Great Smokies Showcase: Maddron Bald

In a park full of natural wonder, the route to Maddron Bald hits the high points.
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In a park full of natural wonder, the route to Maddron Bald hits the high points.

The good people who run Great Smoky Mountains National Park are voracious counters. They've inventoried 150 species of wildflowers, 50 different ferns, 330 mosses and liverworts, and 100 native trees. They've also tabulated 800 miles of hiking trails on 520,409 acres, as well as 16 peaks exceeding 6,000 feet. That adds up to a hiker's version of heaven.

While no single trail can showcase all of that natural wonder, a 17-mile loop in the park's northeast corner-combining the Gabes Mountain, Maddron Bald, and Snake Den Ridge Trails-does a pretty fair job. Along the route are waterfalls, cool, moss-lined streams, old-growth tulip poplars, and the pinnacle, 5,200-foot Maddron Bald. The 3,000-foot ascent may leave you wet with sweat, but the views from this heath bald will set your heart soaring.

Cosby Campground is a convenient nexus for hikers, with trails heading off in all directions: to berry thickets atop Maddron Bald, through a kaleidoscope of wildflowers on Gabes Mountain, along spruce- and fir-lined paths up Snake Den Ridge, and to stunning views at the White Rocks outcrop atop Mt. Cammerer.

Make enough left turns and you'll always end up back at Cosby-it just depends on how far you want to go. For extended backcountry trips to Cammerer Ridge and Sunup Bald, access the Appalachian Trail via Low Gap or Snake Den Ridge Trails, and keep heading northeast.

Attractions like Henwallow Falls (2 miles from Cosby), combined with the annual spring bloom and autumn color, mean you'll encounter lots of dayhikers in the early going. But hike far and high enough and the busy trails revert to quiet foot paths, the contour lines get closer, and the trees get bigger. To a backpacker, that's what really counts.

QUICK TAKE: Maddron Bald

WHERE: Cosby Campground is in the northeast corner of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 220 miles (4 hours) north of Atlanta.

THE WAY: From 1-40, take exit 443 for Foothills Parkway to US 321 south through Cosby. Turn right onto Cosby Access Road and park at a ranger shack 2.5 miles in. Backtrack by foot .5 mile to Gabes Mountain trailhead.

TRAILS: For a weekend-size, 17.2-mile loop originating at Cosby Campground, use the Gabes Mountain, Maddron Bald, and Snake Den Ridge Trails. For a three-day, 30.4-mile loop, follow Snake Den Ridge Trail to the Appalachian Trail at Inadu Knob. Follow the AT to Lower Mt. Cammerer Trail and back to Cosby.

ELEVATION: Lowest point is 2,459 at Cosby Campground; highest spot is 5,200-foot

Maddron Bald.

CAN'T MISS: The side trek to Albright Grove, where you'll find forest giants like the park's largest tulip poplar.

CROWD CONTROL: Backcountry sites are rationed, so call ahead to make a reservation at the backcountry office (see below).

PIT STOP: Three words: Biscuits and gravy. A plateful costs just 85 cents at Debbie's Diner, west of Cosby on US 321.

WALK SOFTLY: Use bear-bag hangs at backcountry sites.

MAPS AND GUIDES:Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Trails Illustrated; 800-962-1643; $9.95).

MORE INFORMATION: Great Smoky Mountains National Park backcountry camping reservations: (423) 436-1231.