Sunday, June 23, 2013

Spence Field

Amy and I hiked to Spence Field on Wednesday, June 19th, two days after our Gregory Bald hike. Amy scheduled the day in between as a work-day to write descriptions for the book-fortunately for us, this was the only day that the storms never let up, and we got a lot a work done. Not to mention, a day of rest from the strenuous hike to Gregory Bald was good for both of us.

We each got up around 9 am, had a quick breakfast, and packed our bags for the hike. The sky showed no signs that it would rain today, subduing my regular worry that the trip might have to be postponed. The trailhead for the Spence Field hike, like the Gregory Bald hike, was located in the Cades Cove area. The hike up to Spence Field would be a 5.3 mile 2,941 foot ascent. Neither of us had ever done this hike, and I had little idea of what to expect.

Spence Field is different from Andrews and Gregory Bald in that it hasn’t been maintained by the National Park Service. The decision to not actively maintain Spence Field may result from the general consensus that Spence Field is not a naturally occurring Bald. The National Park Service states that it was probably cleared in the late 19th century by the grandfather of Asa Sparks and used as a field for grazing.1 We suspected that without grazing or maintenance for the past 80 years, Spence Field would probably not be as open as Gregory or Andrews. We were still curious to explore the extent to which trees and shrubbery had invaded the grassy Bald.

When we arrived at the trailhead, my phone read 10:30 am. Happy to get an earlier start than we had been able to with Gregory, we started the hike with high hopes.

We almost immediately came across a group of three fly fishermen and realized that the trail meandered alongside a creek. From that point on, I couldn’t help but notice all of the great fishing holes tucked away in pockets of the stream, probably teeming with hungry trout. At several points along the way, we had to cross the creek by means of wooden footbridges. These first two miles of the hike turned out to be extremely peaceful-very little climb, shade from the forest canopy, and the sounds of cascading water.

We stopped to eat lunch a little over halfway into the hike. At this point, the trail had departed from the river and started a slightly steeper ascent up the mountain. We found two first-class seats on a log next to a little waterfall coming out of the mountain. I had packed the same lunch I had packed for Gregory, with the exception of one new ingredient that I had previously overlooked in the refrigerator-this time it was a turkey, bacon, pepperoni sandwich and pistachios.
Although we didn’t know it at the time, we had timed our lunch break perfectly because we were about to begin what would be over a 1,000 foot climb packed into 1.7 miles. Despite the vigorousness of this section, it was very unique. Rhododendron plants formed a complete tunnel over our heads. At some places, the trail was a remarkable 5 or 6 feet below the rest of the ground, giving it a sunken-in appearance; I could turn my head to the side and would be looking straight into a wall of earth. Some have attributed this phenomenon to the culminating effects of the years when cattle were driven up this trail to graze on Spence Field.
The sides of the trail extend over Amy's head
We passed two more voyagers, but unlike us, they were traveling on horseback. Amy and I were envious. The whole trail could be done on horseback. I added it to my bucket list, along with doing the Cades Cove loop on bicycle.

Soon after our horseback encounter, we came upon another interesting relic: a natural mortar and pestle carved into a rock. We wondered if it was once used by herders to grind up food on their way to the top of Spence Field. I took time to grind up a small rock, and we were on our way again.

We stopped several times to catch our breath on the final push to the top. I thought it was more strenuous than the hike to Gregory Bald, but maybe this was just an illusion. Either way, they came pretty close. We finally reached the Appalachian Trail and knew we had arrived. It was 3 o’clock. Spence Field was just a tenth of the mile to the right. Thank God.

At first, it was hard to tell if we had reached it or not. We saw grass and blue sky, but we were surrounded by trees and did not walk out onto a spectacular view as we had on previous Balds. I circled the site of what we expected to be Spence Field, making sure we had not missed any hidden wonders. After all, the grass spanned a large area and was scattered with trees, so it was hard to tell where it ended. After exploring the entire Bald, we realized that we were definitely on Spence Field. The trees and shrubs had just taken over. There were, however, remnants of what it may have been like 100 years ago: there was soft grass that blanketed the entire summit, flame azaleas and mountain laurels sparkled the ecotone, and several places were still relatively open from trees.

I laid down in a patch of grass and I took a deep breath. I had been a little disappointed at first, but now that I had sufficiently explored, the beauty of this place was finally starting to soak in. I had never seen a forest with a vast carpet of grass, such as this. It was almost like what you would see in a fairytale. The sun was shining and a breeze was blowing. The grass was so soft. If I was a deer, this would be my home. There were a ton of hikers on the AT, all taking time to admire this unique place. The hike up here was definitely worth it, at least for right now.

We spent an hour relaxing on the Bald and snacking on trailmix before heading back. We figured it would take about two and half hours. That was pretty accurate. We made good time, only stopping once for a quick rest. It was so much easier hiking down than up, just as it had been for Gregory. We got back to the car at 7:45 pm, our legs unwilling to go any farther.

We had dinner at a place called Riverside Café, and I had a really good barbecue sandwich. I’ve got to say that I was beyond impressed with every place we ate at in Townsend.  For a small town with only one stoplight, they had mastered good southern cooking. The best came last: the next morning on our way out, we stopped at Elvira’s Café for breakfast. They brought me out the most delicious, succulent, tasty chicken biscuit that I could have ever dreamed of, soaked in a honey-based sauce.

My experiences this week were the best I could have hoped for. I’m extremely fortunate to be part of this project and look forward to the next trip, which will be in mid-July. Until then, Amy and I will be working on trail descriptions, maps, summaries, etc. for the hiking guide.

1 "History of the Grassy Balds in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park." Great     Smoky Mountains. National Park Service, 7 Mar. 2009. Web. 23 June 2013. <>


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  2. Great description of the day! My mouth's watering right now for an Elvira's chicken biscuit!