If you’re going to be taking in the outdoors from the North Carolina side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, one of the great day hikes is the 8.4 Hemphill Bald Trail – a horse and hiking trail with some great views of the Smokies, as well as an area where elk are known to roam.
To reach the trailhead, take the Blue Ridge Parkway and follow the signs to the Balsam Mountain Campground. Once you reach the campground, park at the Polls Gap area. You can actually hike the Hemphill Bald Trail as one part of a 13.6 mile loop and comes back around to Poles Gap, which many people do. However, if you’d rather just as soon back track, turn around once you’ve reached the junction with the Caldwell Fork Trail.
The Hemphill Bald Trail is the furthest trailhead on the right at the parking area. Once you’ve started hiking, you’ll notice the Caldwell Fork Valley to the left of the trail. Sugar maples, ferns, and a few remaining chestnuts can be found on this part of the hike as you reach Whim Knob a mile in.
Following a descent toward the boundary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the trail begins its climb up Buck Knob, which is lined with yellow birch and various mountain wildflowers. If you notice it coming down, you’ll even pass a spring, and a slew of other wildflower species.
Once you’ve hiked four miles, you’re likely making the up Hemphill Bald. Take in the majestic views to your right. Hopefully someone has packed a camera. Hemphill Bald gets its name because it is literally bald of trees from when sheep and cattle used to graze there. It’s a large grassy opening that is now sought out by many a Smoky Mountain hiker. Not only that, it’s an amazing place to do a bit of bird watching if that’s what you’re into. Meanwhile, the wildflowers, herbs, and various plants seem to outnumber the blades of grass in some areas.
Hikers approach the summit of Hemphill Bald at 4.7 miles on the trail. From there it’s a downhill hike to Double Gap then a number of water crossings over Double Gap Branch – 6 miles on the trail until you reach the junction with the Caldwell Fork Trail at mile 8.4. Now, if you’re looking for a spot out camp out, backcountry campsite No. 41 is just up the Caldwell Fork Trail from this point. Enjoy the Smokies!