Unlike parks out west, where gigantic, rocky-faced mountains climb to above 14,000 feet, hiking in Smoky Mountains National Park offers a uniquely different, more intimate excursion into nature. Sweeping views of grassy balds, huge, old-growth poplars, fern-bordered trails, and campsites next to gently flowing streams are part of the appeal that makes the Smokies the most visited in the National Park system.
There may not be a loop in the entire park that better exemplifies hiking here than the Hemphill Bald Loop. And though it's certainly no secret, the loop offers some blessed solitude in these parts, especially compared to high-profile hikes like Mt. Cammerer and those around Cades Cove.
In addition, the 13.5-mile hike features all the highlights that make the park great, and also comes with one of the best lunch spots in the southeast. With the breweries, coffee shops, bakeries, and form-to-fork restaurants of Waynesville just 20 miles away, it’s easy to turn the Hemphill Bald Loop into a weekend adventure.
Here, five reasons to tackle this quintessential Smokies trek.
1. A stunning view you’ll have to earn.
From the trailhead at Polls Gap, the Hemphill Bald Trail climbs gently at first, then more aggressively as it follows the southern border of the park. Paralleling the fence line that separates grazing cows of the Cataloochie Ranch from roaming hikers of the Smokies, the somewhat overgrown trail can feel a bit tedious as it works its way up to the bald.
As dense forest begins to give way to the treeless balds just south of the park, a quick peek at the view ahead is the first hint of why the effort was worthwhile. Void of any plant life taller than a blade of grass, the oddly curved tops and steep green slopes of the mountains here appear almost Dr. Seuss-ian. An ideally placed stone picnic table, protected by a single shade tree, on the rounded precipice of Hemphill Bald offers unfettered views of the landscape. This may be the single best lunch spot in Smoky Mountains National Park.
2. Shady stream-side campsites.
After continuing down the backside of Hemphill Bald, the trail takes a sharp left and tumbles into the heart of the Smokies. In stark contrast to the bright and breezy bald, a thick canopy overhead mutes the daytime sun, setting a more contemplative mood.
After reaching the base of the ridge, the trail winds along and across a gentle, rocky stream. With some agility and good route planning, it’s possible to ford each crossing with dry socks intact. The widest branch of this stream flows conveniently adjacent to campsite #41. The open floor plan of the site can hold several tents without feeling overcrowded. The optional feet soak in the cool mountain water is the perfect salve for backpackers who’ve made the walk in.
3. You'll be surrounded by old-growth poplar.
For day hikers, however, the trek continues on the Caldwell Fork Trail to the left and towards another climb up a long ridge. But before the real leg burning begins, a short side trail heads into the valley of giants.
A roughly carved sign indicates that some massive trees are ahead. But the neck-craning view of three towering yellow poplars belies even that description. Stretching some 150 feet into the sky, these trees are among the few old-growth survivors of the small logging operations that proliferated in the area before it was designated a national park. It’s hard to imagine that these trees were once mere saplings, fighting for their share of sparse sunlight on the forest floor.
4. Walking with wildlife.
The final, long climb up the Rough Fork Trail deters some from this scenic spot—which makes the sense of solitude even more noteworthy for the hikers who do tackle it. It’s possible to walk long stretches without seeing another soul—except, that is, for the wildlife.
Smoky Mountains National Park is known as one of the most biodiverse tracts of land on the planet. More than 200 varieties of birds call from their perches high above the forest floor, while herds of elk gather in the park and whitetail deer bound gracefully through its forests. You can even catch a rare glimpse of the ninja-like bobcat if you’re sharp-eyed enough.
Perhaps no mammal in the park sparks more discussion, however, than the American black bear. Along the trails of the Hemphill Loop, hikers need only look down to see the calling card of these powerful hunter/gatherers. The large valley in the center of the loop and the streams that feed into it attract many of the park’s 1,500 black bears.
Bears are generally timid, but there have been incidents of encounters in the park. For this reason, it’s recommended to hike with a group, especially on the trail in the early morning and late afternoon or evening.
5. Proximity to great beer (and food).
After climbing more than 1,000 feet on the final stretch of a 13.5-mile hike, thoughts tend to turn towards refueling. Just 20 miles from the trailhead, the little mountain town of Waynesville has everything a hungry hiker needs, with more great restaurant options than seems possible for such a small town.
Three breweries in town keep the beer flowing, including Bearwaters and Frog Level Brewing, the latter of which offers a phenomenal, stream-side seating area. For a single stop for food and drinks, the downtown taproom of Boojum Brewery is just the place, with a wide range of clean, full-bodied brews. A highlight is the dark, rich Graveyard Fields blueberry coffee porter, with coffee notes and a hint of sweet blueberry. Beers are complemented by creative takes on classic comfort food like mac and cheese, hearty burgers, and onion rings.
Waynesville's proximity makes it easy to extend your trip into a weekend-long adventure. Several lodging options, from B&B to Golf Resort, are located conveniently around town. Oak Park Inn is a solid budget-minded choice that's within stumbling distance from breweries and restaurants.
Maybe the best amenity of the inn, however, is the adjacent Kandi’s Cakes and Bake Shop. With standing room for maybe six people, the tiny bakery fills every bit of available space with perfectly flaky, ready-to-go pastries like cinnamon rolls, bear claws, Danish, and cream horns.
The nearby brick-walled former warehouse that holds Panacea is a veritable java museum. Grinders, copper kettles, and various coffee accoutrements from days past and present line the entrance. Grab a cup from the full coffee bar and head outside. The coffee shop shares the riverside seating area with Frog Level Brewing—a fitting spot to sip your joe and pore over maps, planning your next Smokies hike.
If You Go
The total drive from Charlotte is approximately three hours, and about 40 minutes from Waynesville. The trailhead for the Hemphill Bald Loop is at the Polls Gap parking area about 4 miles north of the Blue Ridge Parkway on Heintooga Ridge Road. There are basic restroom facilities another mile or so farther down Heintooga, near the Balsam Mountain Campground . The parking lot at Polls Gap has plenty of space but no other amenities. Bring plenty of water or be prepared to filter from the streams.