The fire on the mountains in the Smokies seen in June and July can be deceiving. Those fiery bright patches of orange, red, and white are actually Native Azaleas! Flame Azaleas (Rhododendron calendulaceum) are the prominent bright orange blooms. Flame Azaleas are native to the Appalachian Mountains with ranges from southern New York to Alabama and as far west as southeastern Ohio. In the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Gregory Bald is one of the best places to see a spectacular display of native azaleas.
There are four known varieties of native azaleas on Gregory Bald; and due to the perfect combination of the right elevation (4,950), an open grassy area, and an abundance of pollinators like bees and butterflies, these native azaleas hybridize to produce an unparalleled variety of colors in shades of orange, red, pink, yellow and white. You can find Sweet Azalea (Rhododendron arborescens) that is white, Swamp Azalea (Rhododendron viscosum) also white and smells like honeysuckle hence it’s also known as Honeysuckle Azalea. And the Cumberland Azalea (Rhododendron cumberlandense); it blooms orange and is often confused with the Flame Azalea, but it blooms in late June through August. These boisterous, deciduous shrubs create amazing displays of color on the high mountain ridges in the summer.
Hiking To Gregory Bald
Gregory Bald may be accessed via trail only. Drive half-way around the Cades Cove loop and turn right onto Forge Creek Road just past the turn to the Cable Mill Visitor Center. At the end of the road turn onto Parson’s Branch Road (a one-way road) and continue approximately 7 miles to the trailhead. The trail stretches 4.5 miles to reach Gregory Bald and climbs slightly over 2,000 ft. to an elevation of 4,950 ft. above sea level. In June, on the hike up, you will see the evergreen Catawba Rhodendron in bloom with its enchanting pink blossoms. In addition to these spectacular flower displays there are beautiful unobstructed views of Cades Cove! If you undertake the climb to the Bald be sure bring water and your 10 Essentials for hiking. The water source on this trail is often dry so be prepared. Gregory Bald is comprised of 14 acres for you to wander, so consider the time spent hiking around the bald in addition to the 9-mile roundtrip hike. It’s a good idea to begin your hike early in the day.
Native Azaleas on the Blue Ridge Parkway
If you’re not up for the 9-mile roundtrip hike to Gregory Bald, you can also enjoy the beautiful displays of Flame Azaleas along the nearby Blue Ridge Parkway. The Parkway is easily accessed at its southern terminus in Cherokee, NC. Beginning here at Blue Ridge Parkway Mile Post 469 (MP 469) you can drive along the mountain high country to Mt. Pisgah at MP 408 and see some exquisite displays of flora. This 61-mile trek will take around 2 hours one-way to drive since the speed limit on the Parkway is between 35-45 mph and there are many interesting sites to stop and see along the way. Be sure to visit the Waterrock Knob Visitor Center and Richland Balsam which is the highest point on the Parkway at 6,047 ft. elevation. For Blue Ridge Parkway Weather and Road Information, call 828-298-0398. For more info visit BlueRidgeParkway.org.
History of Gregory Bald
Gregory Bald is named after Russell Gregory. Gregory’s family, like other pioneers in the Smokies, were shattered by the outbreak of the Civil War. Most families on the Tennessee side of the mountains remained loyal to the Union while those to the South sided with the Confederacy. The Gregory family was fractured when Russell’s son, Charles Gregory, decided to join the Southern cause. Southern troops routinely raided areas like Cades Cove to steal supplies and conscript residents into the army. Cove residents devised a plan to warn themselves of approaching danger. Children were sent to the entrance points of the cove to play. When enemy troops were spotted the children would blow a warning on their horn. It was during one of these incursions that Charles Gregory recognized the sound of his father’s long rifle as their attack was repelled. Charles identified his father and the next day soldiers snuck back into the cove and murdered Russell Gregory. Russell is buried at the Primitive Baptist Church in Cades Cove. Decades after the murder the community forgave Charles for his transgressions and he was buried along side his father.