Thursday, June 20, 2013

Gregory Bald

Three days ago, on June 17th, Amy and I did the hike up to Gregory Bald. We had arrived the night before and were staying in Townsend, TN near the western part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We planned to stay until Thursday and do both the Gregory Bald and Spence Field hikes.
On top of Gregory

Gregory Bald is a one of the two grassy Balds maintained by the Park Service (via mowing, cutting, and burning). It is theorized to be a natural Bald dating back to the Pleistocene era, when it would have been grazed by megaherbivores. It was named after Russell Gregory, one of the settlers of Cades Cove who used the Bald as a grazing ground for cattle in the 1800s. Today, Gregory Bald is world renowned for its brilliant display of flame azaleas in late June. We were hoping to be just in time for this.

Before I begin the story of our Gregory Bald hike, I must say that it was probably one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Put together, everything that happened yesterday was so intense, so beautiful, and so extraordinarily perfect in space and time that I think anyone who had experienced it would find it impossible not to believe in a God.

We got up around 7am and had breakfast. It was pouring outside, but the forecast showed signs that it might pass as the day went on. I went back to bed and got up again around 9:30. It was still pouring. I sat on the porch and read a book, waiting for the rain to pass. It completely stopped around 11, and Amy and I hurriedly packed our stuff and got into the car (so quickly I guess that when we got back later that night we realized we had left all the lights on).

I realized I had packed two different shoes (hard to tell)
Cades Cove
The Gregory Bald trailhead is located at the end of the Cades Cove scenic loop. The loop is open to bikers, and is a very popular destination for families. We saw deer, turkeys, and horses on our drive.

When we arrived at the trailhead leading to Gregory Bald, the rain was coming down in buckets again. It was about 12:30. We put on our rain ponchos, tucked away our phones in a waterproof bag, and prepared for what was about to come. The trail would be a 5.5 mile 3020 foot climb to the top.  

It rained for the first mile of the hike, but the rain surprisingly wasn’t as unpleasant as we had anticipated. The large trees offered a lot of protection and sort of gave it a Jurassic Park-like atmosphere. Nevertheless, we were still happy when the clouds started to clear and it stopped raining. We were finally able to start taking pictures of the captivating forest!

The trail meandered alongside a stream that was flowing very fast from the recent rain. We stopped for lunch at a place where a footbridge crossed the stream. I had a delicious turkey-bacon sandwich and pistachios that I had packed before we left. It was a rewarding break. The moisture brought out an abundance of frogs, salamanders, and snails.

After we crossed the bridge, the intense climb began. The terrain gradually got steeper, and the farther we went, the more frequently we had to stop to catch our breath. We left the noise of the river and entered a relatively quiet section of forest; the only sounds left were our footsteps and the songs of the birds.

Without much warning, the trail broke out of the forest into a sunny “heath-like” ecosystem, rich with mountain laurel and our first expansive views. It was here that, as we were admiring the views, Amy and I caught a glimpse of the most beautiful bluebird either of us had ever seen. It was such a ripe blue-almost like the vibrant blue you would see on a crayon, just brighter-so different from any of the paler-colored bluebirds I was used to. We later learned, after reading an article about Gregory Bald, that it actually wasn’t a bluebird. It was an indigo bunting.  We confirmed this by looking up pictures and matching with our memories. This short trail segment through the sunny opening, combined with the glorious indigo bunting sighting, definitely gave us an extra mental boost to continue up the mountain.

The rest of the hike felt like a continuous ascent to the top. We stopped several times along the way to take pictures; we saw lots of grasshoppers, a snake, and a tree that had a smiley face on it.

Look closely
The last half-mile of the hike was probably the most exhilarating. We knew we were very close to the top, and I was just growing in anticipation with every step. The sensation of stepping out onto Andrews Bald had been beyond description-what would Gregory be like? Finally, I reached the edge of the forest where I could see a grassy opening with sunrays coming down. I decided to wait for Amy to catch up before I stepped out onto the Bald-she wasn’t far behind. While I was waiting, I began to mark a waypoint on the GPS to mark the end of the hike when I heard rustling in the forest.  I quickly turned around and my heart skipped a beat when I saw a large doe standing just 5 feet away. My first thought was that it didn’t see me and that it might charge if I made a move. I stood still and watched it as it came towards me, out of the forest and into the grassy area just ahead. Two more doe followed. I let my guard down, realizing that it wasn’t dangerous; they were just coming out for a snack. Still, I had never been so close to wild deer in my life. Moreover, I had never seen such beautiful and healthy deer. Their coats were spotless and their eyes and faces had human-like appearances. At this point I knew they could see me, and it almost felt as if they knew I was watching them and wanted me to follow. I honestly think they had some sort of spiritual significance-it’s too extraordinary to explain in any other way.

Amy arrived and we carefully approached them, still eager to get out onto the Bald. Five feet seemed to be the threshold-whenever we got this close they would calmly walk until the distance was made up, and then they would continue eating. We crept forward and they would do the same. It was as if they were leading us onto the Bald. We broke out into the Bald to a wonderful maze of vibrant flame azaleas. The deer disappeared into the bushes and we went on to explore the flowers, ecstatic.  This surpassed any of my previous expectations. Gregory Bald is a research haven for botanists and biologists because of its perplexing diversity of flame azalea species. Only pictures come close to truly conveying the beauty.

After about 10 minutes of exploring the meadow of flame azaleas we stumbled upon the most spectacular and rewarding view of the entire hike. We sat down in the grass to a view that overlooked Cade’s Cove to the north. Beyond, stretched miles of mountain ranges, and above floated large puffy clouds. Not long after we had been sitting down, we were treated to another amazing and thought-provoking experience. The three deer that had greeted us at the opening of the Bald reappeared out of the bushes, and walked right up to us, posing for the best picture of the day.

View of Cades Cove

We spent about 30 more minutes exploring the Bald and taking it all in before heading back down. It was already 6:30 and we wanted to get down before dark. We figured it would be a 2 and a half hour hike back to the car. The hike back was much faster and less grueling. We stopped only a couple of times to rest. By the time we had made it back to the stream it was already pretty dark. Within minutes we started seeing fireflies. Before long it turned into a stunning show. I have never seen so many fireflies in my life. What a great experience. The timing of everything today could not have been any more perfect.

We made it back to the car just in time- any later and it would have been too dark for comfort. It was exactly 9 o’clock. It felt so good to sit down. We rolled down the windows and made our way out of Cades Cove, with satisfaction and food dominating my mind. The day wasn’t over yet, though. Right after we left Cades Cove, an animal came onto the road into the headlights. It was a coyote. It stood right in front of us for a good 15 seconds before running into the forest-unbelievable.

We stopped to eat at a place on the side of the road that looked kind of like a Cookout. We walked up and ordered-I got a cheeseburger and ice cream. Country music was playing on the stereo, there was a God Bless the USA sign out front, and the locals were all talking, laughing, and just happy to be there. It was a great place to be, but was somehow even better after a day like today.

I will have the Spence Field blog posted within the next day or two! Feel free to leave comments and let me know what you think. 

1 comment:

  1. We got up around 7am and had breakfast. It was pouring outside, but the forecast showed signs that it might pass as the day went on. I went back to bed and got up again around 9:30. It was still pouring.flowering shrubs