Sunday, July 8, 2012

Azaleas in the Sky - Gregory Bald

The flora in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is an amazing collection of Southern Appalachian native plants and communities, and I love to explore the hiking trails in the park and look at the plants (many of which also grow in north Georgia). This year we vacationed in the area in late June, and it occurred to me that I could hike up to Gregory Bald and see one of the most talked-about group of native azaleas in the Southeast. So I did.

The view from Gregory Bald: grass, azaleas, shrubs, trees and a view

The azaleas found on Gregory Bald (elevation approximately 4949 feet) are considered to be a "hybrid swarm" of several different species that bloom in a wide range of colors throughout June. According to Don Hyatt (click to his page for more information and pictures): "The diversity in flower color seen among azaleas on Gregory is considered to be the result of a natural hybrid swarm of at least four native species including Rhododendron arborescens, R. viscosum, R. cumberlandense, and R. calendulaceum."

Without knowing the species, I'll have to just call this one "Pink"
I have heard mention of the azaleas on Gregory Bald for many years, and I've seen the results of propagation from seed collected there. The azalea collection at Southern Highlands Reserve is from Gregory Bald seeds. The natural hybridization ensures that you never know what you'll get from that seed until the plant is mature enough to bloom.

Red and orange were the majority at this time

White ones had bloomed earlier, but I found these last blooms

There are at least two paths to Gregory Bald and we took the Gregory Ridge Trail one; it is 5.6 miles in and out (a little over 11 miles total). The climb in elevation is 3020 feet so it is rated as "difficult". The length of the trail and the change in elevation means that you pass through a lot of different plant communities. The lower elevations were beside Forge Creek and were thick with blooming great laurel (Rhododendron maximum) and smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens). Prevalent plants that had finished blooming were buffalo nut (Pyrularia pubera), Solomon's plume (Maianthemum racemosum), and partridgeberry (Mitchella repens). Company on the trail included a few people but also hundreds of dark green grasshoppers that jumped out of the path, creating soft pat-pat sounds on takeoff and landing.

As we climbed higher we entered a very hot and dry area with mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), blueberries (Vaccinium), Galax, whitetop aster (Sericocarpus spp.), goldenrod (Solidago spp.), and trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens). 

We were certain that we'd have to hike the rest in hot, dry conditions but then we entered a shaded area that gradually became cool and moist. I spotted blooming yellow jewelweed (Impatiens pallida), black cohosh (Actaea racemosa), and even a late-blooming goat's beard (Aruncus dioicus). Ferns were in abundance all along the steep slopes, and we climbed higher and higher - always wondering how much further and why didn't someone put mile markers on this trail? Our trip was brightened by an encounter with a buck in thick shrubbery. He seemed just as curious as we were and, by moving slowly along the path, we were able to pass him and even snap a few pictures.

Finally we passed someone coming down who said that it was only another 30 minutes and, most importantly, that the azaleas were still blooming at the top! With renewed energy we charged forward along a thin, grass-lined trail that offered glimpses of blue sky ahead. Off to the left I spotted a couple of bright orange azaleas blooming in an open, sunny area.

Reaching the top was a surprise - at first I wasn't sure if the area was the top. A red azalea was the first one that I saw and then there were more ... and more. Many were standalone shrubs (see first picture) but others were engulfed in blueberry bushes. I had read about how the park service is hacking down blueberries (and blackberries) to keep them from overtaking the azaleas. We tried to help the cause by eating some of the ripe ones!

Blueberries surround this azalea

Trees on top included oaks, pines and even a serviceberry (Amelanchier); all were rather stunted and shaped by the wind. There were many different grasses, blackberries, and the bright yellow blooms of Blue Ridge St. John's wort (Hypericum mitchellianum). Of course the views are amazing, and you feel like you're on top of the world!

Thanks to my husband for volunteering to go along even though he knew it would be a long and difficult hike. We arrived at the parking area at 9:20 am and reached the bald at 1:15 pm (stopping for lunch around 11). The trip back down was a little quicker - perhaps just under 3 hours. In the end it was a great adventure on a well-maintained trail with a happy ending.

Almost at the top and the photographer lags behind


  1. Great photos and article! Always enjoy your posts!

  2. Wow! That was a serious piece of work. I'm a trail runner but hiking always wears me out. Congrats on the big adventure and the big pay-off.

  3. Wonderful hike! Thanks for sharing..!

  4. So glad they were still blooming for you when you got to the top! Have you been to the Southern Highland Reserve, yet? A gem of a place you would surely enjoy.

    1. Yes, actually I have been there three times and I believe my post entitled "Spring Rewind" is about my trip there last year. A wonderful place and they are doing great things.

  5. Ellen - looks like a wonderful place to hike. I have not seen azaleas growing in the wild, thanks for sharing this trip.

  6. Hello, There I am a poet and I am searching for a photograph of a beautiful crimson coloured Azalea to use for one of my poems named Azalea. I am interested in knowing if you will permit me to use your picture to glorify the poem.