Last year I visited a very special place in Great Smoky Mountains National Park that few people ever get to see: Gregory Bald. Gregory Bald is a 10 acre grassy bald on the Tennessee – North Carolina state line in the western part of the Park. The only way to access the bald is by hiking to it via Gregory Ridge Trail (5 miles) or Gregory Bald Trail (4.1 miles). When originally built in the 1930’s, the Appalachian Trail crossed Gregory, but it has since been moved.
What is a Grassy Bald?
A grassy bald is basically a mountain with a field on top. The origins of these balds are unknown and there are several different sides to the debate. Most balds are believed to be man-made and were originally kept open by livestock grazing. Today many grassy balds are kept open for their historical value, by mowing or grazing. On other balds, the forest is gradually moving back in.If you are interested in the history of grassy balds in the Smokies, I found an interesting online book discussing the topic.
In addition to Gregory Bald, there are several grassy balds in the Smokies: Russel Field, Spence Field, Silers, Andrews, Parsons and Hemphill Balds. Of these, only Gregory Bald and Andrews Bald are maintained by the Park Service. Learn more about the restoration of native vegetation and landscapes in the Park.
Of all the grassy balds in the Park, Andrew’s Bald is probably the shortest hike. From the Clingman’s Dome parking lot, hike for 1.7 miles on Forney Ridge Trail and you will find yourself standing on Andrews Bald. Although this trail is relatively short, it is fairly rocky and is not for everyone!
The southern Appalachians have several other grassy balds outside the Smokies. Just over an hour away, Max Patch is a grassy bald in the Pisgah National Forest that can be driven to for easy access. Another popular grassy bald to visit is Roan Mountain, which is maintained through grazing.
The most stunning thing about Gregory Bald is the azaleas! Azaleas are flowering shrubs closely related to Rhododendrons. Every year in mid-to late June, the azaleas of Gregory Bald bloom in a full spectrum of colors! It really is a beautiful sight!
When I was up there, I was told I was a little too early for the peak bloom. As you can see, a lot of the azaleas were budding, but not yet in full bloom. Actually I thought the buds were just as beautiful as the flowers!
The most common azalea species in the Park is the orange flame azalea,which grows at a wide range of elevations. Other azaleas in the Park are sweet azalea, pink azalea, and clammy azalea. On Gregory Bald, many of these species hybridise to produce a rainbow of different colors!
If you ever get a chance to hike up to Gregory Bald and see these beautiful flowers, you will be glad you made the trek, because this place is quite spectacular!
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