Friday, April 6, 2012

Gregory Bald Hike

Gregory Bald is one of the most popular destinations in Great Smoky Mountain National Park.  The main attraction luring so many folks to Gregory Bald is the flame azaleas which bloom in mid to late June.   Well, this isn’t June, but Gregory Bald Trail is one I need in my quest to hike all the trails in the Smokies, so off we went.  Hiking with us was our friend Sharon.  She’s coloring her trail map also and Gregory Bald was on her list.
Yellow trillium
Gregory Bald Trail, is 7 miles in length from Parson Branch Road to the Appalachian Trail.  The Bald is located 4.5 miles from the road; all up hill, of course.  The trailhead on Parson Branch Road is about 8 miles from the Cades Cove Loop Road.  Parson Branch is what the Park Service calls an “unimproved” road.  Actually, it does have some improvements.  Most of the wooden bridges over the streams have been replaced with concrete in an effort to keep them from washing out during heavy rains.  The road is drivable, but pretty rough.
White Trillium
We passed through the gate at Cades Cove Loop Road when it opened at 7:30 and arrived at the trailhead, 12 miles away an hour and fifteen minutes later.  There is a parking lot at the trailhead that will accommodate several cars.
Some type of magnolia tree in bloom
The trail starts with a slight descent.  A teaser, no doubt.  The other 4.3 miles is a steady climb, but not too steep, gaining 2000 feet over the 4.5 miles to the bald.

Spring Beauty covering the ground at campsite 13
Our hike was fantastic.  The trail was lined on both sides by one wildflower after another.  We did our best to identify each new flower we came to, but without the flower book we had to rely on our memories.  At about the 3 mile point we started seeing spring beauty.  That’s not so surprising since it’s a common spring flower.  It was remarkable for the quantity.  They was so thick and widespread it looked like snow.
Gregory Bald
We stopped for a short break at campsite 13 at the junction with Wolf Ridge Trail.  This backcountry campsite is huge with space for dozens of tents.  As with all the backcountry campsites and shelters in the Smokies, pulley systems have been installed to hang food out of reach from critters, including bears.

From campsite 13 it is a short half mile walk (up hill) to the bald.  We did not expect to find the azaleas in bloom and they weren’t.  The bald was special nevertheless with its open expanse of grass and the 360 degree views.  Clouds were moving in which obscured our view somewhat, but it was still spectacular.  We took our lunch break here and would have tarried longer, but the thunder started to rumble.
The space between the mountains is Cades Cove
Southern balds are somewhat of a mystery.  There are several theories about how they were created.  The southern Appalachian Mountains do not rise to an elevation above tree line and balds left unattended eventually become tree covered.  One theory suggests that lightning strikes caused fires which burned off the vegetation.  Some say wild buffalo and elk grazing cleared these mountain tops.  Perhaps the most popular theory is that Native Americans intentionally set fires to allow grass to grow which would attract game herds such as deer.  After the white settlers began to populate the region, they allowed their cattle to graze on these high balds during the summer season, freeing up pasture land below for crops.

Sharon and Gene enjoying a lunch break
The Park Service is generally committed to letting nature do its thing unless they want to preserve the historical aspect of an area.  In Great Smoky Mountain National Park, they are maintaining Gregory Bald and a couple others and letting the rest return to their natural state.

With a storm threatening we reluctantly headed toward the car.  The trek downhill moved along a little faster.  We stopped occasionally for one last look at some of the flowers, but kept up a steady pace.  On the way down we met a couple volunteers on horseback.  They had saws in hand and were cutting and removing the few blowdowns we’d stepped over on our way up.  That made the downhill walk a bit nicer.  A big thanks to all the volunteers who help keep the trails open.

We were back at the car by 4 PM and ready to start the trip home.  I forgot to mention earlier, Parson Branch Road is one way.  After a pretty tense 5 miles on that gravel road, we ended up nearly at the bottom of the “Dragon’s Tail”.  That’s the nickname given by bikers for a very curvy stretch of US 129 as it crosses the TN/NC border.  We “rode the Dragon” in a heavy thunderstorm back to Foothills Parkway which brought us over to Townsend.  The 50 mile drive back to our campsite in Cades Cove took a couple hours.  We’d had a full day.
Flame Azalea
We were not surprised the azalea was not in bloom on the bald, but we were totally blown away to find one in full bloom on Parson Branch Road.  What a day.  We loved every minute of it.

That’s what happened on Tuesday.  Thanks for tagging along.


  1. Yes, it most certainly was a great day and a wonderful hike! I'll have to say that Gene and I both look rather suspicious in that picture. I think I was either saying, "I'm too hungry to stop and pose for a picture" or "thank heavens, it's all downhill from here." Looking forward to more hiking with you. Glad you are here!

  2. What a beautiful looking hike. Great flower photos too.