JARS v50n2 - Magic on the Mountain: An Azalea Heaven on Gregory Bald

Magic on the Mountain: An Azalea Heaven on Gregory Bald
George K. McLellan, Gloucester, Virginia
Sandra McDonald, Hampton, Virginia

A dozen members of the Middle Atlantic Chapter Species Study Group and other interested MAC members made a trip to western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee during the third week of June 7, 1995 to study native plants, especially those of the genus Rhododendron . The group consisted of Frank and Mary Pelurie, Walter and Sybil Przypek, Paul James, George McLellan, Don Hyatt, David and Debbie Sauer and Ken and Sandra McDonald. The principal stops were Highlands, N.C., Wayah Bald, Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, Gregory Bald, sections of the Blue Ridge Parkway and Roan Mountain. The seven members of the group who made the climb up Gregory Bald would agree that the highlight of the trip was Gregory Bald. (Gregory Bald is the place where a bear ate Fred Galle's dissertation.) It was also visited by Dr. Henry Skinner, who subsequently described it in the Morris Arboretum Bulletin (6:3-10, 15-22; 1955).

Something magical is happening on a mountaintop on the North Carolina-Tennessee border. Nature has created an azalea heaven on Gregory Bald, and you need go no farther than the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and climb 4,949 feet to view one of the greatest assemblies of deciduous azaleas in the world. A "bald" mountain is a mountain whose top is below the tree line, yet does not have trees on top of it because of various circumstances, such as lightening strikes and the grazing of sheep and cattle. Gregory Bald has a grassy summit with some shrubs fringed by scrub trees leading quickly to deciduous forest. Gregory was a bald in the 1920s when the land was given to the National Park Service. The Appalachian Trail used to pass over Gregory and Parsons balds, but no longer does. Gregory Bald with its famous hybrid azalea swarm is a Mecca to anyone interested in our native azaleas. When in full bloom the sight is almost indescribable. The range and combination of flower colors, shapes in bewildering arrays, the different fragrances that waft tantalizingly among the plants give one a truly unforgettable experience.

Home base for a hike up Gregory Bald for non-local people is usually Townsend, Tenn. From there it does not take very long by car to drive to Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and, since our trip, out Forge Creek Road to the base of Gregory Ridge Trail. A supply of water and enough food to get through a 10 or so hour day should be taken along in a day pack or back pack.

left to right, Don Hyatt, 
Ken McDonald, Sandra McDonald, George McLellan, Debbie Sauer, David Sauer and Bill Bedwell
End of the trail: left to right, Don Hyatt, Ken McDonald, Sandra McDonald,
George McLellan, Debbie Sauer, David Sauer and Bill Bedwell.

The group making the climb up Gregory Bald consisted of George McLellan, Don Hyatt, Bill Bedwell, David and Debbie Sauer, and Ken and Sandra McDonald. The visit to the top of Gregory Bald was a repeat for Ken and Sandra, who made the climb by the Hannah Mountain Trail off Parsons Branch Road 16 years previously on June 23, 1979, with Joan Winter, also a Middle Atlantic Chapter member. Parsons Branch Road is now closed because of flood damage in the spring of 1994 and has not been repaired, so an alternate route is required.

Great Smoky Mountains Trail Map, 
National Park, North Carolina/Tennessee
Great Smoky Mountains Trail Map, National Park, North Carolina/Tennessee.

Presently Gregory Bald is best reached from the Cades Cove section of the park, by taking Forge Creek Road to the parking lot at the base of Gregory Ridge Trail. On Wednesday, June 21, 1995, when we made our hike, Forge Creek Road was not yet open because a bridge had been washed out the previous year, so we had to hike from the parking lot at the Cable Mill area in Cades Cove (elevation about 1,750 feet). This added almost 5 miles of hiking to our day. We also got a later start than the one planned for 8 a.m. because Cades Cove was closed to motor vehicles on Wednesday and Saturday mornings until 10 a.m. so that bicyclists could use the road. When we called ahead in planning the trip to see whether the azalea bloom season was normal, the park ranger at Great Smoky Mountains National Park Visitors Center at Sugarlands said it had been warm and the season was going by fast. He also advised that the bridge was not open on Forge Creek Road, which would add more than four miles to our hike. The one thing he did not tell us was that the 11-mile one-way loop road in Cades Cove was closed to motor vehicles early on Wednesday and Saturday morning, and we did not think to ask that question since that practice had not been in effect 16 years ago.

We were finally able to get into Cades Cove at 10 a.m. and drove to the Cable Mill area parking lot and hiked down Forge Creek Road to the base of Gregory Ridge Trail. It was 11 a.m. by the time we reached the trail base. We then started the 5¼ miles to the top. The first 1½ miles of the trail go through a beautiful mature forest of hemlock and tulip trees, under storied with Rhododendron maximum . The trail follows scenic Forge Creek as it tumbles down to lower elevations. The trail crosses the creek several times on huge old logs. After crossing the creek for the last time the trail begins a steeper ascent to the top of Gregory Ridge, where the woods becomes more open and underbrush less thick and a few native azaleas appear. Native azaleas were in bloom beginning at about 3,500 feet at the time we were there. Most are R. calendulaceum , but a few appear to be R. cumberlandense (formerly R. bakeri ).

Overview of pale salmon and 
other hybrid azaleas on Gregory Bald.
Overview of pale salmon and other hybrid azaleas on Gregory Bald.
Photo by William F. Bedwell

There is a lot of wildlife in the park including 400 to 600 black bears (one ran in front of our car on the way out of the park) and 600 to 800 deer, but the animals are more often seen in the early morning and evening hours than during the middle of the day. At one point on the trail George dropped his hat and had to retrace his steps a short distance to retrieve it. As he was bending over he was startled by a loud crashing right behind him. A large stag burst across the trail and narrowly missed running into him.

About two-thirds of the way up the mountain our party was strung out for a good distance over the trail. George and Don were way ahead, Bill was in the middle all alone and the rest of the group was bringing up the rear. Those of us in the lagging group found a note from Bill Bedwell in the middle of the trail in a natural rock note holder saying we should not give up because he made it that far and the rest of us could, too. It gave us a chuckle and some encouragement and we continued on and eventually caught up with Bill.

At the 4.6 mile point from the parking lot, Gregory Ridge Trail connects with Gregory Bald Trail at about 4,600 feet. At this point it is only 0.7 mile to the bald, and the sign stating this is very encouraging to tired hikers. If one is in good condition and pushes, the hike up to the top can be made in 2½ to three hours, but it would be better to go more slowly and enjoy the scenery, so figure about four or more hours to the top. It is best to go at a pace which will not produce excessive fatigue and to slow down when the trail climbs steeply. Finding the ideal hiking companions for this trip is not easy. First and foremost they need to be intensely interested in native azaleas and other plant material; second, they should be congenial companions; third, they should be able to participate in somewhat similar physical activities. Ideally, in hiking one's companions should be of similar height. This is the one condition that was not met for Sandra, since she was much shorter than the other members of the group and had to take about three steps for every two they took. But overall, one could not expect very often to find a more compatible group of hiking companions.

Some books list the hike as moderate, others as strenuous because of the elevation change of over 3,000 feet. For persons accustomed to breathing at sea level, the slower pace makes breathing easier. Since we got such a late start on the trail we did not have time for lunch but rather a few short hiker's snacks and water while we rested a few minutes. At one point well along in the hike Don Hyatt had been seeing occasional plants of R. calendulaceum of which he had seen better specimens at Wayah. He started wondering why he was going through this strenuous hiking to see plants less attractive than he had seen more easily on a short walk at Wayah.

As we hiked the last steep 0.7 mile to the bald, we began to hear thunder and the sky darkened. At this point some of us started doubting our sanity - hike all this distance to be on top of a mountain in a thunder storm! But shortly we could glimpse the light at the end of the trail and catch a flash of brightly colored flowers. Suddenly we burst into the open of a grassy bald covered with hundreds upon hundreds of brightly colored azaleas in full bloom. All the while our sense of smell was overwhelmed by a wonderful fragrance. Fatigue, tired muscles, aching joints, sore feet were forgotten. This was a natural high from the sheer beauty of the place. The weather was cooperative, though threatening. We heard thunder on nearby mountains, but the storm did not come directly over us. Rainfall is not unexpected here since rainfall can average from 60 to 80 inches per year. Cloudy weather made conditions good for photographing the azaleas, and the small amount of misty rain we had did little harm. A park ranger did appear and tell us we should leave the mountaintop by 4 p.m.

Gregory Bald is an oblong shaped, gently convex summit of about a dozen acres dominated by grasses, azaleas, blueberries ( Vaccinium sp.) and service berry ( Amelanchier sp.) bushes. The summit is 4,949 feet above sea level (LJSGS map) and the bald extends downward to about the 4,800-foot contour line, where it is fringed by scrub trees that have been impinging on the bald from the surrounding deciduous forest. The bald area used to be a good bit larger, but trees have been encroaching onto the area. The azaleas are scattered over the bald, some as single plants, others in thickets of azaleas, and are especially thick at the edges where grass and forest meet on the south, east and west margins. Azaleas may also be seen in the scrub forest where they may not bloom as profusely now that they have been overgrown by the trees.

Pale salmon and deep pink 
azaleas in hybrid swarm.
Pale salmon and deep pink azaleas in hybrid swarm.
Photo by Don Hyatt
Brilliant orange and yellow 
hybrid azalea in hybrid swarm.
Brilliant orange and yellow hybrid azalea in hybrid swarm.
Photo by George Keen McLellan
Pink flowered azalea in 
hybrid swarm.
Pink flowered azalea in hybrid swarm.
Photo by Sandra McDonald

When in full bloom, it is the azaleas that command attention. Each plant seems to have its own combination of flower color, blotches, size, shape and flower presentation, blended to its foliage and plant habit. The combinations are endless. The flowers range from pure white with yellow to gold blotches, pale yellow to golden yellow, different hues of salmon to peach pink, some with deeper blotches, a full range of hues and tones of orange with striking gold blotches, light to deep reds, strong vivid purplish reds, pale fuchsia with gold blotches, deep pinks, medium pinks, pale pinks with and without blotches. Their shapes vary from flowers with long tubes and narrow pointed petals producing a star-like effect, to more flat-faced flowers with rounded petals, some of them slightly recurved.

The presentation of the flowers on the plant also varies enormously. Some carry the flowers in ball trusses, some in smaller flower clusters scattered uniformly over the plant. Others have their flowers in sheets of blooms that almost hide the foliage. Foliage varies from glossy bright green to a very intense deep green. There are leaves, especially on the red flowered plants, that have an almost rugulose appearance from the impressed leaf veins. Pubescence also varies from plant to plant. Plant habit differs with a few plants that are low and stoloniferous, others that are of medium height and very compact and some that are tall and have a more open habit.

Brilliant orange and yellow 
hybrid azalea in hybrid swarm.
Brilliant orange and yellow hybrid azalea in hybrid swarm.
Photo by George Keen McLellan

This wonderful but sometimes bewildering display is a result of natural hybridization that probably began about 70 years ago when the park service ended grazing on the bald. Before that the inhabitants of Cades Cove used to summer herds of sheep and cattle on the bald before the area became park land.

It is interesting to speculate on the species that produced this hybrid swarm and see the different manifestations they have produced in the individual hybrids. Near where the trail enters the eastern end of the bald is a group of white azaleas with glossy leaves, star-shaped flowers with prominent reddish style and stamens, glabrous shoots and a strong heliotrope fragrance, all of which key to R. arborescens . On the northeast end of the bald is a low stoloniferous azalea with small, long, thin tubes and yellow blotches and white flowers that show the influence of R. viscosum . Fred Galle has found R. viscosum var. montanum on Parson's Bald, which is less than one mile south. Rhododendron cumberlandense can be found on Gregory Bald, especially on the southern side and the west end. Rhododendron calendulaceum plants are seen on the approach to the bald and in the fringe woods.

Red flowered plant probably 
mainly R. cumberlandense.
Red flowered plant probably mainly R. cumberlandense .
Photo by Kenneth McDonald, Jr.

Our group arrived at the bald on June 21 when it was in peak bloom, but most of the yellow shades of azaleas were past their peak bloom and all we saw were scattered trusses with lots of faded flowers. The yellow shades must be influenced by R. calendulaceum as were the white azaleas with yellow blotches and rounded flower forms. The very deep reds, some with fuchsia undertones, were just beginning to bloom and some were still in bud and not fully open but showing color. They may be complex R. cumberlandense-arborescens-viscosum hybrids perhaps with some R. calendulaceum in them. (This group was the predominate display on June 23, 1979, when the McDonalds visited in an early bloom year.) The salmons, peaches, flesh pinks and buff pinks are perhaps the result of R. arborescens and R. cumberlandense , since most have pointed petals.

The striking fuchsia pinks, from pale to deep shades, many with yellow or gold blotches and star-shaped flowers, could be complex hybrids between R. arborescens , viscosum and cumberlandense , as are the glowing cherry reds. Whatever the parentage, this hybrid swarm has produced an area of unbelievable beauty that should not be missed.

Overview of whole plant of 
white tinged-pink hybrid azalea.
Overview of whole plant of white tinged-pink hybrid azalea.
Photo by Kenneth McDonald, Jr.

Coming down the mountain was much easier than going up, but it did use some different muscles. We arrived at the base of the trail at about 7 p.m. and back to the cars about 7:50 p.m. When Debbie found she had gotten into the back seat of the wrong car, she could not make her legs move to get out! Riders were switched and she and David rode back to the motel in that car.

If you want to plan a trip to Gregory bald to see the azaleas in bloom be sure to contact the park officials to see if the bloom is on its normal schedule of June 15-25 peak bloom. One year a MAC member was there on the last day of June and the azaleas were still in tight bud. Dr. Skinner's visit was around July 4 and he saw many blooming plants. Also check to see which days the Cades Cove Road is closed to all but bicycle traffic in the morning, so you will not be delayed on the start of your climb.

Sandra McDonald, Alternate Director for ARS District 9, authored the article "Native Azaleas of Georgia" in the Summer 1992 issue of the Journal. Sandra McDonald and George McLellan are members of the Middle Atlantic Chapter.