It’s been a fast and short year. It feels like we were baking under the sun off Little Tybee Island only a few weeks ago, when it’s been almost six months, while in the moment time has stretched us thin. Hiking slowed down a little over the summer–after our whirlwind of camping almost every weekend in the spring, I had to stop and take care of things related to my mom’s estate, and the oppressive Tennessee humidity made it hard to feel motivated to go sweat it out on a mountain somewhere.
Still, adventures happened! We managed to find a few new local trails, and to get in a little bit of travel back to the Smokies and Pisgah National Forest. One of the trails we hit during this time was Andrew’s Bald, located right next to Clingman’s Dome–the highest point in the whole park and the tallest peak both in Tennessee, and on the entirety of the Appalachian Trail.
The kids and I hiked Clingman’s Dome last summer, and I honestly wasn’t that impressed. Not to say the views were not utterly incredible–but the crowds were so intense at the lookout that it was hard to really be able to enjoy them. I very much want to make it to the observation tower for sunrise sometime, where I can take my time and soak it in. But for this hike, our goal was a trail that started at the base of the Clingman’s Dome trail–the 3.5 mile out-and-back to Andrew’s Bald along the Forney Ridge Trail.
Before my mom died, I was dreaming up a plan to hike, camp, and backpack through as much of the Smokies as possible, with the goal of writing a hiking guide for families. One of the first trails I planned for was the journey to Andrew’s Bald; in part because it’s so easy to find the trailhead, and in part because I liked the idea of providing a way of extending a trip deeper into the forest for people wanting to check Clingman’s Dome off their list but still wanting more of a true “hike.”
Our goal for this hike was to walk in the dark and get to the bald in time to watch the sunrise. We left our house in the middle of the night for the three hour drive up to the parking lot…but when we got there, we were encased in the typical fog that usually covers the high peaks of the Smokies. We still had an hour or so before we had to start walking, and Billy and I decided that we’d sleep a little in the car instead of waking the kids. And then the alarm went off, and it was still foggy. And as I stared out the car windows, unable to see stars or trees, I heard the voice of Susan Clements in my head, asking me why I thought it was a good idea to set off on an unfamiliar trail in the dark fog, with my very small children. I thanked her, shut off the alarm, and went back to sleep.
Instead, we watched the “sunrise” from the parking lot–the fog was still present, the clouds were thick, and we were grateful we hadn’t made the trek in the dark for what amounted to just a gradual lightening of the area. We ate our breakfast sandwiches and made coffee in the parking lot, and had boots on the trail a little before 8am.
The trail is fairly straightforward: the trailhead is off to the far left at the end of the parking lot; if you head up the concrete path to the Clingman’s Dome visitor’s center you’ve passed it. The trail descends for about .1 mile before reaching an intersection with the Clingman’s Dome Bypass Trail. To the right is an alternate route to the observation tower via the AT if you want more dirt and quiet instead of a paved trail and crowds, but to get to Andrew’s Bald you’ll go left, sticking with the Forney Ridge Trail. Here you continue heading down the mountain, and the trail is very rocky at the point. There are steps that help with navigation, courtesy of the trail work of the Friends of the Smokies and Trails Forever program. After another .2 miles or so the trees will open up to the right affording some beautiful views, depending on visibility, before closing off again and taking you deeper into the forest.
A little past the half mile point the trail flattens out a little. There are several footbridges through this section, and while it was very dry the day we were there, there was plenty of evidence of how wet it can get. We used this as an opportunity to teach the kids how to read the ground and see where water would flow when it rained, and how it caused trail erosion, and the importance of the footbridges to help protect the land from foot traffic caused by hikers.
At .9 miles there’s another intersection; here the Forney Creek trail turns to the right and continues to a couple of the backcountry campsites. Continue straight and the trail begins its ascent to the summit. The total elevation gain here is around 200′, with more steps to help you along, and is overall a fairly gentle incline stretching about half a mile total. Evident along the entire hike are dead trees, casualties of the Balsam Woolly Adelgid that has killed so many of the trees in the southern Appalachian region. (Kairi asked if the dead trees were caused by the Gatlinburg wildfire of 2016, a story that stuck with her for its horror and tragedy. “No,” we tell her. “This is because of an invasive species.” Unschooling provides so many learning opportunities, and so many rabbit trails for our kids’ education to follow.) In this section however, fir trees are abundant. The smell is so fresh, damp, and green, and this early in the morning with the trail to ourselves, it’s like we are hiking through the edges of Narnia.
The last few hundred yards before the bald descend a gradual 100′, but there are a lot of rocks and roots to navigate, so watch your footing. The trail then takes you out of the forest and into the bald–your first views are to the right, and then to the left, and then it opens up. I was expecting full 360 degree views like on Max Patch, but the bald here still has a lot of vegetation–wildflowers, fir trees, and thick clumps of rhododendron and azalea. It was unfortunately still very foggy when we were there so we could only occasionally see the shadows of other mountains, but it was enough to promise that on a clear day it would be quite beautiful.
We found a resting place on the summit to eat our snacks, and took another learning opportunity to remind the kids about the importance of staying off the wildflowers. And I would be remiss without a reminder here–they are very fragile, and super important to the ecosystem of the bald. There are several paths that have already been cut across through the grasses, and it is essential to stick to them. If my feral three year old can do it, anyone can!
To get back just retrace your steps–keeping in mind that about 700′ of the total elevation change of the trail occupies the last .9 miles on the way back to the parking lot, so bring snacks filled with energy, and make sure you have enough water for the return trip!
Special note: Every review I read about this trail warned that it was very popular, and to get out early. I felt like we ended up with a late start, so I was surprised that on the way out to the bald we didn’t see any other hikers. However while we were eating we heard several other groups–including an extremely large church group–above us, and on the way back out we easily passed 50 other people (many of whom lapped us at our painfully slow child-led pace). And while we were the first ones in the parking lot when we got there around 3am, by the time we got off the trail the parking lot was almost completely full. So definitely plan this one early unless you want to share the trail with a lot of other people.
Overall Family-Friendly rating: 4/5. This is a great trail for older kids, or for kids in carriers. Because it’s close to 4 miles round trip after you explore the summit, it would be hard for toddlers and young preschoolers to do on their own. I had forgotten to switch our toddler carrier to Billy’s car when we left home, and we ended up carrying him in our arms back up most of the return trip as his little legs were just too tired–particularly combined with very little sleep the night before. Kairi did fine however until the very end, and I think if she’d gotten a proper sleep laying down instead of a few hours in the car she would have been fine. But this trail is easy to find, easy to follow, and not very technical, and has a lot of interesting rocks and trees to explore. And the smell. It’s worth it for the smell. My only kid-friendly detractor for this trail is the distance, so if your kids can handle that, I highly recommend this one!