I walked alone, with a strong, evening wind whisping through the trees. This top two miles of Forney Ridge Trail is mostly spruce and fir trees. Normally, you can tell the spruce by their pointed, stiff needles and the fir by their rounded, flexible needles. Unfortunately, there’s an easier way to distinguish between the two: the big trees are spruce and the small ones are fir. The fir trees don’t get big because they are all killed by the balsam adelgid once they get 10 or 15 feet tall. So anything taller than about 20 feet is almost certainly a spruce.
As I hiked to Andrews Bald and encountered the hikers heading in the opposite direction, we’d swap “howdies” and keep walking, occasionally stopping to ask, “Are we there yet?” As we’d pass on the trail about an hour before sunset, I could see the unspoken question in their eyes and expressions: “Hey, man. Are you sure you know what you are doing? It’s getting late, and you’re heading in the wrong direction, aren’t you? You’re going to be out there in the dark, all alone.” I can guarantee you that every single person I encountered thought exactly that, not knowing that being out there in the dark, all alone, was the whole point.
A great thing about Andrews Bald is that it’s still a bald, one of only two remaining in the park. Years ago you could enjoy Spence Field, Russell Field, or other grassy areas on the high ridges of the western half of the park. They had been maintained as mountaintop pastureland by cows grazing in the pre-park 1920s and 30s, and even as late as the 1980s they were still impressively open and grassy. However, the NPS is letting all the balds revert to their original, natural, wooded state – except Andrews and Gregory. They may not be pure, unadulterated wilderness, but they are still beautiful, unique reminders of the park’s previous incarnation as a home to farm families with cattle to feed. It’s the same policy that keeps Cades Cove open, grassy, and attractive or that keeps a few cabins and barns standing as a testament to the human side of the Smokies. Whatever the philosophical debates about wilderness preservation, the Smokies’ two remaining grassy balds are worth a visit, and Andrews is by far the easier of the two.
I emerged from the dark woods and into the open field around 7:30, leaving plenty of time to explore. The top of Andrews Bald is a serene, grassy field with scattered clumps of spruce and fir trees, flame azaleas, and catawba rhododendron. There are numerous, faint, meandering trails leading to various rocks, high spots, or shady spots – good places to sit, eat, sleep, or all three. As I walked I paid careful attention to a few landmarks and my general direction of travel. Over the years I’ve learned that I have a pretty poor sense of direction, so I have to make a deliberate effort to pay attention at times like this. On past family vacations I could get us from Tennessee to Montana or Maine on interstates, two-lanes, and dirt roads, but if we pulled into a McDonalds, I couldn’t figure out whether to turn left or right as we pulled out of the drive-thru and back onto the road. My wife or kids would have to point the way back to the interstate. So finding my way back across a grassy bald was not a foregone conclusion, especially at night. As it turned out, this was easy – Forney Ridge Trail across Andrews Bald is the deepest trail, having been worn down 6, maybe 12, inches below the grassy surface.
I explored the faint trails to enjoy the changing view into this southwestern part of the park. There are good views of Fontana Lake and the Nantahala Mountains to the south and High Rocks and Gregory Bald to the west. It was the perfect stage for a sunset; however, my moonlit, return hike wasn’t shaping up very well. Those clouds I had seen in the west a couple of hours earlier were now much bigger, broader, and closer. This could make for a pretty sunset, but I could see that my window of opportunity for a moonlight hike was closing fast. The moon would soon be covered with clouds. [To be continued.]