Hempbill Bald Trail — vista views, wildflowers and CCC-built fences

September 8, 2022

FOTS hikes at Hemphill Bald

by Kevin FitzGerald
Hike Leader

The August Classic Hike took place on the 9th, with 14 hearty souls departing from the Polls Gap (5,130 feet) parking lot at 9 a.m. 

We headed northeast on the Hemphill Bald trail with Hemphill Bald being the destination, 4.7 miles ahead.

It was a beautiful late summer morning with temps in the low 70’s and scattered clouds. 

The hike is rated as moderate, with a flat start along the old logging railroad grade and relatively easy ascents over Buck Knob and Little Bald Knob before the last climb up to Hemphill Bald (5,530 feet). 

Great views and summer wildflowers

This is a favorite hike of mine any time of the year because the understory along the trail is open, giving great views into the Caldwell Fork valley and across the landscape to Mt Sterling. 

It is one of the best trails for spring and summer wildflowers as well. 

CCC constructed wood fences

There are remnants of an old chestnut and locust fence along the park boundary in places, evidence of the work of the CCC from the 1930’s when efforts when fences were installed to keep cattle from grazing in the newly created National Park. 

A few of us encountered a small black bear in the horse pasture of the Cataloochee Ranch, adjacent to and half way up to the top of Hemphill Bald. The bear made a quick exit under the barbed wire fence and back down into the park. 

Vista views from the Hemphill Bald Trail. Photos by Linda Spangler

After a picnic lunch atop Hemphill, which included great views of the mountains along the Blue Ridge from Waterrock Knob to Mt. Pisgah and beyond, we made our way back to Polls Gap, arriving around 3 p.m.   

Hemphill Bald Trail sign

Hike leader Kevin FitzGerald enjoyed a 34-year career with the National Park Service, retiring from his last position as deputy superintendent of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2013. Kevin started his career as a seasonal fee collector on the Blue Ridge Parkway. During his NPS career, he served as a district ranger at Everglades National Park, Florida; chief of visitor and resource protection at Chesapeake and Ohio Canal NHP, Maryland/West Virginia/DC; chief ranger at Cape Cod National Seashore, Massachusetts; and chief ranger of the Intermountain Region in Denver, Colorado, before returning to the Great Smoky Mountains in his last permanent NPS position.

Thanks to Linda Spangler for her photographs from the hike.

Register for Classic Hikes

Walker Sisters Cabin
Six of the Walker sisters continued to live in their cabin after GSMNP was established due to a special arrangement with the park.

Classic Hikes of the Smokies are the second Tuesday of the month, from March through December.

The cost is $20 per hike for current members of Friends of the Smokies, and $35 for new and renewing members of Friends of the Smokies (includes one-year membership and hike registration).

The September hike is sold out. The next available hike is the Oct. 11 hike to the Walker Sisters Home. You must register prior to the hike.

Many of the Classic Hikes are part of the 100 Favorite Trails Challenge. Hempbill Bald = #37, Twentymile Loop = #4, Lakeshore Loop = #5, Silers Bald to Clingmans Dome = #21, Chimney Tops = #22, Walker Sisters Cabin = #24, Porters Creek Trail = #25.

Trails Forever improves GSMNP trails

Proceeds from the Classic Hike series benefit Trails Forever.

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