provided by Holly Kays.
Thick fog obscured the view from Clingmans Dome. Photo provided by Holly Kays.

Some 20 minutes later, rain splattered across my pants as I emerged to greet my companions, a pair of weasel researchers from Virginia Tech. I was there as a photographer while they checked the wooden boxes they’d set out last fall, hoping to catch the elusive animals on the motion-activated cameras inside. They’d driven nearly five hours from Blacksburg, Virginia, to be there, so a little rain wasn’t going to halt our hike. We shouldered our bags and stepped onto the trail, which drops below the parking lot to follow a gentle 1.8-mile gradient to Andrews Bald.

Immediately, the world slowed down. The wind died the moment we began descending, protected by the mountainside and the ancient spruce-fir forest surrounding us. Absent amplification from its gusts, the waves of rain became little more than a trickle. Now, I could appreciate the ghostly beauty of the fog-framed forest, and the luminous green of the moss covering rocks and tree trunks. A trailside proliferation of yellow trout lilies confirmed our 6,000-foot elevation—lower down, they can bloom as early as March.

Just as I began my descent, the clouds began to lift. Photo provided by Holly Kays.
Just as I began my descent, the clouds began to lift. Photo provided by Holly Kays.

Somewhere around the time we reached Andrews Bald, the rain stopped, replaced by an intermittent drip falling from the branches overhead. But the fog hung around, persisting through our 2 p.m. return to the trailhead. I don’t know what I expected to see from Clingmans Dome under these conditions, but it seemed a shame to come all this way and not check it out. I climbed the half-mile trail and saw exactly what anyone could have predicted I’d see—a vast expanse of white, without a trace of the distant peaks named in the panoramic photos installed around the observation tower. I didn’t stay long.

That was a mistake. As I descended the trail, the fog began to lift. By the time I reached the parking lot, pools of brilliant blue emerged between the clouds, an expanding vista of peaks and valleys spreading out before me. I started the car and descended into those valleys, toward sunny-and-70 Cherokee, where the trees held hands full of new leaves, wildflowers exploded along the roadside, and elk waded in the Oconaluftee River.

Clingmans Dome still held onto memories of winter, but here, the land knew nothing but spring. If only I’d had a little more faith.

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The Great Smokies Welcome Center is located on U.S. 321 in Townsend, TN, 2 miles from the west entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Visitors can get information about things to see and do in and around the national park and shop from a wide selection of books, gifts, and other Smokies merchandise. Daily, weekly, and annual parking tags for the national park are also available.

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7929 E. Lamar Alexander Parkway Townsend TN 37882

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