2017 Recommended Hikes
by Marti Smith, Smoky Mountain 900 Miler
& GSMA's Membership Associate
Take a less-traveled hike this summer for the enjoyment of classic Smoky Mountain views and reward yourself at your destination with a picnic lunch: Hemphill Bald at elevation 5,540 feet!
Your trek begins at Polls Gap on Heintooga Road off the Blue Ridge Parkway in the Balsam Mountain area of the Smokies. The Hemphill Bald Trail on the right climbs gently at first, as it is actually an old logging railroad bed. Notice the grass that lines the trail. This is an indication of the extensive logging done by Suncrest Lumber Company, as grass is some of the first vegetation to return after environmental disturbances such as logging. Look to the left and observe intermittent views of the Caldwell Fork Valley below in Cataloochee. Test your observation skills by looking for some of the many old still-in-tact chestnut stumps, remnants of the Chestnut blight from over 80 years ago.
Your path becomes a more-aggressive climb as it follows the southern border of the Smokies. You'll not notice it at first, but as you approach the destination the trail becomes steeper. The elevation gain is 400 feet within the last mile. This section of the trail parallels a split rail fence that separates you from bovines living at nearby Cataloochee Ranch. While these farm animals tend to be just as curious about us as we are about them, it is advised to enjoy them from a distance and take photos for memories.
Eventually, the dense forest evolves into a treeless bald south of the park. Sneak peeks of the view ahead will help make the ascent seem effortless in anticipation of what is to come.
Approaching the bald you will notice a perfectly placed stone picnic table under a shade tree, considered one of the best lunch spots in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It's time to enjoy that picnic lunch packed earlier and soak in the wonderful mountain views of Maggie Valley in Western North Carolina. This destination is extremely rewarding in the fall for its autumn foliage panorama. Spring is also a treat for a variety of wild flowers along the trail. I saw my first Tall Bellflower on this trail in the summer.
Another option is to increase the mileage from a 9.4 in-and-out hike to a 13.5-mile round trip. This loop includes the remaining 3.5 miles of Hemphill Bald Trail to 1.7 miles of Caldwell Fork and 3.5 miles of Rough Fork. The loop ends where the hike began, at Polls Gap. I recommend this for those who just cannot get enough of Hiking Trails of the Smokies.
A trip to Ramsey Cascades, the Smokies' tallest waterfall, is a great way to beat the summer heat. With tons of water every second spilling over a series of rocky boulders 100 feet tall, Ramsey’s is considered one of the “crown jewels” of the park and as such is quite popular. Try to get an early start when you tackle this hike and plan to spend most of your day hiking and enjoying nature. The trail is considered moderately strenuous, so prepare to work for this reward. It is well worth it.
The first mile and a half of this trail is old roadbed cut over by local residents for homesteads and farming, and later by logging companies. This part of the trail - within a Cove Hardwood Forest for those arborists who enjoy their trees- is considered moderate due to the elevation gain of 600 feet. At the end of the roadbed, you'll come across an old traffic circle. Here you will leave the middle prong of the Pigeon River and will get your first views of Ramsey Branch as it flows into the middle prong. This is the branch of water that actually flows over the rocks at the cascades to create the falls at the culmination of your trek.
This section is also where the trail topography changes to a typical narrow hiking trail with lots of roots
and some rocks. It gains another 1,600 feet in the remaining 2.5 miles and is the reason for the "strenuous" rating after the word moderate. This old-growth forest section of the trail is home to record-setting giant poplar and maple trees. They are big enough for 5-6 people to stretch their arms around the circumference. Look for the maple tree on the left about half way up on this section. The summer forest in this area tends to look like what I imagine a magical storybook scene would due to the abundance of ferns and mosses shaded by the tall tree overstory.
The last section, before reaching the falls is where the rough and rocky terrain begins. Lots of rocks and roots make for large step-ups that may require the aid of a hiking stick for most folks. Hiking poles will be an asset on the way back down, too.
Once you have conquered this area, be prepared for your “crown jewel” reward! Find your spot, sit down, relax and enjoy your snacks or lunch, and snap some pictures. Splash yourself with some water if you are hot! Spend some time up here allowing nature to heal your body and spirit.
A word of caution is advised here: Please do not attempt to climb the falls as the rocks are very slippery. Serious injuries and deaths have occurred when folks get it in their heads that this (or any) waterfall is safe to climb. Click HERE to learn more about water safety in the Smokies.
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