|The Red River at Hemlock Lodge.|
It had rained overnight, and when I got up next morning the mist was heavy over the hills. Upon a closer look, the mist was actually a drizzle. I had breakfast in the dining room while watching the birds at large feeders near the windows. There were a lot of finches, cardinals, some tufted titmice, a downy woodpecker and a brown creeper, and the squirrels' antics raiding the feeders and fighting each other off were very amusing.
It stopped raining after breakfast and looked to be clearing up so I got my gear ready for a hike. There were two trails going up, each about 3/4 of a mile long, and I stopped by the Wildlife Center to ask which was better. I chatted with the ranger, and he explained that the second trail had over a hundred steps and was much better for coming back downhill--the first trail was the original one, in use since the early days of this natural attraction, and a bit easier. I commented that I regretted forgetting my binoculars since there were so many lovely birds around, and he was kind enough to loan me a spare pair to use during my stay.
|Partridge Berry by the trail|
I took the ranger's advice and followed the original trail. The trees had not leafed out yet, but the forest floor displayed some early wildflowers, fungi, mosses, and ferns. It took a bit a climbing before the sandstone formation of the natural bridge could be seen.
|Under the bridge.|
The trail getting up to the top of the natural bridge led under the arch and a set of steps at the back along a very narrow place between rock walls. The sides of my pack scraped the rock walls--I imagine most grown men would have to turn sideways to get their shoulders through this stretch and as for the obese... well, I don't think so.
|Steps up to the top.|
|The trail up.|
Once at the top, the view was fantastic. There were signs posted to stay away from the edges--at the Wildlife center the literature said an average of eight people a year were killed or maimed from falls off the cliffs--yet many people disregarded the warning and sat in precarious perches at the edge of the precipice. I walked the length of the bridge and continued on the Laurel Ridge Trail to the end of the upper ledge, a place called Lover's Leap.
|Top of Natural Bridge|
|View from Laurel Ridge Trail|
There were a few plants blooming here: some variety of wild cherry (Prunus serotina or P. avium?) and Trailing Arbutus (Epigaia repens), but the most interesting plants I saw were the fruiting bodies of the lichens growing on the rocks--light pink in color, I'd never seen these in bloom before. My internet research said this is a Cumberland rock shield lichen or pink bubblegum lichen (Icmadophila ericetorum), which makes sense, these mountains are part of the Cumberland plateau.
|Wild cherry blossoms|
|Trailing arbutus (Epigaia repens)|
|Lichen with pink fruiting bodies (bubblegum lichen?)|
After reaching Lover's Leap I walked back to the bridge and started down the Balanced Rock trail. The mountain sides were covered with enormous, tree-sized Rhododendrons, (Rhododendrum maximum, I presume) which I'd love to see when in bloom. The wooden steps leading down were very artistically laid out, but there were so many of them it was a good thing I was headed down rather than up.
|Trail down from Natural Bridge|
|Balanced Rock Trail|
I was back at the lodge in time for lunch. It started to pour again while I was in the dining room, and it looked like it might continue for the rest of the afternoon. I could only hope that it might yet clear up long enough to do another hike in the afternoon.