Ah, southern Appalachian ‘balds,’ those curious subalpine meadows. From northern Georgia to southwestern Virginia, there are scores of such grassy peaks sprinkled along the Appalachian mountain chain. They are an enigma, being largely devoid of trees and other woody vegetation where one would normally expect to see a continuation of the surrounding forest.
In places, these balds are expansive, measured in the hundreds of acres. Elsewhere they are tiny summit caps. Some 90 are cloaked in grasses and sedges. These so-called grass balds are especially rich in botanical finds.
Researchers have looked for evidence of bald creation through climatic factors related to the Wisconsin glaciation and the effects of mega-fauna during the last ice age. Wood bison, deer, and other native grazers also contributed to keeping the balds cleared.
Native Americans probably used the balds as hunting areas and lookouts and may have used fire to maintain them, says Kristine Johnson, supervisory forester and vegetation management specialist for Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Cherokee name for Gregory Bald was “Tsistu’yi,” or “Rabbit Place.” According to tribal lore, the chief of all rabbits— known simply as the Great Rabbit— lived at the summit. The rabbit, considered by the Cherokee to be sly and mischievous, was a key figure in tribal legends, showing the importance the tribe placed upon the mountain.
Gregory Bald, famous for its wealth of hybrid azaleas (some azalea hybrids occur only here), is located about five miles south of Cades Cove. Its grassy slopes sustain a variety of rare and endangered wildflowers, native grasses, and a rare, dwarf willow.
Gregory Bald was documented by the region’s earliest white explorers in the Davenport survey of 1821, which covered the area now comprising GSMNP. The mountain was listed by Arnold Guyot in his 1856 survey of the Smokies, although Guyot gave it the name “Great Bald’s Central Peak”, and measured its elevation at 4,922 feet.
In the Smokies, as well as other areas, farmers would drive their livestock to the highest balds in the summer. Livestock thus avoided ‘milk sickness’ that resulted when they consumed low elevation plants. This also freed up lower fields, such as Cades Cove, to be used for crops.
The name “Gregory Bald” was given to the mountain by Cades Cove residents in honor of Russell Gregory (1805-1864), a prominent Cades Cove settler. Gregory used the mountain to graze cattle during the spring and summer, when the fields in the cove were needed for growing crops. He lived atop the mountain during this part of the year in a circular stone house near the mountain’s summit (the house is no longer standing).
Today, maintenance of the balds is sometimes the only reason that some of these balds still exist. The origin of balds remains a mystery, and balds management issues are continually debated.