As spectacular as many destinations in the Smoky Mountains can be, Gregory Bald holds a special place in the hearts of many hikers for its unique beauty. The bald has an intriguing and disputed history. One story is that, during the Civil War, settler Russell Gregory used the land to graze cattle during the spring and summer months, hence the name Gregory Bald. Another is that the bald occurred naturally.
Ten acres of grassy meadow filled with a variety of azaleas await each traveller who chooses to make the steep trek up the mountain. Both the 8.8-mile round-trip hike via Gregory Bald trail and the 11.3-mile round-trip hike up Gregory Ridge trail are strenuous, though the latter covers an elevation gain of over 3000 ft. and is recommended for advanced hikers.
What the bald is most famous for is its abundance of flame azaleas, which have not only been treasured by visitors, but also have been collected by the British Museum of Natural History. Nature lovers from all over come to Gregory Bald to explore the variety of azaleas that stretch across the mountain top; peak bloom season is mid-to-late June. This year, Cityview arrived near the end of the season. But blooms continue to appear until as late as mid-July, and we were hopeful.
We took the Gregory Ridge trail, enjoying the mountain laurel and the wide variety of flora growing after recent rains. We met a few fellow travelers on both the trail and the bald; the experience of the meadow, the view, and the flowers makes human connection easy. By the second mile up, we knew there were still azaleas in bloom and the view to Cades Cove was clear. Atop the bald, we shared some time with fellow Tennesseans and visitors from Eastern Europe.
When taking either of the trails to the summit, your body may protest, but once you stroll into the sunlight, your soul will soar.