I love bald. While most guys I know fret about baldness, I go looking for it. Maybe it has something to do with my crush on Lt. Llia in the first Star Trek movie. Maybe it was how cool I though Kojak was as a kid. But at least when it comes to hiking, there is still nothing more beautiful to me than a “bald” top.
While common in the arid and higher elevation west, “bald” mountain tops in the east are more unique and a little harder to find. For most of the eastern mountain ranges, mountain peaks rarely rise above the natural tree line. But in a few places, you can find hikes across bald summits or ridge lines providing panoramic views of the surrounding mountain range. Working from north to south, here are a few of my favorites which are all different sections of the Appalachian Trail (AT):
Sky Meadows State Park, Paris, Virginia. This park is not at a very high elevation, but the section of the AT that passes through this park still provides a breathtaking view of the eastern piedmont from the ridge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. You can access this mountain top meadow by taking the Ambassador Whitehouse Trail from the parking area, or picking up the Southbound AT where it intersects Route 50 near the village of Paris.
Cold Mountain, near Buena Vista, Virginia. Not to be confused by its more famous namesake in North Carolina, this mountain top meadow is a series of 2 bald mountain tops providing panoramic views of the George Washington National Forest, as well as some terrific backpack camp sites on the trails leading up to the summit. While the AT is the trail that traverses the ridge, you can make a great 6 mile loop hike by using the Mount Pleasant trail as described here.
Grayson Highlands State Park, near Damascus, Virginia. When it comes to bald mountains, this will always be my first love and favorite spot. Miles of meadows near or above 5000 foot elevation make this truly a spectacular walk any time of year. Again, the use of a series of spur trails can create a day or overnight loop trail where you spend hours walking with a constant view. My favorite walk is from the Massey Gap parking area up to the Thomas Knob shelter and back, making a perfect 8 mile hike. These bald meadows are maintained by a hearty herd of wild ponies, and some of the best visits to this area have been in the thick fog of the spring or the snow in winter, but conditions can get rough quickly with weather impossible to predict in the off season.
Carvers Gap, near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. This section of the AT traverses a beautiful ridge line that is literally the state line between Tennessee and North Carolina through the Cherokee National Forest. The trailhead can be accessed from TN 143 near Roan Mountain State Park, and I would suggest a short detour to nearby Rhododendron Gardens which is the largest natural Rhododendron Garden in the world. Expect crowds at peak bloom in early June, but it was understandably deserted when I tried it in 20 inches of snow in February.
Coming upon a secluded mountain top meadow during a hike can feel like winning the lottery. Especially if you have it to yourself, if feels like a quiet paradise to enjoy the sweeping views of a mountain range. If you are in a sharing mood and would like to tip your hand about such a place, leave a note in the comments to give us a chance to visit your favorite “bald”.