Return to Gregory Bald - Part 2
Forge Creek and the Lower Trail

by Donald W. Hyatt

Forge Creek
Rhododendron maximum
There are two primary trails up to Gregory Bald. The "easier" route starts from Parson's Branch Road along Hannah Trail, which unfortunately has been closed since 1994 due to storm damage. The more rigorous Gregory Ridge Trail originates along Forge Creek Road, several miles south of Cades Cove. One hiking book lists this trail as moderate while another calls it strenuous. In any case, the hike to the bald via Gregory Ridge is very challenging, which may explain why avid rhododendron and azalea fanciers do not visit there more often. From the parking area, the trail ascends 3000 feet in elevation in a distance of 5.5 miles. To me, a novice hiker from flat land, it seems much longer and steeper than what is reported, but I'll trust the statistics of the professionals.

The first portion of the trail travels along Forge Creek, crossing the picturesque rushing stream several times as it winds through dense thickets of Rhododendron maximum and virgin forests of hemlock and tulip poplar. Many of the magnificent trees are four feet in diameter at the base and tower hundreds of feet above the forest floor. Some trees have been damaged by storms, losing their tops to lightening, wind or snow damage over the centuries, and others have fallen to the earth, now serving as "nurse logs" for the next generation. I was also impressed with the wealth of wildflowers in the area, especially massive beds of the dwarf iris cristata growing along the trail. What a display that must be in early spring!

The rhododendrons had an excellent bud set during the summer of 1996, and R. maximum was in peak bloom when we made our excursion to Gregory on July 10th. Trusses of white and pale pink were everywhere, arching over the trail and framing vistas of waterfalls along the stream. The trail was strewn with delicate blossoms knocked off by recent rains. We could have spent weeks just looking at different forms of maximum that surrounded us, but we trudged on in anticipation of the azaleas on the mountain.

R. maximum
As the trail leaves the area along Forge Creek it also begins to climb steadily through drier hardwood forests sprinkled with occasional pines. I was impressed with the glossy round leaves of galax forming a beautiful groundcover under the large stands of kalmia. The occasional bloom stalks of spent pink ladyslippers hinted of yet another springtime spectacle.

Trail to Gregory

Big Rock
We usually rest for a bit at the "big rock", an impressive outcropping of large boulders along the trail. I remember on my first trip asking our leader, George McLellan, "Are we there yet?" Soaked in perspiration, I had been hiking for what seemed like hours. Surely we must be close to the top. George replied, "Oh, this is just about half-way," but I was certain he was joking. Now that I have hiked this trail twice, I realize that George was right; the "big rock" is the midpoint of the hike.

Return to Gregory Bald
1. Introduction and Cade's Cove
2. Forge Creek and the Lower Trail
3. Upper Trail and Entrance to the Bald
4. Exploring Gregory Bald
5. Discoveries and a Brush with Nature
6. Reflections and Concluding Remarks

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