by Ken Gohring and Charles Andrews
One of the best ways to see rhododendron is to go to public gardens, state and national parks, and national forest areas. This list contains a selection of places in Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee where, among many other plants, you can see American rhododendrons, including our magnificent azaleas. If you are inclined to include hiking as part of your plant excursions, there are many trails from short to long that will take you to some spectacular floral displays as well as breathtaking vistas. Approximate bloom times are given below with a strong note of caution. The bloom time of individual plants of a given species can result in blooms over a long period of time. Some plumleaf azaleas, as one example, will bloom beginning in late May; others may not begin bloom until August, with a peak perhaps the end of July. Elevation affects bloom times. Higher elevation flame azaleas will usually bloom later than those found on the foothills. Peak bloom times vary from year to year by as much as two to three weeks, dependent on an early, average, or late spring.
Evergreen azaleas will be found at most of the public gardens listed below. Several Southern gardens not listed but with an extensive collection of evergreen azaleas include Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in Charleston, SC, one of the oldest azalea gardens in the country, and Bellingrath Gardens near Mobile, AL.
For a list of other garden links from around the world see Rhododendron Garden Links on the American Rhododendron Society web site.
Even with all these public places available, sometimes the best places to see spectacular azaleas and rhododendrons are in private gardens and estates not open to the general public. To see these you must have connections. Consider joining the Azalea Chapter, ARS and participate in our many field trips to see outstanding private gardens and private sites.
Gardens Open to the Public
Atlanta Botanical Gardens
Atlanta Botanical Gardens is a 30-acre garden adjacent to Piedmont Park in midtown Atlanta. It is composed of a number of smaller themed gardens. Each offers a display of a variety of plants. The garden offers a wide variety of plants.
Biltmore Estate is a large private estate and tourist attraction in Asheville, North Carolina. Biltmore House, the main house on the site, is the prime attraction of Biltmore Estate. Two fine gardens, one formal and one informal, are located on the property. The informal garden features a large number of native azaleas, collected over the years by the superintendent of Biltmore Estates, Chauncey Beadle, and his small group of azalea-loving friends, self-called The Azalea Hunters.
Birmingham Botanical Gardens
Birmingham Botanical Gardens has 67 acres with 25 gardens. It has the largest public horticulture library in the country, and among its numerous gardens are two rose gardens, a wildflower garden and a Japanese garden. Its Garden of Collections includes a rhododendron species section and a 3 ½-acre garden of hybrid rhododendrons and azaleas. Plants in the rhododendron garden include many of the Encores, Exburys and other hybrid rhododendrons. The garden offers free admission.
Callaway Gardens is a large private garden of 6,500 acres, but open to the public, located near Pine Mountain, Georgia. It has a wide variety of recreational attractions as well as a large enclosed butterfly house and horticultural center, known for its wide variety of cultivars and native plants. Drives through the woods in the spring are delightful as various areas are highlighted with thousands of evergreen azaleas as well as native azaleas and rhododendrons. One of the original goals of Callaway Gardens was the preservation of R. prunifolium, the plumleaf azalea, a native species found only in a small area of Georgia and Alabama in the Chattahoochee River watershed. This is the azalea on the Callaway Gardens logo. Another azalea brought into the gardens was called for years Callaway May Pink. This group of plants, found in the Red Hills section of southern Alabama and Georgia has recently been declared a new species, R. colemanii, the Red Hills azalea. Many other species will now be found here in the thousands, brought in by former Azalea Chapter member Fred Galle, the original director of horticulture for the gardens. Among other places, Galle collected plants in front of the bulldozers around Atlanta during the great building boom in the 1950s.
Georgia State Botanical Garden
The 313-acre Georgia State Botanical Garden is located in Athens, Georgia and is used by the University of Georgia as a horticulture laboratory. Its series of trails, designated by colors offers an opportunity to view many native plants and animals. The facilities are open to the public.
Jim Gibbs, the founder of an Atlanta landscaping company, opened Gibbs Gardens, his 300-acre estate gardens, as a public garden in 2012. It is located near the town of Ball Ground in Cherokee County, Georgia. The Gardens feature 16 garden venues, including the country's largest Japanese Garden and the country's largest daffodil planting. The woods surrounding the venues feature native azaleas, primarily R. canescens, the Piedmont azalea.
Hamilton Gardens is located along the shore of Lake Chatuge, near Hiwassee, Georgia. It features a large collection of broadleaf rhododendrons and native azaleas. It has the largest collection of rhododendron in the state. Former Azalea Chapter member Fred Hamilton provided the initial planting. The Gardens are located on the grounds of the North Georgia Fair. The plantings include mature rhododendrons as well as many other native plants. A Rhododendron Festival is held each year in late April and early May.
Reflection Riding Arboretum and Botanical Garden
Reflection Riding offers an easy way to enjoy nature. Located on north slopes of Lookout Mountain at Chattanooga, TN, the 300-acre arboretum, botanical garden, and historic site is dedicated to the study and conservation of plants. It is a place for reflection as you pass along the 3-mile driving loop and the 12 miles of trails. Among the 1,000 species of flora is a good selection of native azalea species.
Cheaha State Park
Cheaha Mountain is the highest point (2,407 feet) in the state of Alabama. Nearby towns are Heflin and Anniston. The mountain is part of the southwestern end of the Appalachian Mountains chain and not part of the Cumberland Plateau. This area is one of the southernmost locations of R. cumberlandense (it is also found farther south as the Appalachian Mountains finally drop off to the Alabama coastal plain). Cheaha State Park offers a lodge, a restaurant, and meeting rooms. A road runs around the top of the mountain, providing access to the park's amenities. In wooded areas adjacent to the road, the Cumberland azalea can be found in fairly large numbers along with a few R. periclymenoides (pinxterbloom) and R. arborescens (sweet azalea). A good time to see the azaleas is normally around Memorial Day.
Cloudland Canyon State Park
This park is located in northwest Georgia near the city of Trenton, GA. Containing over 3,400 acres, the park offers campsites, cabins and recreational activities. The prominent feature of the park is the deep gorge cut by Sitton Gulch Creek. The elevation varies from 800 feet at the bottom to 1,980 feet at the canyon rim. R. catawbiense is found in areas around the top of the gorge and along trails to the bottom. Native azaleas are found along trails and in the area at the bottom of the canyon.
Providence Canyon State Outdoor Recreational Area
Providence Canyon is often described as the testimony to poor farming practices. The canyons were created by large amounts of soil erosion in the later part of the nineteenth century. Along the canyon walls are the rare native azalea R. prunifolium. Here one will find the largest native collection of this species. The time to see plumleaf azaleas in bloom is usually late July and early August. To see the azaleas, one must descend to small streams on the canyon floor, a short hike dropping about 150 feet in elevation. Shoes that can get wet or boots are recommended for you will be walking in a flat stream of sand and clay in an inch or two of water, and visitors must be prepared for high temperatures.
Vogel State Park
Vogel is a 233-acre state park located between Dahlonega and Blairsville, GA at the foot of Blood and Slaughter Mountains in the Chattahoochee National Forest. A 22-acre lake, cottages, campsites, and primitive backpacking site are available, along with many hiking trails within and out of the park. The Appalachian Trail is found just south of the park (see Blood Mountain below). Vogel is the location where in the 1930s Lemmon first observed the native azalea he named Azalea bakeri. A. bakeri or Rhododendron bakeri is now named R. cumberlandense, the Cumberland azalea. One can find R. calendulaceum (flame azalea) and other species in the park as well.
Andrews Bald is located in North Carolina in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is a double peak situated along Forney Ridge, just south of Clingmans Dome. To reach Clingmans Dome take U.S. Hwy 441 between Gatlinburg, TN and Cherokee, NC to Newfound Gap where the Appalachian Trail crosses the highway and turn west on Clingmans Dome Road. Leaving the Clingmans Dome parking lot one can hike 1.8 miles with a rise in elevation of 1,200 feet to reach Andrews Bald, which is the highest in the park at 5,920 feet. For those more aggressive, the Forney Ridge Trail continues another 3.8 miles. Mid to late June is the best time to see R. cumberlandense and R. catawbiense adjacent to the trail. Good vistas are available at the top of the bald.
Blood Mountain is located on the Appalachian Trail near Vogel State Park in northern Georgia. At 4,458 feet, the mountain is the highest peak on the Georgia portion of the Appalachian Trail, and this is the most hiked portion of the trail in Georgia. Of the eastern side of Blood Mountain at Neels Gap, there is an interpretive center, Walasi-Yi, located along U.S. Hwy 19/129. A 2-mile trail from this site leads to the top of the mountain, but it is a difficult trail with numerous switchbacks. The Slaughter Creek Trail on the other side of the mountain beginning at Lake Winfield Scott is easier to hike. This trail travels 2.7 miles to meet the Appalachian Trail at Slaughter Gap for another 1.0 mile to Blood Mountain. The area offers R. cumberlandense, R arborescens, R. viscosum, R calendulaceum and R. catawbiense and numerous other native plants. Mid to late June is the best time to see the azaleas in bloom. Blood Mountain, Slaughter Mountain, and the in between Slaughter Gap were all named for a crucial battle between the Cherokee and Creek Indians.
Blue Ridge Parkway
The Blue Ridge Parkway runs 469 miles from Cherokee, NC near the eastern boundary of the Great Smoky Mountain Park to its northern end at the Virginia state line. Attractive vegetation and scenic views are along its entire length. Perhaps the best portion for viewing rhododendron and azaleas (along with fantastic vistas) is in the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests from Asheville (NC 191, mile post 393.6) to Sylva (U.S. 23/74, MP 443.1). Particularly good places to see R. vaseyi in early May are near Mt. Pisgah (mile post 408) and Devils Courthouse (MP 422). Mt. Pisgah Inn offers a good place to stay while visiting to see the azaleas. Further north of Asheville is Craggy Gardens (MP 364) and Grandfather Mountain (MP 300). Along the parkway in mid to late June, R. catawbiense are in bloom as well as R. calendulaceum. Another great time to travel the parkway is in the fall when leaves are putting on their full color display.
The highest point in Georgia (4,784 feet) is Brasstown Bald. It is located 3 miles off Georgia Hwy 180, near Blairsville. There is a road to the top of the mountain. The U.S. Forest Service maintains a store, visitor center, and observation center. A shuttle to the observation center is available for a small fee. It offers outstanding views of the surrounding area. The woods surrounding the parking lot have large populations of R. arborescens and R. calendulaceum.
Gregory Bald is renown and truly a Mecca for native azalea lovers. The bald at the top (4,949 feet) is a 10-acre grassy meadow, famous for its swarm of natural hybrids, combinations of R. cumberlandense, R. arborescens, and R. viscosum. Lower off the bald but not on the bald itself, one encounters R. calendulaceum. Located on the Tennessee/North Carolina line in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Gregory Bald can be reached via several hiking trails, one from Cades Cove on the Gregory Ridge Trail (5.5 miles). The bald is approximately 3000 feet above the parking lot. It is a long walk in and a long walk back, leaving few hours for observation and picture taking. So get an early start. Most azalea hikers stay at Townsend, TN about 15 miles away. The best time is usually late June or early July.
Hooper Bald is located at mile 10 along the Cherohala Skyway (NC Hwy 143/TN Hwy 165), which runs between the road to Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, 15 miles west from Robbinsville, NC to Tellico Planes, TN. It is located at 5,429 feet. It is reached by a trail less than a mile from the parking lot along the Skyway. The site has a good population of R. calendulaceum, characterized by large bloom sizes. The color range is yellow to orange. Early to mid June is usually the time of bloom.
Richard B. Russell Scenic Highway
This Georgia scenic highway, GA Hwy 248, starts northwest of Helen at the junction of GA Hwy 75 Alt and winds northward to a junction with GA Hwy 180. Drive north of Helen about 1.5 miles on GA Hwy 17/75 and turn left on GA Hwy 75 Alt. Go 2.3 miles to GA Hwy 248 and turn right. The scenic highway crosses the Appalachian Trail at a high point at Hogpen Gap near Wildcat Mountain (parking on right) and a short distance later meets the Appalachian Trail again at Tesnatee Gap, where a parking lot (and the trail) can be found on the left (west) side. If one follows the Appalachian Trail north from the first crossing at Hogpen Gap, R. calendulaceum can be seen almost immediately. If one hikes the trail south for about a mile (the trail will be westward at this point), Tesnatee Gap is encountered. While not large, populations of R. calendulaceum are found around this portion of the trail. Southwest of the Tesnatee parking lot, the trail starts a steep climb. Along this climb, additional R. calendulaceum are found. If driving from the north, Tesnatee Gap is on the Russell Scenic Highway about 5 miles south from GA Hwy 180.
Roan Mountain is located on the Tennessee-North Carolina border in both the Cherokee and Pisgah National Forests some 66 miles north of Asheville and is accessible by roads in good weather. It is said to be the world's largest natural rhododendron garden. Much of Roan is covered with R. catawbiense. The Appalachian Trail runs nearby. The section of the trail from Roan to Jane Bald and Grassy Ridge has been called by an experienced hiker and plant expert as “probably the most beautiful place I have ever been.” Large bald areas are adjacent to Roan, and about a mile north of a Roan parking lot on the trail is Engine Gap. This site has a nice population of yellow and orange R.calendulaceum. Roan Mountain is truly one of Nature's finest locales. There is a Tennessee State Park nearby. Sometime during June is the best to see peak rhododendron bloom.
Tray Mountain is located in Towns County, GA in the Chattahoochee National Forest, a part of the Tray Mountain Wilderness Area. The Appalachian Trail runs across the peak of the mountain. There is a parking lot located 1 mile from the peak where forest service road 79 crosses the trail. At this parking lot, take the Appalachian Trail to hike to the peak. Mid June is the best time to see lovely R. calendulaceum along the trail. R. maximum and R. catawbiense are also found along the trail. There are several routes to the parking lot, and one may have some trouble finding the forest roads since the roads are not well marked. The online Sherpa Guides provide good directions and distances involved.
Wayah Bald is a mountain in the Nantahala National Forest about 12 miles west of Franklin NC. The Appalachian Trail winds up to its top and then down to points further north. Many azaleas can be seen walking the trail. Wayah has large populations of R. calendulaceum and R. arborescens. One can drive to the apex of the mountain in a car where a picnic area and a stone observation tower are located. Driving to the top of the mountain, one can see many R. calendulaceum all along the way, so do not rush. Stop, pull over, and get out often. Mid to late June is the best time to see the azaleas in bloom.
Wine Springs Bald
Wine Springs Bald is just off the road to Wayah Bald. In 2015 the road from Wayah to Wine Spring was blocked off, but it is less than one half mile to the top. Several communications towers and buildings are located on the bald. These buildings are surrounded by a large population of colorful mountain laurel, Kalmia latifolia in full sun and thus quite floriferous. At short walking distances from the parking area, one finds numerous stands of R. arborescens and R. calendulaceum. Wine Springs is 1.6 miles from the Wayah parking lot. Following the power line down from the communication towers will bring you back to the intersection of the Wine Springs and Wayah roads. Many azaleas grow in the open of the power line right of way.