July 28-29, 2018
Johnny and I have a tradition that we will go camping/backpacking at least once a month. For July, we chose the 13-mile Hemphill Bald Loop in the North Carolina section of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park (GSMNP).
The loop and this area of the GSMNP is fascinating: giant poplars, abundant wildlife, wondrous flowers, a great campsite and of course, the ever-gorgeous Hemphill Bald. It’s a stellar option for those looking for a great, but non stressful hiking excursion.
The history of Hemphill Bald is quite interesting. According to George Ellison, in the early 20th century, Verlin Campbell , “a huge man, with a voice that boomed across the gorge beside us and rolled off the ridges” operated “a vast potato (and rutabaga) empire at more than 5,000 feet along the Cataloochee Divide.” He was responsible in part for Hemphill Bald still being a bald today. While the summit itself is actually outside of the park on the Cataloochee Ranch Property, it is easily accessible from the trail.
The loop starts at Polls Gap, just off Heintooga Road, several miles from the Blue Ridge Parkway near Cherokee and Maggie Valley. Given that Johnny was delayed in traffic when he arrived, we decided to hike the loop in a clockwise fashion, as it was shorter this way to Campsite #41. From the parking lot, we went northwest (left) on the Rough Fork Trail, a nice Jeep style road that gingerly slopes downward. After 3.5 miles, we ventured west on the Caldwell Fork Trail for 1.7 miles. It was more progressively downwards, but still not steep. Early in the afternoon we arrived at the campsite and decided to start a fire and enjoy the surroundings.
Campsite #41 is an astounding place to camp. It’s located just next to the Caldwell Fork, which serves as the water source. There are several established sites, and even with 9 others camped there for the night, we did not hear or hardly see them.
We had a fairly tough hike to finish the loop. From just past the campsite, the Hemphill Bald Trail begins and climbs for 3 steep miles to the juncture with the Cataloochee Divide Trail. The area of the bald was tremendous. Epic views of Max Patch, Cold Mountain, the Plott Balsams, Canton and Maggie Valley greeted you from the summit. I had always heard that the views were amazing and now I am a believer. It was awe-inspiring.
Total mileage is 13.7 miles.