Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park Area
Gregory Bald is famous for its brilliant display of flame azaleas each June. On prior trips to the Smokies, we were in the area too early to catch the bloom. This time, we hit it just right, and enjoyed this wonderful, challenging 9.5 mile hike (includes .5 mile of walking the trails around the bald). The views and blooms did not disappoint!
Update Spring 2016: Parsons Branch Road (the route to this trailhead) is indefinitely closed to vehicular traffic. It’s been determined by the National Park Service that towering dead hemlocks pose too great of a falling risk. You may still walk up Parsons Branch Road or take the longer hiking route outlined here: http://www.hikinginthesmokys.com/gregory.htm
View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike
Goodness… we’re doing a lot of hiking and not much writing! Here we are in mid-August, still playing catch-up on hikes from June. We have a backlog of twelve (yikes!) hikes to write about.
The first is this wonderful climb to Gregory Bald that we did on our Smokies a couple months ago. Typically, we visit the Smokies in late May. Mid-spring is a gorgeous time of year for cool temperatures, wildflowers, and smaller crowds. This year, we had to put our trip off until mid-June. It was much hotter and the park was more crowded, but the timing gave us the opportunity to finally climb Gregory Bald when the flame azalea was at peak.
There are a couple routes up to the bald. The most common route is probably the ascent along the Gregory Ridge trail. It’s an 11.3 mile hike with just over 3,000 feet of climbing. It’s more popular because it’s easier to access by car and is supposedly a little more scenic along the way. We chose to climb via the Gregory Bald trail from Parson Branch Rd. It’s a shorter hike with less elevation gain. It’s also much harder to get to! Parson Branch Rd. is a one-way, seasonal road (closed in the winter) that requires 4WD/AWD. We had four 8-9 mile hikes planned in 3.5 days, so the shorter/easy route appealed to us. Thankfully, our little Subaru proved up to the challenge and we successfully jolted and bumped along the rugged road until eventually reaching the trailhead.
We got there pretty early, but there were already tons of other cars filling the small lot and lining the dirt road. We geared up and hit the trail. Honestly, there isn’t much to see along the 4.5 mile walk to the bald. It’s a lovely wooded trail, but there aren’t any noteworthy features until you reach the bald.
Adam and I walked along, chatting and talking about past hikes. Suddenly, Adam froze in his tracks and said ‘SNAKE!’. It was a beautiful, dark-colored timber rattler sunning itself across the trail. Adam hates snakes, but I find them beautiful and fascinating. He stepped back while I tried to get a few photos – which proved difficult with my wide angle lens. I tossed some small pebbles near the snake to encourage him off the trail. He obliged and we were on our way!
Near the ridge, we passed Sheep Pen Gap campsite. It was occupied by a group of extremely well-equipped horse campers. They had a full camp kitchen, coolers, and canvas tents big enough to stand in – definitely the opposite of our ultralight gear! There was a piped water source near the campsite. It was flowing nicely, but it was definitely water you’d want to boil or filter due to the large amount of horse manure in the area.
About a half mile past the campsite, we emerged onto the bald. It was absolutely exploding with color – azaleas in red, salmon, pink, orange, gold, and white! I can understand why people come from all over to witness this display first-hand. On top of the amazing floral display, the summit also offered panoramic views. We ate our lunch overlooking Cades Cove and then spent some time walking around and admiring all the different colored azaleas. We even met a fellow JMU grad on the summit.
The longer we stayed atop the bald, the more people arrived, and we decided it was time to make our way down. The descent went very quickly, as the trail had easy, uncomplicated footing. About a mile from the parking lot, we ran up on the JMU alumni we had met earlier. He and his girlfriend were stopped in the middle of the trail. A bear had just crossed in front of them and they were waiting and making sure it was safe to proceed. Adam and I were disappointed that we had missed seeing the bear.
We ended up walking the last mile with them, chatting about hiking and the Bonnaroo festival they had just attended. Before we knew it, we were back at the car! The remaining stretch of one-way Parsons Branch Rd. was an adventure, too. I think we must have driven our car through at least a dozen streams before eventually coming out on the famous Tail of the Dragon road. I’ll let Adam talk more about that! It was a fun day, and I’m so glad I finally got to see the famous Gregory Bald azalea bloom!
The hike to Gregory Bald has been one we have been considering for years. Some of the balds in the Smoky Mountains have been quite overgrown, since the park service has wanted to return them to their natural state over time. I was preparing myself to be disappointed, but luckily that was not the case. The day we visited was the peak of the blooming azaleas and the skies were so dramatic that it was a photographer’s paradise.
Gregory Bald is named after Russell Gregory, a resident of Cades Cove who died in 1864. Russell lived in a stone house near the summit during the spring and summer, while his cattle grazed on the summit. A Union support, Gregory was killed by a Confederate soldier while protecting his land and cattle. The Cherokee had named this mountain “Tsitsu’yi”, meaning “Rabbit Place” and it was believed that the chief of all rabbits lived on the summit.
As Christine mentioned, the drive was a chore. To access Parson Branch road, we had to go through Cades Cove most of the way. Drives to me to Cades Cove are always frustrating to me. Before you even get to the Cades Cove area, people were driving 12mph in an area where you can go much faster. When we arrived in Cades Cove finally, we had more of the same. Nobody would pull over to let us pass on the one-way road. Instead, we had people in front creeping a long at 5mph with doors opened on both sides of their mini-vans to enhance their wildlife/scenery viewing. What felt like 500 hours later, we finally were able to turn off the Cades Cove loop onto Forge Creek Road. Once we turned on to Parson Branch road, the gravel road became extremely steep and filled with potholes and uneven road. While we don’t do a lot of “offroad” driving for hiking, this was one of the roughest stretches of roads I’ve driven. We made it to the top of the hill eventually and found the full lot and line of cars on the side of the road. We parked along the side of the road as best we could, I crawled to the passenger’s side to escape the vehicle, and we made our way to the trailhead.
The hike up to Gregory Bald was a steady uphill, but the trail was in decent shape and not rocky, to allow for easy footing. The trail was mostly shaded by trees all around, so it kept the sun and heat off of us for most of the day. Other than seeing the rattlesnake, it was mostly uneventful – a nice walk through the woods without a lot to see.
Around the four-mile mark, we reached the Sheep Pen Gap campsite area on the right. Shortly after the campsite, there is a junction with the Wolf Ridge Trail. Take a left here to stay on the Gregory Bald Trail to reach the summit. This short section of trail was much steeper, but the terrain was still comfortable. After a couple of tenths of a mile, a side trail shot to the right leading to a small clearing with the first of the azalea blooms. We decided to press on to the summit which was just ahead. When we stepped into the scene from the summit, it was breathtaking. The shape of the ridge doesn’t always give you the best views of mountains all around you, but the colors were all around. There was lush green in the grass, reds and oranges around us in every direction from the azaleas, blue skies with large, puffy white clouds in the sky. It reminded me of one of those beautiful yet sadistic jigsaw puzzles you get where you could only group things by a few colors, taking forever to solve. We ate our lunches under this gorgeous spectacle and then spent a long time exploring the summit on all of the interweaving foot trails, searching for all of the different color variations of azaleas.
We made our way back down the way we came. When we got back to the car, we proceeded down the mountain on the one-way road. The road was in a little better shape on this side of the mountain. There were several stream crossings we had to make with our car; we weren’t scared to cross through the shallow water, but it reminded me of what you may see occasionally on SUV commercials. When we got on to the main road, we took a right and found ourselves on the Tail of the Dragon on US-129. This dangerous section of windy roads includes 318 curves over 11 miles. Since it is a popular destination for motorcycles that like to live dangerously, we passed several photographers stationed on the side of the road that take pictures all day of all the cars and motorcycles that pass. They sell the photos online for people to buy. The first couple of ones I thought were ridiculous, but then I put up my “heavy metal” hand gesture and rock-out face to the last photographer. When I got back to the hotel, I looked it up online and laughed -the Subaru Outback is not the epitome of a vehicle living on the wild side.
- Distance – 9.5 miles (includes distance to the bald, and a half mile of walking the network of trails on the bald)
(Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
- Elevation Change – 2290 ft.
- Difficulty – 4. The climbing on this trail is relentless and moderate to strenuous.
- Trail Conditions – 4. The trail was smooth, uncomplicated dirt.
- Views – 5. Gorgeous and made even moreso by the blooming azaleas.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 1. There were a couple very low streams that were usable as water sources, but not scenic.
- Wildlife – 4.5. We saw a timber rattlesnake and the couple right ahead of us crossed paths with a black bear!
- Ease to Navigate – 4. The trail is easy to follow and the one junction is well-marked
- Solitude – 2. The trail is one of the park’s most popular.
Download a Trail Map (PDF)
Directions to trailhead: Do not attempt to access this trailhead without an AWD vehicle. Parson Branch road is one-way, gravel, and very rough. You will traverse steep inclines, deep potholes, and many small streams in your vehicle. Our Subaru Outback did fine, but I wouldn’t have wanted to attempt the drive with less.
From Gatlinburg, TN, take US-441S into Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In 1.6 miles, take a right on to Fighting Creek Gap Road. Stay straight until you reach Cades Cove as Fighting Creek Gap Road becomes Little River Gorge Road, Laurel Creek Road, and Cades Cove Loop Road over the next 30 miles. Once you enter Cades Cove and pass the visiting station, stay on the loop road for 5.6 miles. Then turn right on to Forge Creek Road. In 2.1 miles, turn right on to Parson Branch Road (this road is closed November-March). Continue up the one-way Parson Branch road for about 3.5 miles until you reach the small parking lot on the right. The trailhead is across the road. The parking lot only has room for a couple of cars, so you may need to park on the side of the road during weekends or the summer.