The Great Smoky Mountains are home to many beautiful landmarks and views but high atop the list is the annual flame azalea bloom atop Gregory Bald. Every mid-to-late June Gregory Bald explodes in a sea of color as the flame azaleas hit their peak. The hike to Gregory Bald can be done as a challenging day hike of nearly 12 miles or as part of an overnight or multi-day trip. I will focus this article on how you can do it as a day hike.
Access to Gregory Bald is best via Gregory Ridge Trail which is just off Forge Creek Road in Cades Cove. There is the shorter Gregory Bald Trail on Parson Branch Road but Parson Branch Road is one way traffic only running away from the park and is a long drive around to get back to the Townsend area. After leaving the trailhead and starting Gregory Ridge Trail you will cross three foot bridges on your way to Campsite 12 approximately 2 miles in. After leaving Campsite 12 the going gets tougher as the trail gains 2000′ of elevation over the next 3 miles. At about 5 miles you will reach the Gregory Bald Trail junction where you will bear to your right. The climb is almost over because in a little less than a mile you will arrive at Gregory Bald. Since this route is done as an out and back just retrace your steps back down Gregory Bald Trail and Gregory Ridge Trail to the starting point.
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. Gregory was ambushed and killed by Confederate sympathizers in 1863 as he, like many in Cades Cove, were supporters of the Union. At one point the Appalachian Trail crossed Gregory Bald before exiting the park at Deals Gap. The trail was re-routed sometime around 1950.
On a clear day you will be able to see Cades Cove and Rich Mountain to the north, Fontana Lake to the southeast, and Thunderhead Mountain and Clingmans Dome to the east. If you can’t make the trip to Gregory Bald in June August is also an excellent time as the wild blueberries will be in season.
Directions to the Trailhead: From the Townsend “Y” intersection travel west on Laurel Creek Road to Cades Cove. After driving 7.5 miles you will reach Cades Cove where you will enter the one-way loop road. A little over half way around the loop road and just beyond the visitor center you will arrive at Forge Creek Road. Continue by driving straight onto Forge Creek Road (which also leads to Parson Branch Road) for another 2.2 miles to the Gregory Ridge Trailhead. Just before reaching the parking lot the one-way Parson Branch Road forks off to the right. You should continue on the two-way Forge Creek Road for a short distance to reach the Gregory Ridge Trail parking area. Warning: Cades Cove can be crowded especially later in the day. Only bicycle and foot traffic are allowed on the loop road until 10:00 a.m. every Saturday and Wednesday morning from early May until late September. All other days the road is open to motor vehicles from sunrise until sunset daily weather permitting. Plan accordingly and arrive as early as possible.
All photos courtesy of Jim Plant