June 17 roundtrip hike to Gregory Bald. 11 miles plus exploring the bald.
Start: Gregory Ridge Trailhead, end of Forge Creek Road, just past the Cades Cove Visitor Center. Elevation, 1940′.
End: Gregory Bald. Elevation 4940′
The objective, plain and simple, was to see the famous flame azaleas and see if I could do this iconic hike. Sandy and I were the first into the cove on Friday morning, and made a beeline to the trailhead about 8 miles away. It was obvious there had been a storm the night before as there were many branches down and on the road, one of them large enough that it took the two of us to move it off the road.
With Sandy and Ginger settled in at the trailhead area for the duration, I took off at 6:48 am EDT, and arrived at Gregory Bald three hours later at 9:48. The entire hike was in the forest with a thick canopy, and it was relentlessly uphill and tiring. (I agree with its “strenuous” rating.) Friday was supposed to be relatively mild compared to surrounding days, and I guess it was. I was sweating like a pig on the first part of the ascent, but a cool breeze and elevation gain dried me off.
Gregory Bald is a grassy meadow filled with azalea bushes and a few cool-looking trees. It was initially enveloped fog, and it was windy and cool. The windy part made photography challenging, but I managed; the cool part was welcoming. (I’m guessing it was in the high 60’s when I arrived.) Within 30 minutes or so, the fog started dissipating and it began to clear.
The flame azaleas were spectacular, and they appeared to be at or near their peak. A very few flowers were wilting a bit, but there were also buds that had not yet opened. Although sources indicate the bloom occurs from mid-June to the end of the month, some have told be they missed the show because of being too early or too late. Of course, every year is probably different. Thanks to the Great Smoky Mountain Wildflower Facebook page, I saw a recommendation that this past week would be good . . . and it was!
After an hour and a half of shooting, I started back down the mountain, arriving at the trailhead at 2:00 pm EDT. It was thrilling, and I was tired. Thanks, Sandy, for driving home.