Date: March 4, 2018
Miles: 5.5 Elevation Gain: 2982 ft. Elev./Mi: 542 Grade: 10%
Difficulty: Hiking Time: 2:03 Pace: 2.2 mph Avg. Temp.: 52
Springtime was on a preseason tour the first weekend of March and stopped for a couple days in the Smokies. One of the secret blessings of being a 900 Miler is you get to drive the though our beautiful park early on a weekend morning when the rest of the world is wondering why none of the breakfast places in Gatlinburg open before 9:00 am. The Little River was proudly sporting Class II rapids as the kayakers were gathering in the parking lot at the Townsend Y, donning winter wet-suits. Meigs Falls were in full glory and the fly fishermen were congregating near the bridge over the Oconaluftee on the Kephart Prong Trail. My target for the day: Newton Bald Trail. Newton Bald could be put together with the Mingus Creek Trail for a pseudo loop but you have to get from near the park entrance back to Smokemont or just walk it. In my case it was an orphan, having completed Mingus Creek so I decided on an out and back for the 5.5 miles.
The first thing one should know about Newton Bald Trail is the fact that Newton Bald is not. The Wise Guide mentions that it used to be a bald years ago before the park but as the Brown Book says, there are no views except through the winter trees. The elevation profile in the Brown Book shows a scary climb at a 45 degree angle and it is a 10% grade gaining nearly 3,000 feet at 542 ft. per mile. That said, I found the climb steady but not particularly strenuous.
The temperature had just passed 40 degrees as I started the flat section along Newfound Gap Road. The easy flat hiking was short lived as the trail bent left and started the 4 1/2 mile climb at 0.1 miles. The Newton Bald horse loop joins in a couple hundred yards in a wide gravel path before it turns left and the trail heads straight in a single track as the steady climb begins in earnest. The early climb is through rhododendron and mixed hardwoods. The first discernible landmark is the first stream crossing at about 1.2 miles. There are a few bends in the trail along the way, some involving small streams in the springtime.
On the one hand, the Newton Bald Trail is rather unremarkable with no views, no waterfalls and it is up hill mostly the whole way. Perhaps it was the great weather or joyful ride through the park putting me in a great mood, but I would call the hike rather pleasurable, despite the steady climb. The trail is well graded through forest that was clear of undergrowth and there are really no places where I would call the trail rugged; just a steady walk over a carpet of leaves. The streams are all rock hoppers and fortunately, only a couple small blow downs at this point in the season.
The steady climb takes a break at about 4.1 miles for a hundred yards or so and continues up over Newton Bald at about 4.7 miles. Newton Bald is covered with mixed hardwoods. The guidebooks mention grasses and flowers evident in the warmer months but in winter, one is left wondering why the name “Bald” is involved, although shortening it to “Newtons” doesn’t make any sense at all. The trail levels out all the way to Campsite #52 at 5.3 miles and beyond to the intersection with the Thomas Divide Trail at 5.5 miles. I made the 5.5 miles in 2:03 for a pace of 2.19 miles per hour.
Lunch and some mind out of time back at the campsite. The stillness was sublime with a hint of birdsong once in a while and the occasional low rumble of a jet engine leaving the McGee Tyson airspace. I wouldn’t call my mind out of time a nap because I really didn’t dose off but I did loose track of time in the warm sunshine listening to the faint, quiet sounds around me. Although it was warm and springlike, the wild world was still asleep and the earth felt that way.
After an hour, or a moment, I’m not really sure, I was ready to head back. I am a pretty fast hiker, especially with well over 5 decades in my knees but the descents are never easy. But that is the beauty of Newton Bald trail. The steady decrease in elevation and the absence of stumbling rocks and roots made for a fast retreat. I made it back to the trailhead in 1:37 for a 3.4 mile per hour pace and happy knees in the end.
Be well, do good, walk humbly!