Of the two grassy balds in Great Smoky Mountains National Park with stunning displays of flowering shrubs in June, Andrews Bald near Clingmans Dome is by far the easier to reach. But if you’re ambitious – really ambitious – I recommend a long, strenuous hike to Gregory Bald at the western end of the park. It’s an especially rewarding place to visit on a fine June day.
The shortest hike to Gregory Bald starts from the Cades Cove area in Tennessee. Yet I prefer to hike from the Twentymile section on the N.C. side of the park, in order to avoid the heavily traveled roads to Cades Cove. I should note that this longer hiking route begins at one of the park’s lowest elevations – about 1,300 feet – and climbs to 4,949-foot-high Gregory Bald. Yes, it’s a long, challenging ascent.
The name Twentymile refers to the distance Cherokee Indians were forced to march in 1838, as part of the Trail of Tears removal, from a point along the Little Tennessee River to Dalton Gap at the Tennessee state line. These days, Twentymile Trail follows an old rail grade used in the 1920s by the Kitchen Lumber Co. for its extensive logging operations.
Soon after you set out on Twentymile Trail, you may see numerous Rosebay rhododendron shrubs blooming along Twentymile Creek. The creek is strewn with fallen trees, many of them likely toppled by a fierce storm that blew through here several years ago. In half a mile, just above a bridge crossing Moore Springs Branch, you reach a junction and turn right to continue on Twentymile Trail. Just above the junction, a short side trail leads to nice views of Twentymile Creek Cascade.
After another 1¼ miles, you reach the Twentymile Creek backcountry campsite, then begin a moderately steep climb to Proctor Field Gap and an expansive trail junction. From here, the route will be to your left, on the Long Hungry Ridge Trail that climbs to the Gregory Bald Trail at Rich Gap. (Don’t take the Twentymile Loop Trail that also exits Proctor Field Gap.)
Quickly, the walking gets a little sloppy as Long Hungry Ridge Trail makes a short, but wet and rocky, descent to a rock-hop crossing of Proctor Branch. Beyond the branch, the trail follows a nearly level old rail grade. But the easy walking is fool’s gold. After the trail takes a hard left through Upper Flats backcountry campsite – site of a former logging camp – and crosses Greer Branch, it begins a steep, rugged climb for the next 2½ miles to a pleasant open area known as Rye Patch. Past Rye Patch (now populated mostly by ferns and weeds), you can enjoy a basically level trail through a cooler forest for the remaining three-fourths mile to Rich Gap.
At Rich Gap, you turn left to follow Gregory Bald Trail for another three-fourths mile to the bald itself. Once you arrive on the bald, you’ll be treated to brilliant flame azaleas and long-range views on a reasonably clear day. You may spot creamy white or pale yellow azaleas, as well as dazzling orange and red blossoms. And the views of high peaks such as Stratton and Hooper balds, in the Unicoi Mountains to the southwest, are sublime.
Upon departing the bald, you walk down a rocky section of Gregory Bald Trail to Sheep Pen Gap. Here you turn left to pick up the Wolf Ridge Trail that takes you about 6¼ miles to the Twentymile Trail junction half a mile from the parking area. It’s a full day that merits an early start even in June, but a hike that’s well worth the effort.
- Trails: Twentymile, Long Hungry Ridge, Gregory Bald, Wolf Ridge.
- Trailhead: Parking area above Twentymile Ranger Station, off N.C. 28.
- Length: 15.7 miles.
- Difficulty: Strenuous.
Ben Anderson is author of Smokies Chronicle: A Year of Hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park (blairpub.com).