This story was updated Thursday, April 22, 2021, at 9:18 p.m. to correct the Reflection Riding admission charge.
Tom McElhone, a California transplant, has been hiking Tennessee trails for about three years and says he's seen enough Jack-in-the-pulpit and privet to recognize these wildflowers when he sees them growing. To identify the rest of the woodland profusion he encounters along the trail, he relies on the more experienced hikers in the Soddy-Daisy Chapter of the Tennessee Trails Association. He may not need as much help for much longer.
"It's gotten me so intrigued, I'm going to be taking a botany course so I can recognize what I'm looking at," he says.
With a bit of online study, he expects describing a favorite hike in retrospect should come more easily.
"I can say we saw pretty yellow flowers or purple flowers [now]," he says. "It would be nice to call them by the proper name, not just their color."
Wildflower walks are a favorite activity in the tri-state area, especially in the spring when their blooms offer a colorful counterpoint to a forest's many shades of green.
State parks, hiking clubs and conservation groups often lead outings into the woods, though many outdoors enthusiasts prefer the solitude — or perhaps the pandemic safety — of solo hikes.
Both options are offered at Chattanooga's Reflection Riding, where myriad wildflower species can be found growing on the nature preserve's 317 acres. About a dozen Small Group Nature Experiences are available by reservation, including a Tech Trek with a trained naturalist who'll instruct participants in the use of the iNaturalist app. Or you can take a self-guided tour with the app, which functions as a social network for sharing biodiversity information.
"You can search 400 Garden Road, which is our address, and actually get a complete list of different wildflower species, as well as mammals, amphibians and where [on the property] people have seen them," says Hannah Lieffring, a nursery assistant. "We have over 13 miles of trails, and the app will show where people have logged different species."
At Tennessee's South Cumberland State Park, whose 30,845 acres sprawl across portions of Grundy, Franklin, Marion and Sequatchie counties, rangers have concluded their guided wildflower outings for visitors looking for the masses of trilliums and purple phacelia, which are the first to emerge, usually peaking the second week of April.
The peak for those came "a little early this year," says ranger Jason Reynolds, but the perpetual growing season means more species are always cycling through.
"There are still plenty of wildflowers out there, especially if you go down into the canyons," he says. "Pretty soon, people will key in on pink lady slippers, and then the mountain laurel starts blooming in May."
For plant identification, he recommends the guidebook "Wildflowers of Tennessee, the Ohio Valley and the Southern Appalachians."
"That is my wildflower bible," he says. "I always have that on me when I'm traveling around."
Patricia Appleton, who holds membership in the Soddy-Daisy Trails club and the Chattanooga Hiking Club, says her favorite destination for early spring wildflowers is Shakerag Hollow at South Cumberland.
"Glorious wildflowers," she proclaims.
When the Soddy-Daisy club hiked into the hollow the first week of April, they lingered longer than usual to marvel at the beauty.
"We usually go fairly fast," Appleton says, "but, goodness gracious, we took so much time and energy taking pictures."
This list is hardly comprehensive, but does offer some favorites suitable for any skill level.
* Shakerag Hollow: "The best one anywhere," says longtime hiker Patricia Appleton. It's accessible from Highway 41A in Monteagle, Tennessee, or from the University of the South campus in Sewanee. Hikers may do a loop or an in-and-out partial route from either end. Early in April, purple phacelia is growing "all over the side of the mountain," Appleton says. "Everywhere you look, it's breathtaking." The route also offers views of trillium, Dutchmen's breeches and Jack-in-the-pulpit, among other species. sewanee.edu
* Sitton Gulch: This trail at Georgia's Cloudland Canyon State Park is Appleton's second-favorite destination for spring wildflowers. The trailhead is accessible from Trenton. "It's about 4 or 5 miles in and out, up to the falls, and along that trail are lots and lots of wildflowers," she says. gastateparks.org
* Fiery Gizzard Trail: South Cumberland State Park ranger Jason Reynolds says hikers will find wildflowers along the 11.4-mile loop, as well as waterfalls as a bonus. "Really the water this time of year is also really pretty," he says. "All these little waterfalls are not around in the summertime." He cautions that many of the outlying trails within the park are "rocky and rooty" with significant elevation changes, so the full route may not be appropriate for casual hikers. tnstateparks.com/parks/south-cumberland
* Big Lost Creek: Appleton also recommends this trail to Big Lost Creek in the Cherokee National Forest. There's a turn off Highway 64 near Reliance that's "about 7 miles of dirt road, but it's in good shape," she says. "You take the trail that's part of the Benton MacKaye Trail along the creek, almost to Reliance. There's lots of wildflowers there." www.fs.usda.gov/cherokee
* Mountain Beautiful Trail: This 1.5-mile Lookout Mountain trail lies within the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. You can access it from Cravens House at Point Park, and make a loop by combining with the Hardy Trail. Find a list of national park trails and other activities at npplan.com.
* TVA properties: The Tennessee Valley Authority recommends wildflower viewing at six of its Small Wild Areas, which are protected natural lands. Three are within 90 minutes of Chattanooga: the 4-mile loop trail at Little Cedar Mountain Small Wild Area at the Nickajack Reservoir in Marion County, Tennessee; the 3-mile trail at the Whites Creek Small Wild Area at the Watts Bar Reservation in Rhea County, Tennessee; and the 1.4-mile trail at the Cave Mountain Small Wild Area on the south side of Lake Guntersville in Marshall County, Alabama. Find links to all the trails, and the latest on pandemic closures, at www.tva.com/environment/recreation/tva-trails.
* Reflection Riding Arboretum and Nature Center: For something less out of the way, this 317-acre nature preserve at the foot of Lookout Mountain (400 Garden Road) offers guided outings by reservation or drop-in visits for self-guided hikes. The Nature Center and main walks are open 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. The plant nursery, where you can buy native wildflowers, is open 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Reserve a timed entry for $15 per carload (excludes nursery). www.reflectionriding.org
* Audubon Acres: Also easily accessible at 900 N. Sanctuary Road. Wildflower identification walks have sold out this spring, but self-guided tours of the property are available along 5 miles of walking trails, most of which are short and interconnected. Hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 1-5 p.m. Sunday. Admission: $6 adults, $5 ages 55 and older and students 13-17, $3 children 5-12. www.chattanoogaaudubon.org
* Chattanooga Hiking Club: chatthiking.com/index.html
* Soddy-Daisy Chapter of Tennessee Trails Association: tennesseetrails.org/chapters/soddy-daisy-chapter/
* Cherokee Hiking Club (based in Benton, Tennessee): cherokeehikingclub.org
* American Hiking Society: americanhiking.org
* Benton MacKaye Trail Association: bmta.org
* Tennessee State Parks: tnstateparks.com
* Georgia State Parks: gastateparks.org
* Alabama State Parks: alapark.com
* All Trails (for trail descriptions): alltrails.com
Contact Lisa Denton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6281.