Chasing the Catawba Rhododendron in the Blue Ridge Mountains



Mid to late June ushers in one of the most celebrated months in the Blue Ridge Mountains: the Catawba Rhododendron blooming season. The bees buzz with delight, drinking in the flower’s nutritious nectar. The famed rhododendron’s splashes of hot pink create a stunning landscape against a backdrop of mountainsides draped in early summer green. 

One of the most coveted places to enjoy the Catawba Rhododendron is Craggy Gardens at milepost 364 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Jagged, rocky “crags” give the place its name, but these high elevation summits are home to the most spectacular floral display along the Parkway. For generations, visitors have headed for the Craggy Gardens in June for prime time viewing of the pink and purple blooms that blanket much of the area.

How did the Catawba Rhododendron get its name? Legend has it that the Catawba Indians challenged other tribes to a battle in early summer. They emerged victorious, but so much blood was shed that the rhododendron bloomed red from that day forward.

Several other theories help explain how the Craggy balds were formed and why the rhododendrons flourish there. Since the arrival of European settlers, humans have extensively modified the landscape through logging and clearing. It’s also believed that early inhabitants may have burned the land to create pastures for wild game or livestock. Although those actions decimated some plant populations, they weren’t a problem for the rhododendron, which can re-sprout from the roots or crown after being cleared or burned.

Craggy is a heath bald, which is unforested mountain terrain covered by dense thickets of plants belonging to the heath family. This plant family includes mountain laurel, blueberries, azalea, in addition to the mighty rhododendron. From a distance, the dense heaths seem to have a "slick" or "bald" appearance compared to the forested mountain top.

Don’t despair if you miss the peak bloom of the rhododendron. Blackberry, Violet, Turkscap lily, and May-apple burst, among many others, are plentiful with colorful blooms in this high-altitude portion of the Parkway.

The rocks of Craggy Gardens are home to many delicate and rare high-altitude plants. Some may even be relics from the last glacial period! Did you know that more than a third of prescription medicines are derived from plant compounds like the ones found at Craggy? Extinction of any plant destroys unique genetic structures and robs us of potential medical advances. Losing individual species also diminishes the variety of life on earth. Sadly, these rare plants are threatened by hikers who go off the trail, trampling plants. Using the Leave No Trace principles, you can help preserve these special places for generations to come.

Remembering good trail etiquette not only helps preserve these precious plants, it enhances the experience of your hikers as well. If you bring along your four-legged friends, be sure to pick up their droppings and take it out of the woods with you. Traffic along the trail is the same as any sidewalk: please be considerate of hikers going in the opposite direction by hiking single-file, no matter the size of your group. Also, don’t come to a dead stop on the trail, potentially causing a human pileup. People behind you, who may be looking down to negotiate rocks, roots, or other rough terrain, may walk right into you. Also, people escape to the mountains for the sweet sounds of birds singing and wind whistling in the trees.  If you choose to bring your cell phone, it’s best practice to leave your music off and refrain from making phone calls. Most importantly, please never remove anything from these protected lands. Wild plants cannot be uprooted, and you can't pick anything in your local park. (In fact, it’s illegal to do so!)

Visitors can take a short hike up Craggy Pinnacle Trail (1.4 miles round-trip) and witness a stunning 360-view with seemingly endless peaks and forested slopes. Though it’s a bit steep in places, the trail is well-maintained, and hikers of all ages feel comfortable hiking the Pinnacle Trail. You’ll often find anyone from toddler-aged children to a group of retirees enjoying their journey to the summit.

Enjoy exploring exhibits on the natural history of the region at the visitor center (open seasonally) or pack a picnic amid natural beauty. Tables and grills are available at the Craggy Gardens picnic area as are restrooms (also open seasonally). You don’t have to hike to take in a wide selection of breathtaking views. Parking next to the visitor’s center boasts stunning views in foreground and far distance. The visitor’s center and exhibits are also handicap accessible.

Our Mast Store trail warriors talked with Park Rangers in North Carolina and Tennessee, who confirmed that this year’s peak bloom will be late this week and weekend (likely between June 15th and 18th). Two of the most beloved Rhododendron festivals in the Blue Ridge Mountains are coming up this weekend as well:

The North Carolina Rhododendron Festival is celebrated in the small downtown area of Bakersville, NC, on June 16th and 17th. Nicknamed “Gateway to Roan Mountain,” the town sits at the edge of the world’s largest natural rhododendron garden. The festival also boasts a Rhododendron Pageant that’s 65 years running. In 1952, Zula Kate Smith of Burnsville, NC, became North Carolina’s first Rhododendron Queen. For more information about the weekend’s events, click HERE.

Just across the North Carolina state line, the Tennessee Rhododendron Festival is held at the Roan Mountain State Park on June 17th and 18th. Celebrate the 71st Annual Roan Mountain Rhododendron Festival, featuring over 100 vendors selling handmade arts and crafts, local music, and a variety of food and beverages. Entrance to the festival is free and it’s helpful to know that all vendors take cash only, no credit cards. Roan Mountain State Park is on Hwy 143, Roan Mountain, Tennessee (about 8 miles from Roan Mountain at the North Carolina state line). For more information, please click HERE.

What better way to celebrate Father’s Day this weekend than paying a visit to the Blue Ridge Mountains awash in gorgeous summer blooms!

Can you identify these wildflowers?
Among the protected flora that only grows on the balds of Craggy Gardens and Roan Mountain are Gray’s lily and Roan bluet. You might also discover the native Flame Azalea and Fire Pink blooming this time of year. Below are a few photos of other flowers we saw at Craggy Gardens this past week. Can you identity these mountain wildflowers? (Please share your guesses in the comments below.)





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