Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park
(while Rocky Bald is technically outside GSMNP, it’s still part of the greater Smokies region)
This hike turned out to be a fantastic “plan B” after the weather at the higher elevations turned out to be overcast and drizzly with gusting winds. This section of Appalachian Trail was scenic with moderate grades and two nice vistas. The out-and-back route clocked in at just under six miles with 1,700′ of climbing.
We initially planned to do the Blackrock Mountain hike at the southern end of the Blue Ridge Parkway, but unsettled weather forced us to find an alternative hike that stayed below the cloud shelf. We skimmed our hiking books and searched a few websites before settling on an Appalachian Trail section in Nantahala National Forest. The hike started at Tellico Gap, which is also the trailhead for the Wesser Bald hike. We parked our car and made our way south along the white-blazed Appalachian Trail.
The terrain in this area was interesting because the road leading up to Tellico Gap had been the fire line during the cataclysmic forest fires that burned during fall 2016. One side of the road was burned, while the other side was practically untouched. At the parking lot, it was easy to see that the trail headed north to Wesser Bald was heavily charred and damaged, with entire hillsides of mountain laurel and rhododendron laid to waste. Fortunately, the trail headed south from Tellico toward Rocky Bald was still green, fern-covered and lush.
The trail began climbing pretty quickly and steadily, as it so often does when you leave a gap. At 1.5 miles into the hike, we passed the Big Branch Campsite on the right side of the trail. There was space for about four tents, a register log/box, a fire pit, and a water source. There are full shelters a few miles both north and south of the campsite, so I imagine the site is mostly in place to accommodate overflow during the busy thru-hiker season.
After we passed the campsite, the trail began to level out and follow a ridgeline. In .2 miles, we reached a blue-blazed spur trail to the left leading to the viewpoint at Rocky Bald. The trail climbed for about a tenth of a mile over a wide shelf of rock before reaching another fringe of trees. There were a few dry campsites tucked in to flat spots between the trees. At the outer edge of the line of trees, there was a rocky ledge with a log bench and an excellent vista. There was sunshine, but there were also many fast-moving low clouds. We weren’t sure how long the conditions would stay clear and dry, so we moved on to visit the next viewpoint.
The next vista was another 1.2 miles south along the Appalachian Trail. It was all ridge walking, so the terrain was rolling and fairly easy without any big climbs or descents. Our guidebook called the next view Copper Ridge Bald. It wasn’t really a bald. It was just a rock jumble with a partly obstructed view. If you’re hiking for scenery, I’d probably suggest hiking to Rocky Bald and skipping the second view – it just wasn’t that impressive. We stopped at the second view and ate lunch and watched the clouds thicken. When we started to hear distant rumbles of thunder, we decided it was time to head back.
The return hike was quick and almost completely downhill. We flew along the trail and made it back to the car in half the time it took us to climb up. Even though it wasn’t the day we planned, everything worked out perfectly.
Christine mentioned that this was a “plan B” hike, but I thought I would elaborate on the “plan A”. We drove for about an hour along the Blue Ridge Parkway early in the morning to get started on our hike. However, there was heavy fog just about the entire drive up. We got to the trailhead and pulled the car over. I got out to try and find the trailhead, which was a challenge since at this point you could only see about ten feet in front of you. After we finally found the trailhead, we decided to see if we could wait a bit to see if the fog would lift. On some of these high elevations, the fog can blow over and clear out in a few minutes. So, we waited about an hour and there was no lifting. We knew we needed to do something else. The week that we were in North Carolina, we felt the weather was spotty and there were lots of low hanging clouds, so we ended up doing lots of lower elevation hikes to try and embrace what nature was allowing. So, we drove another hour and a half to get to a hike we hadn’t done yet.
We got to the Tellico Gap parking lot and it was a little more packed than we were accustomed – likely due to our now later start. We got a parking spot and then headed south on the white-blazed Appalachian Trail. The trail was an uphill slog for the entire way to Rocky Bald, but the green and lush forest around us gave us nice scenery along the way. After we passed the campsite to the right, we arrived at the side trail to Rocky Bald at 1.7 miles. We took this side trail to Rocky Bald, which was a steep scramble up to the viewpoint. The viewpoint was marked with a nice log bench to sit on and view miles of mountains in front of us through the natural window. We took in the sites and decided to press on to Copper Ridge Bald. We rejoined the AT and continued south. This terrain was a fairly flat ridgeline. 1.2 miles away we reached the small overlook for Copper Ridge Bald. There was enough space for two of us to eat a snack, but the view was not as grand since some of the area was a bit overgrown. We questioned if we had reached the correct viewpoint so I scouted ahead and came across a hiker with his dog that said there were no viewpoints for the next bit. So, I returned and we ate our lunch (now joined by the dog begging for scraps) at Copper Ridge Bald. After eating, we made our way back the way we came and arrived back at our car quickly.
This was definitely a “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade” hike or maybe “when nature gives you fog over high mountains, go lower” is a better description. It wasn’t our original plan, but we had the ability to do some quick thinking and make a plan with what nature provided. When we do a lot of hiking on our vacation trips, we usually make a list of several hikes and pick what we want to do that morning. We didn’t have as much time to plan on this trip, so we had to do some “on the spot” planning. While it was a bit stressful to do so, we made a great decision and were rewarded with some nice views (and beat the impending rain storm). After the hike, we stopped at Wesser Brew and BBQ at the Nantahala Outdoor Center and enjoyed a beer under shelter by the riverside while the rain came down.
- Distance – 5.8 miles, round trip, out-and-back
(Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
- Elevation Change – 1709 feet
- Difficulty – 3.5. The climbing is steady but always moderate.
- Trail Conditions – 4.5. This is well-maintained, nicely graded Appalachian Trail
- Views – 4. The views are nice, but not panoramic.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 1. There is a water source at the campsite, but there are no scenic streams or waterfalls.
- Wildlife – 2. Your regular assortment of birds, squirrels, and chipmunks.
- Ease to Navigate – 4.5. The trail is well-blazed and easy to follow. Look for blue blazes at the spur trail to Rocky Bald.
- Solitude – 3. We saw a few section hikers and a few day hikers, but the trail was generally lightly trafficked.
Directions to trailhead: From Bryson City, follow US 19/74 for 20 miles. Turn left on Wayah Road and follow it for five miles. Turn left on Otter Creek Road and drive 4.1 miles to Tellico Gap. The road is paved for the first 2.8 miles. At the crest of the hill, you will see the AT crossing and several parking spots. Follow the signs to Wesser Bald and Tellico Gap.