Balsam Mountain

Date: Wednesday‐Sunday, August 10–14, 2011
Location: Balsam Mountain, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina
Trails: Hemphill Bald, campground Nature Trail
Members: Charlie, Larry, Mimi, Owen
Guests: Kirk

SWHC at Balsam Mountain, 2011 Charlie and Owen drove up on Wednesday and were surprised to find the "rarely full" campground in an almost rare condition. Our preferred tent-only area had only one site available, #28 in the rear. This is not a bad location at all but not quite as convenient to vehicles or the rest room.

More surprises. All the tent-only campers left on Thursday – a short-lived respite. Another horde soon arrived with two parties occupying three sites and with enough tents and guy lines that you'd think the circus had come to town. Six adults with eight kids, young to young teen. All quite well-behaved (disregarding some formidable adult snoring).

Mimi and I (Larry) arrived just after 11:35 on Friday. We opted for site #31. On the way in, we ran into Charlie and Owen just about to embark on the Hemphill Bald Trail. We set up and pursued them, rendezvousing after about 1.5 miles. The weather was a little warm, maybe 80 [temperatures in Fahrenheit], but we continued on together for about another half a mile before heading back.

No firewood was for sale at the campground so it was fortunate that we had brought some of our own. We were just starting the campfire when Kirk rolled in around 7 PM. Daylight held on for another hour or more.
It was cool enough overnight, not great "sleeping weather" but somewhere in the lower 60's. No rain but heavy dew. Breakfast proved to be a leisurely affair and it was 10 AM before we got packed up and (if I dare use the term) organized for our hike.

We had a choice of half a dozen trails near the campground but only three – Flat Creek Falls, Rough Fork, and Hemphill Bald – were logistically favorable. Having done the first two in years past, we opted to explore more of the Hemphill Bald Trail, the plan being to turn around at Hemphill Bald itself, about 4.5 miles out there.

The trail starts slightly downward at first but with a steeper upgrade to Whim Knob. Though the foliage usually succeeded in obscuring most of the ballyhooed views, occasionally we could snatch a glimpse.

Then one of those long gradual downhill stretches which you know you're going to have to pay for later. Nevertheless, the uphill to Hemphill Bald was at least switchbacked so we weren't breathing all that hard at the end.
Hemphill Bald Trail
Hemphill Bald Trail Let me mention this. The group had been somewhat spread out during this hike. I tend to get out in front sometimes and walk as quietly as possible, looking for birds. After a rest stop, I started out ahead, only to encounter a bear looking over a crest at me as I looked at him. I shouted and I guess that deterred him (since I am still here to write this). But afterwards, the group all stuck together a little more.

When we reached Hemphill Bald, we really didn't recognize that we had achieved our goal. I guess we expected a sign or something. Anyway, we continued on down a more rugged and steep trail until we reached Cataloochee Ranch and realized that not only had we probably overshot the objective but we had to climb back up this steep grade, costing us about an hour.
Adding insult to injury, on the way back, the rain started when we were about an hour away from the trail head. The sunshine returned at the end and near the parking lot at Poll's Gap, we were rewarded with a superb look at a large elk, 15 points counting both sides.

Later on, some went to view the absolutely gorgeous sunset. Others hung around camp. The rain started after we went to bed but continued all night. Kirk's new tent had problems and it's time for Mimi and I to waterproof at least the bottom of our tent.

We found the campground to be in no worse shape than ever. It's well-kept. There's still no electricity or hot water in the rest rooms but the plumbing was working fine.
Hemphill Bald Trail
view from Hemphill Bald
As getting here is something of an issue from where we are in Alabama, we tried one of the alternative passages going home. Usually we suffer the more direct route with the slow rafter-tourist traffic through Nantahala and Ocoee and then connect with the interstate at Cleveland, TN. This time we went out, up, and over, catching I-40 near Cataloochee, continuing through Knoxville, and then down through Chattanooga to Alabama. The time came in about the same. The mileage increased by at least forty miles – and obviously at higher speed so more gas comsumption. I can think of arguments in favor of either route.
For these and other photos, please see our Picasa Web Album Balsam Mountain 2011.

Submitted 17 August 2011
Text: Larry
Photos: Mimi

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