Hike from Polls Gap to Hemphill Bald – mountain views and perfect weather

July 31, 2023

Hikers along fence on Cataloochee Ranch

by Kevin FitzGerald
Hike Leader

The Classic Hikes of the Smokies ventured to Hemphill Bald from Polls Gap on Tuesday, July 11.

Twelve hikers set out from the Polls Gap parking area on the Balsam Mountain Road around 9 a.m. for the 5-mile one way trek to Hemphill Bald. The weather was perfect with temperatures at the 5100’ elevation in the upper 50’s and no chance of rain.

hikers on Hemphill Bald Trail
Hikers pause for Hike Leader Kevin FitzGerald to talk about Park history. Photo by Olivia Wright

The trail initially follows an old railroad grade, a remnant from the 1930’s when the Suncrest Lumber Company owned and timbered the land in this area. 

The first 2.5 miles are relatively flat before the trail joins the park boundary as it ascends up to Little Bald Knob at 5500’, passing by the old chestnut rail fencing installed in the 1930’s by the CCC to keep cattle from grazing in the newly established National Park. 

From Little Bald Knob, we descend into Pine Tree Gap (5200’) before the last climb up to Hemphill Bald at 5500’. 

FOTS hikers at Hemphill Bald
The group took a break to enjoy the view overlooking Cataloochee Ranch and the Cataloochee Ski area. Photo by Olivia Wright

We had a picnic lunch in the area overlooking Cataloochee Ranch and the Cataloochee Ski area and enjoyed the 180-degree long distance views of the Plott Balsam Range to our south, Mt Pisgah to the east and Max Patch/Mt Mitchell to the north. 

FOTS hikers at Hemphill Bald
Group photo at Hemphill Bald. Photo by Olivia Wright

Along the way we saw plenty of mayapple, snake root and black cohosh with some of the latter still in bloom. Unlike last year, there were no bear sightings along the way. 

We returned to Polls Gap via the same route, arriving just after 3 p.m.  All in all, another great trip to benefit Trails Forever!!

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.

Register For Classic Hikes

Trails Forever logo

The Classic Hikes are the second Tuesday of the month, March through December, with hikes of different levels of difficulty. Each hike features special elements of the Smokies, from wildflowers to historic buildings to waterfalls to mountain views. A member of the Classic Hike Advisory Team leads the hike.

The next Classic Hike is the August 8 hike to Schoolhouse Gap.

You must register prior to the hike.

Step 1: Review the Classic Hike of the Smokies Waiver here.
Step 2Register for your hike(s) and submit payment.

After completing registration, you will receive an email the Friday before the hike with directions, and more information. All hikes begin at 9 a.m. The cost is $20 for members and $35 for non-members.

Many of this year’s Classic Hikes are part of the 100 Favorite Trails Challenge. Charlies Bunion = #27, Chimney Tops = #22, Deep Creek Waterfalls Loop = #18, Hemphill Bald from Polls Gap = #37, and Smokemont Loop = #28.

Trails Forever Improves GSMNP Trails

Proceeds from the Classic Hike series benefit Trails Forever. The Trails Forever Crew has restored Alum Cave TrailRainbow Falls TrailTrillium Gap TrailAbrams Falls TrailChimney Tops Trail and Forney Ridge TrailRamsey Cascades Trail is the crew’s current project.

GSMNP Parking Tags

Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s new ‘Park it Forward’ program requires visitors to buy and display a valid parking tag for any vehicle parking for more than 15 minutes beginning March 1, 2023. 

Participants of ‘Classic Hikes of the Smokies’ are responsible for obtaining a parking tag prior to attending a hike. Annual passes are available through Great Smoky Mountains Association at smokiesinformation.org, daily and weekly passes are available at recreation.gov. You can learn more about Park it Forward HERE

For the most popular trails in the park, hikers need to plan ahead to secure parking by arriving early in the morning or utilize one of the shuttle opportunities offered by authorized providers. Learn more here.

Special Thanks To Our 2023 ‘Classic Hikes Of The Smokies’ Sponsors: