June 29, 2014

The Azaleas of Gregory Bald

"It is still insisted there can be nothing finer than this trip to Gregory Bald in azalea time."  - Smoky Mountain Hiking Club bulletin, 1937 

The Great Smoky Mountain National Park (GSMNP) has become one of my favorite places to hike thanks to my involvement with the Chattanooga Hiking Club. According to a favorite hike leader, “one of the most beautiful hikes in the Smokies is to the summit of Gregory Bald in mid-June when the azaleas are in bloom.”

Over 20 hikers from the club began their annual trek to view the world-famous azaleas in mid-June. There were two options for getting there: an easier route via the Gregory Bald Trail, or a longer, more difficult route via the Gregory Ridge Trail. The easier Gregory Bald trail is a 9-mile "in and out" trek starting at Parson Branch Road at Sam’s Gap which requires driving the Cades Cove Loop Road.  

I enjoy a challenge so I decided to hike the longer, more difficult route (14.3 miles) starting on the Gregory Ridge Trail at Forge Creek Road which also requires driving the Cades Cove Loop.  This longer option would also enable me to "mark off" several trails in the GSMNP as part of my long-range goal to hike all the trails in the Smokies. This route also required a shuttle. Here is the longer, more difficult route:

Gregory Ridge Trail to Gregory Bald Trail - 5 miles
Gregory Bald Trail to the Appalachian Trail at Doe Knob - 4 miles (in and out)
Gregory Bald Trail to the summit of Gregory Bald - 1.2 miles
Gregory Bald Trail to Parson Branch Road - 4.1 miles

The first two miles of the Gregory Ridge Trail follows Forge Creek and is fairly easy with a moderate elevation gain of 500 feet to Campsite No. 12. 

Campsite No. 12 is a great place for a rest and water break. 

After leaving the campsite, the 2,400-foot climb to Rich Gap begins and provides spectacular views of the western end of the GSMNP.   

It is a challenging hike at an average slope of 800 feet per mile. The undergrowth of the forest is beautiful. 

While catching my breath, I took a few moments to capture the beauty of the forest.  

According to the website, Fungal Biodiversity in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there are over 3,500 species of macrofungi in the park. 
Some fungi are degraders, breaking down leaf litter and wood into nutrients needed by trees and shrubs.
At five miles and over 2,600 feet in elevation gain, you'll find the junction of the Gregory Ridge Trail and Gregory Bald Trail at Rich Gap. 

At Rich Gap, a left turn took me to the Appalachian Trail at Doe Knob. This 2-mile trail is not easy, but I can mark off this elusive section of the Gregory Bald Trail.  

After hiking four "up and down" miles on the Gregory Bald Trail to and from Doe Knob, I was ready for the highlight of the day--the azaleas. 

According to  Hiking Trails of the Smokies, "On Gregory Bald, the azaleas are so genetically mixed that these small trees bloom in every color from white and pink to yellow and red. "

The British Museum of Natural History in London has even collected a few according to Hiking Trails of the Smokies. 

The bald was ablaze in color.  

Gregory Bald was named for one of Cades Cove's most prominent early citizens, Russell Gregory. According to this knoxnews.com article, Russell Gregory was a union sympathizer killed by marauding Confederates in 1864. 

According to Hiking Trails of the Smokies, "this bald has been a large open field for as long as white settlers have been in these mountains.  No one is sure how grass balds were formed.  Theories suggest Indian development, lightning strikes, and even animal grazing." (Photograph courtesy of Patricia McAlpin.) 
After lunch, picture taking, and rest, the only trail remaining to complete the 14.-3 mile trek was the Gregory Bald Trail to Parson Branch Road. 

The Gregory Bald Trail is a horse and hiking trail as noted by dots on the Great Smoky Mountains Trail Map.  Here is a link to the map which is very difficult to read.  I recommend you purchase a hard copy of the map for $1 at the park's Visitor Center to carry in your backpack.  I also recommend purchasing Hiking Trails of the Smokies if you have any interest in hiking the wonderful trails of the GSMNP. (Photograph courtesy of Patricia McAlpin.) 

About 30 minutes into the descent, a downpour of rain made the horse and hiking trail a slippery, muddy mess. Even though I was using trekking poles, it wasn't enough to prevent me from falling.

My first inclination was to yell to the hiker 20 feet ahead of me to request his assistance, but since no one saw me fall, pride got in the way. I stood up and figured nothing was broken. I could move my feet and toes, but I had sprained my right ankle.

I began hobbling down the mountain until some hikers ahead of me noticed my slow pace. It was time to admit my misfortune, and thankfully the hiker ahead of me slowed down to ensure I made it safely down the mountain as the rain continued.

When the hike was over, fellow hikers came to my rescue with pain medication, ice, and an ace bandage. Just to be on the safe side, after I got home I had my foot x-rayed to make sure there were no broken bones, but the radiologist noticed a previous injury. (I had injured my foot 40 years earlier while playing high school basketball.)

(Photograph courtesy of Patricia McAlpin.)

My hike to Gregory Bald was memorable not only for the beautiful azaleas, but for the realization that accidents do happen along the trail no matter how experienced the hiker. But despite my mishap, at least I can mark off one of my places to hike in 2014. (See January 17, 2014 blog post  "Looking to the Future.")

So for now, while I'm recuperating, I can keep on blogging while I encourage you to "Keep On Hiking." 

Here is great youtube video of Gregory Bald as well as a link to the Great Smoky Mountain Association's Facebook page with more amazing photographs of the azaleas. 

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