Smokies 900 Round 2 – Gregory Bald Loop – 5/24/15 – 18.5 Miles
Sunlight woke me at 6:00 a.m. and I waited until 6:30 to check if Jeff was awake. We had devised an ambitious alternate plan that required an early start, a long day, then a real supper and sleeping in our own beds tonight.
We packed up camp and hauled everything back to the junction of Twentymile and Wolf Ridge Trail, where we stashed backpacks and extraneous gear behind thick rhododendron bushes. We carried dayhiking essentials plus all our food/trash. From this point we faced a 16-mile clockwise loop, then just a half-mile hike out with all our gear to Jeff’s truck and we’d be home free. The high point of our route was Gregory Bald, a broad grassy meadow from which hikers can look down into Cades Cove. Most people hike to the bald via trails originating in congested Cades Cove, which requires an agonizing slow drive before and after the hike. For us North Carolinians, though the hike is longer, hiking from Twentymile is so-o-o-o much more remote and enjoyable.
The first mile on Wolf Ridge Trail was gentle with several footlog crossings of Moore Springs Branch.
Past the turnoff to Twentymile Loop Trail (where we would return) the next mile was also gentle but my legs detected the slightest uptick in grade. At the side trail to Campsite 95 we stopped to make adjustments - Jeff duct taped up hot spots on his feet and I downsized to shorts and short sleeves - for the upcoming climb. There at the trickling Dalton Branch I spotted this flat rock with what I maintain is a wet bear paw print.
The trail turned sharply right and the hard work began, gaining 2,500 feet in about 3.25 miles. Jeff ate his lunch early as I tried to fuel up on energy bars, and the trail was nicely switchbacked, but still we walked like snails (do snails walk?) At least we passed the backpacking group that had spent the previous night at Campsite 95 (they reported no bear activity). They were heading to Campsite 92 on Long Hungry Ridge Trail for tonight.
Wood-betony (aka lousewort)
At about 5.5 miles Wolf Ridge Trail leveled out and passed through Parson Bald. Unlike Gregory Bald and Andrew Bald, the park service doesn’t maintain this area to keep it open and trees are gradually taking it over. I enjoyed the mile of flat walking through Parson Bald to Sheep Pen Gap. At that point where Wolf Ridge intersects Gregory Bald Trail is Campsite 13, a very popular backpacking site, grassy, flat, large enough to accommodate 15 backpackers and 8 horses. Good luck getting a reservation here and I hope you like company.
Don’t get used to the pleasant walk, there’s some more uphill to reach Gregory Bald, the highlight of the day. I’ve been here two times before, once at the peak of flame azaleas and once in the wintertime. Always impressive. We were a few weeks early for the azalea explosion, but we had a clear day. The breeze chilled us in our sweat-soaked clothes so we found a protected spot to sit and eat more food. This was when I noticed my phone camera malfunctioning, probably the SD card going bad. Jeez, some bad luck, but even a bad day hiking is a good day.
Jeff at Gregory Bald, looking south
Refreshed and back on the trail, we made a quick mile to the déjà vu junction with Long Hungry Ridge Trail. At this point again Jeff left me for more peak bagging and again I descended Long Hungry, just like yesterday; however, this time I wasn’t hurrying and the walking was more enjoyable.
I passed several groups of hikers on this stretch, including our friends Yo and Teddy, who were still snoozing when we left Campsite 93. They were climbing up to the ridge and over to Campsite 12 (an ambitious plan for them, I thought but did not say) then backtracking tomorrow. At last, some good karma - Teddy presented me with my lost bandanna that they had picked up on the trail! They told me about a large rattlesnake they had sidestepped and I kept a sharp eye out, but I never saw it. I did cross paths with a good-sized black snake.
At Campsite 92 I startled a deer who thought she had the place all to herself. This was another great site, plenty of room for backpackers to spread out. I treated a liter of water there for the last push and continued to the intersection with Twentymile Loop Trail to wait for Jeff. My feet and legs were ready to stop but we had 4.6 miles to go.
Twentymile Loop Trail is not to be confused with Twentymile Trail – in combina- tion with the lower part of Wolf Ridge Trail, the three make up a 5.5-mile loop. After the drama of Gregory Bald, though, this trail was a bit boring. If we had been a few weeks earlier we would have seen a nice section of ladyslippers, but now only the decaying foliage remained. The trail was very narrow and sketchy in some places, with several small ups and downs that we were not in the mood for at this point in the day. The best thing about it was one more nice crossing of Moore Springs Branch. We closed the loop at Wolf Ridge Trail again, turned left and backtracked a mile to retrieve our gear for the half-mile to the parking area. Day is done.
One more loss to make this my most expensive overnight backpack- ing trip on record: extremely tired, very sore feet, I was inattentive and I forgot my hiking poles leaning against the truck. They probably fell to the ground as we backed up and I didn’t miss them until the next morning at home when I unpacked. I hope somebody else is enjoying them now.
FYI, the Wildwood Grill at Fontana Village is a decent place to eat, not elaborate but the basics. Back home by 10:00 p.m.
“It is still insisted there can be nothing finer than this trip to Gregory Bald at azalea time, and the ascent made by moonlight.” ~Smoky Mountain Hiking Club Bulletin, 1937