Lace up those hiking boots and head up to Gregory's Bald in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park RIGHT NOW for a spectacle you will never forget. Gregory's Bald is home to one of the most extravagant showings of flame azaleas anywhere in the world. Many varieties thrive up there and have actually morphed into cultivars that exist no where else on Earth. I have not been since June 2012, but some "Twitter friends" of mine went up yesterday and posted phenomenal pictures. These pictures are from the trip I did a couple years ago, and you can find the blog post on that trip HERE, but I did not hit it at exactly "peak" that year. It was still extraordinarily beautiful and indeed breathtaking even then. From what I saw on Twitter yesterday, this week will be prime time to go take a look for yourself. Due to some responsibilities at work, I'm not sure I'll get up there this week, but if at all possible, especially if you've never been up there before, you should certainly try to go.
There are two trails that go to the top: Gregory Ridge Trail and Gregory Bald Trail. With a well-planned shuttle you can go up one and come down the other, but going up and back either one works just as well. My favorite of the two trails is definitely Gregory Bald Trail which rises steadily through an old growth forest to the summit where you step out of deep woods onto the clear area for which this mountain gets its name. It's an 8.8 mile round trip hike to the bald which lies at almost 5000 ft. in elevation and provides 360 degree views of Cades Cove and the surrounding Smoky Mountains. Even without the azaleas in bloom these views would be worth the trip. While they're blooming, this is a life-changing hike!
Just so you'll know though, Gregory Bald Trail passes right by Backcountry Campsite #13 which is currently closed due to bear activity. If only people would follow the bear regulations and pack out their trash, this would probably be unnecessary. If I do get to go, I'll have bear mace handy, but hopefully closing the site has sent the bear to other areas in search of food. With as many hikers as there will certainly be this week, I cannot imagine there will be a problem. But hikers should be cognizant of their surroundings and aware of what they should do if a bear is encountered. It's also important to know that the road that accesses this trail almost requires that you have a four-wheel drive vehicle. If you're taking a 2WD vehicle, I'd suggest you go up and back on the Gregory Ridge Trail which is approximately an 11 mile round trip.
If I am able to hit the trail myself this week, I'll certainly take and post pictures, but just in case, if you do get to go, I'd love to hear all about it!