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 mile Hemphill Bald Trail – a horse and hiking trail with some great views of the Smokies, as well as an area where elk are seen grazing in the meadows.
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 Polls Gap, which many people do. However, we usually backtrack from Hemphill Bald summit for an 9.4 mile out and back round-trip with some serious elevation gain.
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 one mile in. This is where you will join the 80 year old split rail fence built by the CCC in the 1930s. The fence was built to mark the Great Smoky Mountain National Park boundary and the fence stays close to the trail for the rest of the trip.
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, springs, and rock outcrops.
Once you’ve hiked four miles, you’re nearing the open summit of Hemphill Bald with sweepingviews of Maggie Valley and the Plott Balsam Mountains to the right. The summit is an open range grazing area for the cattle from Cataloochee Ranch. Hemphill Bald gets its name because it is literally bald of trees from the historical grazing of sheep and cattle.
“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 bald and meadow full of wildflowers, views and large boulders.”
Hikers reach the summit of Hemphill Bald at 4.7 miles, a premiere place to picnic and lie about in the sunny fields and meadows. To return, backtrack on a mostly downhill ramble back to Poll’s Gap. This trip usually takes us 3.5 hours round trip at a brisk pace not counting down time at the summit.