Across the entirety of Appalachia, the eastern deciduous forest forms an almost unbroken blanket, stretching from the deepest gorges to more than a mile in elevation. This relic is all that is left of what was one of the greatest woodlands in the world. Thanks to conservation efforts throughout the last century, much of the region’s most treasured forests have been protected as national parks and forests, where they serve as a sanctuary for the flora and fauna that make our highlands such a hotspot for biodiversity. For ourselves, they also serve as a place of refuge. Whether for an hour or a week, a trip into the woods helps us rejuvenate, escape from the pressures of civilized society, and connect with that wild part of ourselves which naturally feels drawn to the wilderness.
With the forest’s presence and impact on our local culture so firmly ingrained into our minds, it is somewhat ironic that some of the most popular hiking destinations in the region are to the numerous balds that grace the Blue Ridge. Devoid of almost all trees, these patches of grass and heath dot the landscape throughout the highlands and are known by enchanting names such as Gregory Bald, Max Patch, and the Highlands of Roan. Not only do allow sweeping views of the surrounding landscape, but they harbor many indigenous species that are found no where else in the region and even the world.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to several renowned balds, and seeing as the park is getting ready to celebrate its 85th anniversary on June 15, it seemed more appropriate to return to our favorite hiking destination for this week’s adventure. Andrews Bald sits within the shadow of Clingmans Dome, highest point in Tennessee at 6,643 feet. Easily reached from the parking lot at the end of Clingmans Dome Road, the bald makes for a great afternoon side excursion and is one of the park’s most popular icons. Weekends can see thousands of visitors trekking down the path with kids in tow, so plan any outing accordingly.
Forney Ridge Trail is the only access to the fields. From the parking lot to Andrews Bald the distance is only 1.8 miles, making the round trip hike 3.6 miles. The path is somewhat hidden at first, lying just to the left of the paved path that leads to Clingmans Dome. Descend 0.1 of a mile through some giant boulders to an intersection with the Clingmans Dome Bypass Trail. Turn left and head down the steps as the spruce-fir forest engulfs the path.
The trail is a delight to walk, as it was just recently renovated through the park’s Trails Forever program. This program aims to restore many of the most popular trails to their former glory, mainly in an effort to reduce erosion and vegetation compaction. What used to look like a dry stream bed strewn with boulders is now a staircase constructed of large slabs of rock. It is amazing to inspect the level of detail that went into constructing the new tread for the trail.
After a small flat area that continues past an intersection with Forney Creek Trail on the right and a brief uphill section of trail, a break in the darkness of the forest signals the northern outskirts of the bald. A sign announces a scenic view 500 feet ahead, but if you’re here in June, the real star of the hike will have already made itself known. Flame azaelea, a member of the rhododendron family, bursts with bright orange and red blooms that look like flames from a distance. The view from the highest point of the bald does provide a beautiful panorama of Fontana Lake far below and the cross ranges beyond, but it serves mainly as a backdrop to the beautiful blooms on every side. If visiting for the first time, try your best to visit during the third and fourth weeks in June as all of the shrubs should be blooming by then.
There are other things to see on the bald besides the azaleas. Blueberry bushes are another member of the heath family (also related to rhododendrons) that dot the fields. August and September sees them loaded down with scrumptious berries, and it usually is a race to get a few before the bears eat them all. Along the fringes you may also stumble upon the six foot stalks of the Turk’s Cap Lily. Those we found had not bloomed yet, but the buds were almost there.
Ninety-nine percent of visitors visit Andrews Bald only then to return to their cars to whisk away to the next attraction on their agenda. If you have the time, we highly recommend hiking the rest of Forney Ridge Trail as it descends from the evergreen forest into the northern hardwood forest and finally the upper reaches of the cove hardwoods. Although it is a bit rought at first, the trail overall is in great shape and the woods truly are beautiful; several gaps in the trees afford magnificent views of the dome as well as nearby Mount Buckley rising prominently in the sky to the north. The total length of the trail is 5.6 miles, so a round-trip hike would come to 11.2 miles. It does drop almost 2000 feet from beginning to end, so make sure you have plenty of time to complete the climb back up the mountain. The bald will welcome you back and provide a great resting point as well. Happy Trails!
Directions: From the Sugarlands Visitor Center on U.S. 441, turn left onto Little River Road and then make a right onto Newfound Gap Road. Continue 14 miles and turn right onto Clingmans Dome Road just past the Newfound Gap parking area. It’s another 7 miles down the road before you reach the parking lot and trailhead.