Hiking to Gregory Bald

Tom HarringtonOur Town Outdoors

For many years visitors have enjoyed hiking to Gregory Bald in late May, June and early July to enjoy the Flame Azaleas that bloom there. The blooms of most Flame Azaleas in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are either orange or yellow in color; however, on Gregory Bald and Andrews Bald the Flame Azaleas are red, orange, yellow, pink, white, lavender, peach and variations of these colors. Grouped together, some of the shrubs are the size of a full-sized pickup truck, and they are often six- to 10-feet tall.

Before the national park, residents of Cades Cove in the early spring would drive their cattle to one of the three balds overlooking Cades Cove: Gregory Bald, Spence Field and Russell Field. All three balds are close to 5,000 feet above sea level.

The settlers felt it was more productive to grow crops in Cades Cove rather than grazing cattle. A herdsman was hired to look after the cattle during the summer months while they were on one of the balds, and the going rate to pay the herdsman was 50 cents a head. In the fall, the cattle would be driven back down into Cades Cove.

One might ask “what is a bald?”

The residents of Cades Cove called balds “meadows in the sky.” Both Spence Field and Russell Field are no longer being kept clear and are being allowed to return to nature. The balds were mostly covered by grass with few trees. It is a delight to hike to Gregory Bald and look down on beautiful Cades Cove while sitting in the tall mountain grasses and eating lunch.

To reach Gregory Bald from the Tennessee side of the park, one would drive into Cades Cove, proceed on the Loop Road to Forge Creek Road and drive the two miles to the end of Forge Creek Road. From there the hike is 4.9 miles up the Gregory Ridge Trail to the Gregory Bald Trail and then another 6/10th of a mile to Gregory Bald. The elevation gain is more than 2,800. Feet. An early start, good hiking boots and plenty of water are essential, and the hikes to Gregory Bald would not be recommended to novice or inexperienced hikers.

An alternative route is to proceed from Forge Creek Road out Parsons Branch Road about three and a half miles to the Gregory Bald Trail. From Parsons Branch Road the distance for the hike to Gregory Bald is 4.5 miles up the Gregory Bald Trail with less elevation gain. If one chooses to drive out Parson’s Branch Road, is it highly recommended that their vehicle be four- wheel-drive with a high clearance (the road is unapproved and has washboard hills, ruts and stream crossings). Also, it will be necessary to drive home on US 129 over “the dragon” which has 318 curves in 13 miles.

Enjoy your national park.

Tom Harrington is a regular hiker who reports on wildflowers in the Smokies.


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