I remember well my first view from the heights of Gregory Bald in Great Smoky Mountains National Park: endless ridges shimmering in the distance, psychedelic-colored flowers swaying in the gentle breeze, and the bony knees of 10 hikers sprawled on their backs. It was an understandable position after scrambling to these steep and blossomy reaches.
In fact, Gregory is one of only two balds in the Smokies that the Park Service keeps cleared of woodlands, since reforestation would threaten this crown of rare azaleas. Peak bloom occurs in June. The hike is a 15.6-mile loop along the Wolf Ridge and Long Hungry Ridge Trails, and includes Parson Bald just to the west of Gregory. Parson bears a stubble of shrubs and other new growth, but it still offers great vistas and solitude. For a mile-high campsite, head to Sheep Pen Gap nestled between the two balds. You'll need reservations, especially during the ever-popular June blooming season.
Where: 190 miles north of Atlanta and 227 miles west of Charlotte. The trailhead is at Twentymile Ranger Station, 5 miles west of Fontana Village on NC 28.
Maps:Great Smoky Mountains National Park ($9.95, Trails Illustrated, 800-962-1643).
Trail Info: GSMNP Backcountry Reservations Office, (423) 436-1231, ext. 1297, or www.nps.gov/carto/pdf/grsmmap1.pdf.