In the days before the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, herders kept livestock up in the high mountains.
The herds actually performed something of a service, keeping the naturally occurring mountain balds free from encroaching brush.
A bald is essentially a pasture in the higher elevations where trees are few. This is possibly due to short or non-existent growing seasons.
There is some thought that European early settlers cleared the bald for grazing. However, evidence exists that the balds pre-date European settlers.
At any rate, places like Gregory Bald and Andrews Bald were used for herding prior to the national park.
After the formation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the National Park Service allowed nature to start reclaiming the balds. However, a poll in the early 80s determined that park visitors want the balds – which offer spectacular views – kept clear.
Andrews Bald and Gregory Bald are two of the remaining balds in the GSMNP, although Max Patch is just to the northeast of the park.
The history of Andrews Bald and Gregory Bald
Andrews Bald is named after cattle herder Andres Thompson who brought livestock up into the high mountains in the 1840s.
Andrews Bald is a double peak, a single mountain that has two summits. It is located along the Forney Ridge, south of Clingmans Dome. It is the 62nd highest peak in North Carolina and is located entirely in Swain County.
However, the trail to reach it starts in Tennessee.
Interestingly, unlike Max Patch and Gregory Bald, Andrews Bald doesn’t cover the summit. It spreads out along the southern slope.
For years, a cabin stood near the top of the bald and was likely used as a herder’s shack as cattle herders would stay high up in the mountains with their flocks for days or even weeks at a time.
The NPS notes the trail begins from the Clingmans Dome parking lot and drops elevation to get to Andrews Bald. After a large descent, it levels on a broad ridge, soon diverting to the right at mile 1.1.
For more on life near Gregory Bald, read about the last family living in Cades Cove and Kermit Caughron, who used to herd cattle at the bald.
The cattle could graze up in the mountains, in part, because each fall the mountain people would set fires to beat back the brush and make way for the grasses to grow fresh and new in the spring. Now the forest has taken those lands back for itself.
“They burn it. I can remember them burning those big brush fires up there,” Kermit’s son Rex said. “I don’t guess they’ll see that again. They’re gonna let nature take its course.”
How long does it take to hike to Andrews Bald?
It’s 1.8 miles from the Forney Ridge Trailhead at the Clingmans Dome parking area to Andrews Bald.
Experienced hikers should be able to make the 3.6 mile round trip hike in about three hours. You can continue along the Forney Ridge hiking trail past the bald. It’s a total of 5.6 miles down to the Springhouse Branch Trail.
How hard is the hike to Andrews Bald?
The trail itself is moderately difficult and is fit for fit families or groups used to hiking. Due to the rocky terrain, the trek can be somewhat strenuous. However, the pasture at the bald is a nice place to rest and regain your energy for the climb back, which features about a 1,200-foot elevation change.
Trail conditions have generally improved from previous decades and it is generally considered a gorgeous trail if not an easy hike.
The NPS says that hikers can sometimes find patches of wild blackberries and raspberries, Fraser firs and bluets.
Bluets are a small, blue wildflower. They are sometimes called innocence or Quaker ladies.
The popular trail features scenic views and the bald itself offers great views of the surrounding mountains.
Where is Andrews Bald located?
The bald itself is entirely located within Swain County, North Carolina. But the Andrews Bald Trailhead is in Tennessee, near the Clingmans Dome parking lot.
The trail also intersects with the Appalachian Trail.
Can you hike to Andrews Bald in the winter?
You can, but be prepared for some extra hiking.
Clingmans Dome Road is closed to vehicle traffic from early December through late March. You can hike the 7 mile long Clingmans Dome Road as long as the conditions allow you to get there on Newfound Gap Road.
Remember, it’s 14 miles roundtrip with a significant elevation gain.
Which bald is easier to access, Gregory or Andrews Bald?
Well, if Rex Caughron is to be believed and he is, it’s Andrews.
Though his dad spent a lot of time at Gregory Bald herding cattle as a young man, Rex said he never much liked that hike himself.
“I only made it to Gregory three times in my life,” he said. “It wasn’t that hard of a walk, but I didn’t enjoy going to Gregory Bald.”
The Forney Ridge trail is generally considered a great hike and is a really popular hike in the higher elevations.
So between the Andrews Bald hike and the Gregory Bald hike, Andrews Bald is largely preferred. It is, however, a matter of personal preference as to which has the best views.
Actually, if you want easier access to a bald, you might try getting out of the National Park and heading to Max Patch.
What is Max Patch?
Max Patch is a bald in the Appalachians that was pasture land for sheep and cattle in the 1800s.
It is a treeless, grassy meadow on a mountaintop. And it has 360-degree panoramic views. Max Patch is located in the Pisgah National Forest at the North Carolina-Tennessee border.
A major landmark on the Appalachian Trail, it’s accessible from the North Carolina side from Hot Springs on NC 209 and from Exit 7 on the North Carolina side of I-40.
There’s also a third route through Del Rio in Cocke County Tennessee, but I don’t recommend it.
The Max Patch parking lot is there and all you have to do is hike up the modest hill to the peak. And on a clear day, it offers stunning views of the surrounding mountains.
Still, I would say if the weather has been rainy, don’t attempt to reach Max Patch from either side without a four-wheel drive. And I’d get a fairly good idea of the predicted weather before taking a family for a picnic.
However, if you’re not up for a significant hike, Max Patch is the Southern Appalachian Mountains bald for you.
Have you hiked to Andrews Bald? What did you think? Let us know in the comments.