TO THE TRAILHEAD: To get there, you have a couple of options. The most direct route is to take the Blue Ridge Parkway to Heintooga Ridge Road. Follow that road all the way to Polls Gap and the small hiker parking area on the right side of the road to begin your journey. There are a couple trailheads right there. You want the one on the right which is the Hemphill Bald trail. I will say this right up front, Heintooga Ridge Road is closed in the winter months, so keep that in mind, but as soon as the road opens for Spring, go! It is one of the prettiest hikes in the Smokies. During the winter months, you will have a much harder time making it to the trailhead. You are literally at the edge of the boundary of the national park in the southeast corner. There are very few roads out here. And so if you want to do this hike in the winter, you have to come from Cataloochee which will add a minimum of 10 miles to your hike. Some people compensate for this for riding horses part of the way and hiking the rest. A lot of this trail is shared by horses, so that is another option for you
THE HIKE: This hike is a 13.2 mile strenuous hike through some of the very best rolling forest lands that the Smoky Mountains has to offer. This hike is classified as strenuous, mostly due to the large elevation changes throughout the hike. You can do this one as a loop hike or just a there and back hike. If you only want to go to Hemphill bald and back, you can reduce your roundtrip mileage to 9.4 miles and reduce the difficulty to a moderate. But if you can handle the mileage and difficulty, I say do the whole loop. It is worth it.
As you begin the hike on Hemphill Bald Trail, you will notice dense forests, rolling hills, and great overlooks that seem to change like flipping a picture. It is truly a terrific and unique place to hike in the Smokies. You may be between two campgrounds (Cataloochee and Baslam Mountain), but you never feel like there are a bunch of people around you. In fact, you will hardly ever notice other people on this trail. It is insanely quiet. The only sounds you are really likely to hear is the wildlife around you rustling in the woods. And they seem to be laid out like a welcome mat just for your trip. You will frequently see a ton of birds, squirrels, deer, and elk. I have personally seen more elk in this area than anywhere else. All of this makes for a great hike.
This hike is up and down. You generally head downhill at the front end of the hike before making the long ascent up to Hemphill Bald. It is one to do slowly, not only because of the incline, but also because the constant views breaking through the trees will make you slow down. I found myself in the first five miles of the trail going slower than I have on any trail not named Low Gap. Not out of necessity, but just because I wanted to. This hike also gives you a great amount of anticipation as you go. Views begin to open up more frequently, and with each climb, you know you are getting closer. It reminds me in many ways of the drive from Sugarlands Visitor Center to Newfound Gap. With each turn, you get bigger and bigger overlooks until you triumphantly reach Newfound Gap and the amazing views that await you. This trail is very much the same. And when you reach Hemphill Bald 4.7 miles in, you will feel the same way.
Most of the balds in the Smokies are not entirely impressive at the top. Most of them have been overgrown and to get great views, you have to create your own side trail (which we know is no good). But what is pretty cool is that this bald gives you space. There are large flat spaces and a ton smaller plants and bushes all around you. There are tall trees, but they pushed far enough back to still allow for great views all around. There has certainly been plenty of growth here since the days of constant animal grazing way back when, but it is still kept down pretty well, likely aided from the horses that use the trail. Honestly, all the horse traffic has kept the trail compacted and fairly clear. I have seen as many or more horses on this trail as people. It is a great place to ride, but in my estimation, an even a better place to hike. A lot of folks don’t even know about this hike or where it is. Find a hiker in the Smokies that has spent a good amount of time out here and I bet it ranks among their favorites. Anyway, continuing from the bald.
You will, not surprisingly start making your way downhill after leaving the bald. Your next milestone on the trail is Double Gap that will give you afford some more wonderful views and a great place to relax and double check your footwear. Why? It is time for a little water. You will have several water crossings in the next couple miles, so make sure your footwear is adequate so you don’t end up with wet feet. If you aren’t sure, bring a pair of Crocs or similar shoes for water crossings, but I don’t really think it will be necessary for this one. If the horses can handle it, we can too, right? But once you are ready to go, take a left from Double Gap to stay on Hemphill Bald Trail. Do not head off to the right onto the Cataloochee Divide Trail.
The next two miles gives you more time to think about your footing and less to enjoy the views, but it is so different from the first part that you won’t mind it. After 8.4 miles, you make it to the trail junction with the Caldwell Trail. Take a left here. And once you do, you will shortly see Campsite 41. This is a great place to camp. Secluded, hardly ever busy, and a great place to call it quits if you want to turn this into a two-day hike. I have hiked this hike both as a day hike and an overnight experience. Honestly, I enjoyed the overnight more probably simply due to the fact that camping at that site was so serene.
After you leave the campsite, you are 1.5 miles from joining up with the final leg of the hike, the Rough Fork Trail. You will take a left onto this. I didn’t mention much of the nearly two miles of trail on the Caldwell Trail. That’s because this stretch is nice walking, but doesn’t offer much that is truly memorable. So I won’t go into that any further. However, the last stretch of 3.5 miles on the Rough Fork Trail is memorable. It is tough, with several switchbacks. I actually questioned a few times whether I had hiked the right trail the first time I did it. The elevation goes up and down and up and down, but like the first part of the hike, you get some terrific views here, there, and everywhere. You will be tired as you come down, but this hike is so solitary that you won’t care. I have hiked this hike 3 different times. On all of those trips, I never ran into another person, or horse for that matter, on the last 3.5 miles of trail. If you want to go somewhere and think, that’s a great place to do it.
It is a really fun hike. There are remnants of the CCC including fences that really add to the landscape, you can make out just a few remnants of work sites and buildings, and just wide open spaces without the sound of vehicles anywhere around. It is definitely a great hike for the solitary-minded hiker.