Gregory Bald (via Gregory Bald Trail)
|Trail Features:||Panoramic Views, Flame Azaleas|
|Trail Location:||Cades Cove (Parson Branch Road)|
|Roundtrip Length:||8.8 Miles|
|Total Elevation Gain:||2300 Feet|
|Avg. Elev Gain / Mile:||523 Feet|
|Highest Elevation:||4949 Feet|
|Trail Difficulty Rating:||13.40 (strenuous)|
|Parking Lot Latitude||35.54293|
|Parking Lot Longitude||-83.89435|
Directions to Trailhead:
From the Townsend "Y" intersection, travel west on Laurel Creek Road towards Cades Cove. After driving 7.5 miles you'll reach Cades Cove, pass the main parking lot, and then enter the one-way loop road. 13.2 miles from Townsend the loop road makes a sharp turn to the left. At this junction, continue by driving straight onto Forge Creek Road. After driving another 2.2 miles you'll reach the one-way Parson Branch Road, which forks off to the right (you'll also pass the Gregory Ridge Trailhead located here). Turn right onto the Parsons Branch Road and drive 3.3 miles to reach the Gregory Bald Trailhead at Sams Gap.
To return to Townsend after your hike you'll have to continue along the one-way Parsons Branch Road, and then take Highway 129 and the Foothills Parkway. To avoid having to drive this route, you do have the option of hiking the Gregory Ridge Trail to Gregory Bald.
You should note that Parsons Branch Road is closed during the winter. You should also note that the Cades Cove Loop Road is closed to motor vehicle traffic on Wednesday and Saturday mornings until 10:00 a.m., between early May and late September of each year, to allow cyclists and pedestrians to enjoy the cove.
As stunning as the year-round views are, Gregory Bald is perhaps most famous for the spectacular flame azaleas that bloom atop its summit from mid to late June each year.
Azalea lovers from all over the world come here to visit the finest display of flame azaleas anywhere on the planet. On our most recent visit we saw a plethora of fire red, wine red, orange, salmon, yellow, white, pink, and even multi-colored azaleas. Although this isn't an easy place to get to, there were still at least 60 or 70 people atop the sprawling summit when we arrived. Normally when you reach a hiking destination that requires a fairly tough hike, people are usually taking in the scenery, eating a picnic lunch, or just relaxing. On this particular day, however, you could describe the mood as festive. People were practically giddy at the riot of colors all around the bald. There was even one group that sang "the hills are alive with the sound of music", as they were getting ready to head back down the mountain. It's completely understandable that the azaleas and the views 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.
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 numerous samples of them. Flame azaleas were originally discovered by pioneer naturalist William Bartram while exploring the Cherokee country in 1776. He called them "fiery Azalea", and described them as "certainly the most gay and brilliant flowering shrub yet known".
The flame azaleas atop Gregory Bald also played an important role in the creation of a national park in the Smokies. In an interview for a report on the historical uses of grassy balds in the Great Smoky Mountains, Carlos Campbell, a founding member of the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club and the secretary of the Great Smoky Mountains Conservation Association, noted that at least one dignitary from Washington DC was quite impressed with the azaleas atop Gregory Bald. While investigating the southern Appalachians for a possible national park location, members of a national committee were sent to the Smokies in 1924. During the visit the association took two committee members to Mt. LeConte and Gregory Bald. One of those members was Harlan P. Kelsey, a renowned botanist. In the interview Campbell noted that "Mr. Kelsey made the statement that the flame azalea, which, incidentally, was one of his favorite shrubs, reached its maximum development anywhere in the country on and near Gregory Bald and said that was one of the highlights, one of the things that made this area worthy of being a National Park."
The terrain along the first mile of this hike is relatively easy. The final 3+ miles, however, are a steady climb all the way to the top. Along the way you'll pass through an old-growth forest that includes some fairly large eastern hemlocks.
At roughly 4.1 miles hikers will reach Backcountry Campsite 13 at Sheep Pen Gap. Just beyond the campsite is the Wolf Ridge Trail junction, which will lead you across Parson's Bald and eventually down to the Twentymile Ranger Station. To continue on towards Gregory Bald, bear to the left. Your destination is about a third-of-a-mile away from this junction.
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 some of the early settlers. Without periodic maintenance from the National Park Service, both Andrews Bald and Gregory Bald would be reclaimed by natural forest growth.
The bald is named after Russell Gregory, an early settler in the Cades Cove area. He and other cove residents used the field to graze cattle during the spring and summer when the fields in the cove were needed for growing crops. Like most Cades Cove residents Mr. Gregory supported the Union during the Civil War; however, he was ambushed and murdered in 1863 by Confederate guerillas from North Carolina.
Russell Field, a couple miles to the east, is also likely named after Mr. Gregory as well.
On a clear day 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 great 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 you'll need to be cautious.
One other interesting historical point to mention is that in the early days of the national park, the Appalachian Trail crossed Gregory Bald before exiting the park at Deals Gap. The trail now exits the park at Fontana Dam.