Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Hiking Hemphill Bald, Smoky Mountain Park

There's a brutal heat wave gripping North Carolina, so I headed to the high mountains to do some hiking.  The basic plan is to hike more of, if not all of, the rest of NC's Mountains to Sea Trail--the 250 miles that remain undone from last year's hike.

Yesterday I did a 'warm-up' hike that was not on the MST.  I'm a fan of North Carolina's high balds, so many of which are on the Appalachian Trail.  But there's one that looks impressive in the southeast corner of Great Smoky Mountain National Park that's on an out-of-the-way trail.  The bald is called Hemphill Bald, and the trail, appropriately enough, is called Hemphill Bald Trail.

I was not disappointed, though I did find conditions different from the balds on the AT.  First of all, none of the actual open 'bald' area is on GSMNP property.  It is on the adjacent conservation easement owned by Cataloochee Ranch, seen below the summit in the photo below.

They have put a nice plaque and 'rest stop' there on the summit, on the private property, complete with stile providing access from the trail proper in Park property, so apparently they welcome hikers.

The other distinctive thing about this bald is that it's just plain cattle pasture.  I don't know the history of Hemphill Bald--whether it was cleared by settlers or was one of the enigmatic relic balds from pre-Columbian times, but it was a very satisfying, if strenuous walk up and down over two knobs.  It doesn't quite compare to my favorite bald--Hump Mountain--but it does have an expansive feel with lots of vertical climbing and room to ramble in the open area.  Here's a look from the secondary summit north toward the edge of the bald area at Double Gap.

Cataloochee Ranch even has a live webcam set up right beside the high point in an enclosure with solar panels, radio equipment and all kinds of new-fangled technological paraphernalia.

Back in the park, as I drove out along Balsam Mountain Road, I passed four different elk.  This one had two ear tags and a radio collar.  None of these elk seem the least bit perturbed by humans.  Do they feed them here?  I've never seen such a concentration of these nearly moose-sized creatures.

So ... go see Hemphill Bald.  I highly recommend this hike.  It's well worth the 4.4 mile hike from the nearest park road--trailhead at Polls Gap on the Balsam Mountain side road off the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Of course, if you're more inclined to 'dude ranching' book a place at Cataloochee Ranch and you're right there.  Either way, the experience will stick with you long after you leave.

Here's a GPS track of the route with 'pins' marking location of some of the photos:

Hiking Hemphill Bald at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park


  1. Mr . Wetzel, I recently read your review of Awol on the AT, thank you for a wonderful review. As a hopeful future thru-hiker, would you share some insight for some much needed initial search/preparation. BTW Hemphill Bald pictures were inspiring.

    1. Hi Daisy - thanks for the kind words. The resources for preparation are abundant. The AT Conservancy might be a good place to start. You can also read my oldest posts here about my preparation (from 2011) by checking the Appalachian Trail Journal label at right.

      In my opinion the most useful preparation is getting out there and 'practicing' - do training hikes, test out equipment, and get yourself in shape.

      As Jackie Chan once said "If you want to learn to swim, jump in the water." No amount of reading 'on dry land' can truly prepare you.

      I wish you good luck on your coming adventure.