Thursday, February 2, 2012

Hike to Gregory Bald in the GSMNP

 Trail Description:

As stunning as the year-round views are, Gregory Bald is most famous for the spectacular flame azaleas that bloom atop the summit. Azalea lovers from all over the world come here to witness the acres of fire red, wine red, orange, salmon, yellow, white, pink, and multi-colored azaleas that reach peak bloom around mid to late June.
According to the Great Smoky Mountains Natural History Association, the various hybrids of azaleas on Gregory Bald are so impressive and unique, that the British Museum of Natural History has collected samples of them.
Although this isn't an easy place to get to, there were still at least 60 or 70 people at the summit on our last hike. Normally when you reach a hiking destination requiring a fairly tough hike, people are usually taking in the scenery, eating a picnic lunch, or just resting. On this day, you could describe the mood as festive. People were practically giddy at the explosion of colors all around. There was even one group that sang Julie Andrews' "Sound of Music" as they were getting ready to head back down the mountain. It's completely understandable that the azaleas and the views here would have this affect on people - this place is truly special. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this should be on the life list of any self-respecting hiker, gardener, or nature lover.

To reach Gregory Bald we began our hike from the Gregory Ridge Trailhead. Yes, the Gregory Bald Trail is a shorter hike to the summit, but you are committed to driving along the one-way Parson Branch Road, which eventually takes you to the southwest corner of the park. Personally, I'd rather hike the additional mile each way than drive a couple of hours to get back to Townsend.
On the lower portion of the trail hikers will cross over three footbridges before reaching backcountry campsite 12, roughly two miles from the trailhead.

At roughly 2.4 miles you'll enter a stretch of trail where a forest fire swept through a couple of years ago. Coincidentally, a campfire was still smoldering in the fire ring at the site we just passed.
After passing the campsite the trail begins a relentless climb of roughly 2000 feet over the next 3 miles.
At 4.9 miles you'll reach the junction with the Gregory Bald Trail. After turning right here, the trail begins a sharp climb for the next 100 yards or so. It then flattens out for awhile before one last push to the summit. 

Gregory Bald is a 10 acre grassy meadow, and is one of two balds maintained by the Park. It's not clear whether this high elevation meadow was created by nature, or was cleared by early settlers in the area.
The Bald is named after Russell Gregory, an early settler in the Cades Cove area. He and other cove residents used the meadow to graze cattle during the spring and summer when cove fields were used for growing crops. Like most cove residents, Gregory supported the Union during the Civil War, but was ambushed and murdered by Confederate guerillas from North Carolina in 1863.

Russell Field, a couple miles towards the east, is likely named after Mr. Gregory as well.
At one point the Appalachian Trail crossed Gregory Bald before exiting the Park at Deals Gap. On the Library of Congress's website you'll see that the first Park map issued to the public in 1940, as well as the revised 1941 map, showing the AT crossing Gregory Bald. However, the 1951 map shows the AT already being re-routed to its current exit location at Fontana Dam.
From the summit, depending on the amount of haze you encounter, hikers can see Cades Cove and Rich Mountain towards the north, Fontana Lake towards the southeast, and Thunderhead Mountain and Clingmans Dome towards the east.

If you can't make it in June, another good time to visit Gregory Bald is in August when the wild blueberries are ripening at the summit. Keep in mind though that bears love blueberries as well, so it's good to be a little more cautious during this time period.
Hiking Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Covers 80 hikes in the Smokies. Includes photos, trail maps, elevation profiles, and quick reference trail highlights.  

Creek crossing on way up to Gregory Bald

Nice fall hike to Gregory Bald

Atti just hanging around on Gregory Bald Trail

Gregory Bald

The grassy balds of Gregory Bald

Beautiful view from Gregory Bald

Atti enjoying the view from Gregory Bald

What a view !

Atti just taking a rest

Elevation marker 4949 ft

Azalea's on Gregory Bald

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