On Saturday, David and I were going to attempt a longer hike in the Balsam Mountain/Cataloochee section of the GSMNP. We were going to do a loop hike consisting of Hemphill Bald Trail, Caldwell Fork, and Rough Fork Trail. The weather didn’t cooperate and a sign at the Hemphill Bald and Rough Fork Trailheads let us know that 2.5 miles in on Caldwell Fork a bridge was out. We didn’t know if we’d be using that bridge and the sign warned us that if it had recently rained the crossing would be dangerous.
The temperature outside was in the high 50s at 9:30 a.m. when we arrived at the trailhead. The humidity, however, was a nice near-100%. The humidity was thick and took your breath as you were hiking a hill. I had no idea how soaking wet one could be with sweat and condensation at 58 degrees until Saturday! We decided after hiking for a short time that it would be safer and easier on the lungs if we just went to Hemphill Bald and came back down the trail. The fog was so thick we could barely see more than 5 feet in front of us and we knew we’d see no views, so we weren’t too disappointed.
On the way up the trail at about the 1-mile mark, you meet a split rail fence and follow it all the way up until about mile 4, when it turns into a barbed wire fence belonging to the Cataloochee Ranch. We expected to see animals on this hike, but we were thinking elk. We saw bulls, lots and lots of bulls, in that barbed wire fence. We did hear a boar just before the 4-mile area though. Not something I’d want to see or run in to!
As for wildlife, we truly didn’t see any until we got back into the car. The flora, however, was much better than expected! Lately in the Smokies I’ve been seeing lots of fungi due to the moisture and we saw no different today. Reds, bright orange, yellow, and the standard tans grew all along the trail. As for flowers we saw crimson bee balm, heal-all, and turk’s cap lillies, which was a true treat. The elevation of the trail meant that rhododendron were only just starting to bloom, as elsewhere in the park they’re at the end of their flowering. At the 3-mile mark, we walked through a gorgeous blooming rhododendron tunnel. With the thick fog it made for a gorgeous sight!
We didn’t see a soul until we were about 1.5 miles from the trailhead on our way out. We passed a group of people wearing blue jeans and nice shoes. At about the 1 mile to go point we passed two people about our age out on a day hike.
On our way back down Balsam Mountain Road we did end up seeing two elk in the exact same place we saw them the last time we were up here, just a little bit before you reach the end of Flat Creek Trail.
In summary, Hemphill Bald is uphill both ways and it ain’t no joke in the humidity. I’d love to do this beautiful trail in the fall.