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Hiker’s Guide to Hemphill Bald

Article and photographs courtesy of Kristi Parsons for Rock/Creek.

Every year, millions of visitors drive the roads of our Great Smoky Mountains National Park – looking for the perfect picnic spot. However, most of them will never see the most amazing of spots in the park. Most specifically, they’ll never see the breathtaking beauty of Hemphill Bald. One, because it’s a little hidden. Two, because it’s more than 10ft away from the car. Looking for a spot like that? A place where you can tie in a delicious packed lunch, a beautiful place and a hike – all in one? Then Hemphill Bald, elevation 5,540ft, is definitely the place for you!

Why is it such an amazing picnic spot?

Well, it’s 5 miles off the road on the North Carolina side of the Smokies, away from the crowds. After enjoying the 5 miles of “a walk in the woods” type of trail, birds singing and a touch of history along the way.. You’ll find a charming bald, enclosed with a fence – with endless views.

Picnic on the bald.
Picnic on the bald.

A bald that includes not only a shade tree but also a Flintstone style picnic table and two perfect benches. While having lunch, you’ll enjoy views of Max Patch, Roan Mountain, Mount Pisgah, Cold Mountain, Maggie Valley, the Cataloochee ski area and much more.

The view from Heintooga.
The view from Heintooga.

How do you get there?

Any google map search for Hemphill Bald Trailhead will pull up directions from your beginning location. The trailhead is located in the Polls Gap parking lot on Heintooga Ridge road, off of the Blue Ridge Parkway, near Maggie Valley, NC. You will begin the 13.7 mile loop or your hike to the bald and back – on Hemphill Bald Trail.

Trailhead Sign

Hemp Hill Bald Trail.
Hemp Hill Bald Trail.

You will follow the Hemphill Bald Trail for a little under 5 miles – past a CCC fence that was built in the 1930’s to keep out stray livestock. You’ll also find wildflowers, birds singing and just a peaceful stroll through the woods during the first 4 miles.

Hemphill Bald Trail.
Hemphill Bald Trail.

Your last mile to the bald, will be along the Cataloochee Ranch property – if you’re planning this hike in the summer, be prepared for high grass and to keep an eye out for slithery friends that you may pass along the way.

Going to the bald.
Going to the bald.

However, your trek through the last mile is paid off immediately with an amazing view at the bald and a charming place to rest – at just below 5 miles total. Once you arrive, take your pack off and relax. Have lunch, take photos or even a quick nap.

View from the bald.
View from the bald.

Where to go when you’re finished?

Your choice! You can return the way you came on the Hemphill Bald Trail – making it a 10 mile hike. Or, you can take a right leaving the bald and hike the full 13.7 mile loop.

Up for a loop hike adventure and a few extra miles?

You’ll take a right off of the bald and continue on Hemphill Bald Trail that will lead you off of the bald and to the next trail marker. To continue on the loop, you’ll take a sharp left at the trail marker, this left will keep you on Hemphill Bald Trail. You’ll have a nice and easy descent for the rest of the Hemphill trail. At 8.5 miles, you’ll reach Caldwell Fork Trail.

Caldwell Fork
Caldwell Fork

This meeting point of trails, was once a homestead years ago. Once reaching it, you’ll take another left onto Caldwell Fork Trail. Not long after taking your left, you’ll reach a creek crossing that has a footbridge – leading to the other side of the trail and also to Campsite #41.

Caldwell Fork Creek Crossing
Caldwell Fork Creek Crossing

A perfect spot for a break! Also, please note.. This will be your last access to any water on the rest of your journey. Dip into the cold water or fill up your bottle using a filter. For the 5 miles following this creek crossing, there will be no water sources. If doing a summer hike, be sure to refill! You will then continue with a steady mile or so climb up to Rough Fork Trail. Soak up the climb by taking in the beauty of all of the old growth trees around you, including massive poplars. At 1.7 miles, from the Hemphill, you will reach Rough Fork. At this point, you will take another left onto Rough Fork Trail. This is the trail that you’ll finish up your loop with and that will lead you directly back to the parking area. The first 1.5 miles of Rough Fork, are quite steep. Once passing those miles however, the trail is smooth sailing for your final 2 miles.

Trail Highlights:

Hemphill Bald Loop is by far one of the most diverse set of trails that i’ve been on in the GSMNP. You could possibly see birds, butterflies, spiders, snakes, bears, elk, cows, horses, squirrels and chipmunks while on your journey. You will pass by signs of days long ago, wildflowers, amazing trees and of course be treated to one of the most beautiful views in the park. It’s almost 14 miles long, but absolutely filled with everything that makes our Great Smoky Mountains so very great! Hike your hike and soak it up!

Guest post by Kristi Parsons.  All photos are property of Kristi Parsons.

Little spider hanging out on Hemphill
Little spider hanging out on Hemphill
Some horses hanging out off the trail.
Some horses hanging off the trail.
Some fungus growing on Caldwell Fork Trail.
Some fungus growing on Caldwell Fork Trail.
Vintage #leavenotrace
Vintage #leavenotrace
An elk from the preserve.
An elk from the preserve.
Wildflowers on Caldwell Fork
Wildflowers on Caldwell Fork

Rock/Creek’s official rules to prevent “up a creek” syndrome:

  • When hiking in summer, especially in higher elevations, make sure you are prepared for a variety of temperatures.
  • Sun protective clothing is a great option for during the heat of the day. A light jacket makes a welcomed addition if you stay out past dusk or find yourself exposed to cooler temperatures or wind/rain.
  • Wool socks are still the standard selection for hiking footwear, though some people prefer synthetic options. Cotton is not ideal in the backcountry.
  • Extendable poles are a great addition if you plan on hiking long miles or steep terrain.
  • Plan out a nice lunch. This will ensure that you take a second to really sit and enjoy the scenery.I
  • If you are going to be hiking past water sources, there is no need to carry a gallon of water. Instead, carry a water filter and refill as necessary. Never drink unfiltered/untreated water!
  • Invest in a reliable headlamp that never leaves your pack. Make sure the batteries are charged! You’ll eventually be glad you did.
  • Pack a first aid kit capable of treating a variety of issues you may encounter while in the backcountry; blisters, cuts/scrapes, stings, and common aches/pains.
  • Leave a note telling where you are going, which trails you will be hiking, which trail head you have parked at, who you are with, and when you expect to be back.
  • No matter how many times you have been on a trail, it’s a great idea to carry a map.
  • Take your phone and either turn it off or put it on airplane mode to conserve battery life. Put your phone in a zip lock bag or a waterproof container. If you really want to get fancy, invest in a Spot.
  • For more friendly advice, come by one of our locations, or give us a call at 1-888-707-6708 (Toll Free). Helping people get outside is what we love to do!