Gregory Bald (via Gregory Ridge Trail)
|Trail Features:||Panoramic Views, Flame Azaleas|
|Trail Location:||Cades Cove (Forge Creek Road)|
|Roundtrip Length:||11.3 Miles|
|Total Elevation Gain:||3020 Feet|
|Avg. Elev Gain / Mile:||535 Feet|
|Highest Elevation:||4949 Feet|
|Trail Difficulty Rating:||17.34 (strenuous)|
|Parking Lot Latitude||35.56256|
|Parking Lot Longitude||-83.84579|
Directions to Trailhead:
From the Townsend "Y" intersection, drive
miles west on Laurel Creek Road to reach Cades Cove. Once in Cades
the main parking lot and enter the one-way loop road and drive to the
of the loop. 13.2 miles from Townsend the road makes a sharp left.
going straight at this junction, and onto Forge Creek Road (which also
Parson Branch Road). Drive for another 2.2 miles to reach the Gregory
Trailhead. Just before reaching the parking lot the one-way Parson
forks off to the right, continue on the two-way Forge Creek Road for a
distance to reach the Gregory Ridge Trail parking area.
As stunning as the year-round views are, Gregory Bald is most famous for the spectacular flame azaleas that bloom atop the summit each summer. 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 most recent hike. Normally, when you reach a hiking destination requiring a fairly tough hike, people are usually soaking in the scenery, eating a snack or picnic lunch, or just relaxing. 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 effect on people - this place is truly special. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this should be on the bucket 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 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 sections of the trail hikers will cross 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 campsite we just passed, with no campers in sight.
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 Gregory Bald Trail junction. After turning right here, the trail begins a sharp climb for the next 100 yards or so. It then flattens out for a while before one last push to the summit.
Gregory Bald is a 10 acre grassy meadow, and is one of two balds that are 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 homesteader 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 the first Park map issued to the public in 1940, as well as the revised 1941 map, both 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 a good idea to be a little more cautious during this time period.