By Bill Steiden
An old saying has it that love is like wildflowers, often found in the most unlikely places. The truth behind that truism is illustrated by two classic camping spots on opposite sides of the country that, in their respective seasons, reward outdoor lovers with what are among the best flower shows on the planet.
Roan Mountain, Tennessee and North Carolina
Where the crest of the Appalachians forms the state border between Johnson City, Tenn., and Boone, N.C, northeast of Asheville, N.C., a natural phenomenon occurs: mountain balds. For miles along the ridgeline are stretches where the usual tree cover of the eastern mountaintops vanishes and the predominant vegetation is grass and low-lying bushes.
The heart of this section is a collection of five peaks in the Cherokee National Forest collectively known as Roan Mountain. Accessible via the Appalachian Trail from Carvers Gap on Tennessee 143, the craggy prominences provide clear-day views stretching 100 miles, though the fog banks that give the region’s most famous mountains, the Smokies, their name are never far away.
It’s a remarkable place to visit at any time of year, including mid-winter, when cross-country skiers make day treks along well-packed paths. But the vistas take on an added dimension at the end of each spring, when the aforementioned bushes – mainly rhododendrons – bloom in a coordinated display of millions of pinkish-purple blossoms.
The 600-acre stretch, known as the Roan Mountain Rhododendron Garden, generally hits its peak blossoming season in the latter part of June, and is celebrated every year with the Roan Mountain Rhododendron Festival at Tennessee’s nearby Roan Mountain State Park. The gathering features mountain crafts, music and folkways demonstrations.
The park has 107 first-come, first-served family campsites – 20 for tents only — with covered picnic shelters and bath houses with hot showers. There is also a pair of National Forest campgrounds — Dennis Cove and Cardeens Bluff – close to nearby Watauga Lake.
For those up to the challenge, a real treat is to backpack the roughly five miles along the Appalachian Trail from Carvers Gap to the Overmountain Shelter, perhaps the most unique of the hundreds along the Georgia-to-Maine trail. It’s an old dairy barn built at the top of a long cove at an elevation of nearly 5,000 feet. Far more capacious than the usual trail shelters, it also offers long-distance views of the valley below.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California
The Anza –Borrego Desert couldn’t be much different from Roan Mountain. A desert basin in southern California, it receives only slightly more precipitation on an annual basis than Death Valley. But that little bit of moisture makes a big difference.
Every year from February through early April, the 600,000-acre desert in California’s largest state park bursts into brief but spectacular blooms. The blossoms of desert lily, sand verbena, brittlebrush, chuparosa and dozens of other varieties carpet stretches that well before the arrival of summer will be as sere as the surrounding sand and rocks.
The wildflowers are such a draw that the park posts a continually updated map on its Web site throughout the season, showing where the latest blooms are occurring, and maintains a wildflower hotline (760.767.4684).
The park is about a two-hour drive from San Diego, making it an appealing day-trip destination. But there is plenty of camping available, ranging from areas designated for free open camping – some of the only such sites remaining in California — to the developed Palm Canyon campground near park headquarters, with RV and family campsites featuring rough-hewn wood-and-stone shelters.
The network of paved roads in the Anza-Borrego will give you a good overview of the area, but some of the best wildflower vistas, especially late in the season, are accessible only by Jeep trail, so consider renting a four-wheel-drive vehicle if you don’t already own one.
Remember, it’s a desert, so even for a day excursion take plenty of water. And whether your destination is the Anza-Borrego or Roan Mountain, there is one indispensable item for a visit to these natural showplaces: a camera.
Roan Mountain State Park
Roan Mountain, Tenn.
Cherokee National Forest/Watauga Division
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Borrego Springs, Calif.
Top photo by Harald Köster.