Summer is officially here, fellow wanderers! Of course, we all know that means its time for bar-b-cues, fishing trips, and family vacations to get underway.
Cades Cove is, without a doubt, one of the crown jewels of Tennessee’s diverse outdoor landscapes. The wide mountain valley is home to historic cabins, sweeping views, and an abundance of wildlife such black bears and river otters. On any given day, it is also usually filled to overflowing with thousands of cars all circling the Cades Cove Loop Road. Believe it or not, the cove sees over two million visitors each year, which is more than some entire national parks receives. It can be hard to enjoy the views of Rocky Top when you’ve been sitting in the same spot for an hour choking on exhaust fumes in the summer heat.
Overlooking the valley just a couple of miles to the south lies Gregory Bald. This mile-high summit offers a welcome respite from the crowds below. Cool breezes and open fields make it an ideal spot for a picnic or just to nap in the sun, but the real stars of the show are the flame azaleas which dot the mountaintop. The hybrid azaleas range in color from pink to yellow and even red. They are completely unique only to this small slice of the Smokies, so special, in fact, that the British has collected multiple samples for study of their distinct hybridization.
Mid summer is the ideal time to hike to the bald, as June will see the azaleas in their peak. If you come later towards August, you’ll also have the chance to enjoy some delicious mountain blueberries. October will have amazing views of the changing leaves stretching down into the cove in Tennessee, or down to the Little Tennessee River in North Carolina. Even if you hike in the winter or spring, this hike is well-worth the arduous hike to reach the summit.
There are three major routes you can take to reach the top, two starting from Cades Cove, and the other on the other side of the mountain at Twentymile off of North Carolina’s Highway 28. We have yet to tackle the North Carolina route, which makes a steep climb up from the banks of the Little Tennessee River along the Wolf Ridge Trail, but nonetheless, it is still an enjoyable hike.
Gregory Ridge Trail is the longer of the two Tennessee routes, making a round-trip visit a total of 11.3 miles. Gregory Bald Trail lies several miles down the road and shortens the walk to just over eight miles. Be forewarned, however. If you decide to take the shorter option, you’ll have to drive the one-way Parsons Branch Road, a narrow gravel drive which will dump you onto U.S. 129, known to most as the Tail of the Dragon. There are miles of very curvy roads to get back to the north side of the park, but a highlight of the route is the chance to drive the Foothills Parkway on your way home.
It’s best to do some research before venturing out as well. Cades Cove Loop Road is closed to vehicles on select mornings during the summer season to allow bike and pedestrian traffic a chance to enjoy the wildlife. Usually the road will be open by 10:00 A.M., so plan accordingly. Also, Parson’s Branch Road as stated before is extremely narrow, winding, and remote. Make sure you have a vehicle that can handle the terrain, and also check with the park website to make sure the road is currently open. It is closed throughout the winter months; storms also have a habit of knocking down trees in the area that can shut it down for several days.
Gregory Ridge and Gregory Bald Trails both have their highlights. Gregory Bald is shorter while also having a smaller elevation gain, so it is the easier of the two. Gregory Ridge, however, is a pedestrian-only trail (the other allows horseback riders), and therefore is in much better shape (no mud!) It also climbs through a much larger portion of old-growth forest, with trees of enormous proportions at every turn. If you have time, you can even do a loop hike combining both that will come out to around 13.6 miles.
It doesn’t really matter which trail you take in the end, because the bald lies at the end of both. You’ll want to spend some time here on the summit no doubt, so pack a blanket with you on your hike so you can lay down and enjoy the view. Clear days allow stunning vistas of the cove far below and the greater Tennessee Valley beyond. Looking into North Carolina, the views take in much of the Nantahala National Forest and Fontana Lake.
Gregory Bald is just one of two balds the National Park Service maintains in the park (the other being Andrews Bald near Clingmans Dome). Before the park was established, these grassy fields dotted the Smokies’ main crest and were filled with cattle during the summer months. Local farmers would drive their herds here to eat the mountain grass so they could grow crops on the fertile valley farms below. Now that the cattle and natural wildlife like the wood bison are no longer here to keep the encroaching forest in check, the Park Service has to keep it trimmed manually. Other area balds such as Silers, Parsons, and Spence Field are almost entirely reclaimed by the forest. Gregory Bald will serve to maintain that legacy while also being home to the unique biological wonders that grace its slopes.