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Secrets of Big Bald Mountain

By David A. Ramsey • Feb 17, 2019 at 12:00 AM

My eyes had fairly well adjusted to the fading light as I wove my way through the beech woods below the summit of Big Bald, the 5,500 foot mountain that towers above southern Unicoi County. Though the sun had long since dropped below the peaks and ridges far to the west, I was moving along the trail pretty well, waiting as long as possible before digging my headlamp out of my pack.

As I approached a dip in the trail, I could make out the dark tangle of a big blowdown along the left side, and thought I heard the light swish of moving brush. I took two, maybe three more steps, and suddenly the whole blowdown seemed to explode as something big and heavy crashed through its dense limbs and branches. Only as it crested the ridgeline, a short distance above me, could I briefly make out the silhouette of a large bear, racing away from the only creature it feared. I stood motionless for several minutes, reveling in the massive adrenaline rush I'd just received.

This experience is but one of many since I began exploring the slopes of Big Bald Mountain many years ago. Long captivated by its 360-degree view of the Great Smokies, Black Mountains, Unakas, Roan Highlands and Bald Mountains, I've never grown tired of visiting this highland wonder. Its great, treeless summit forms the apogee of the Bald Mountain Range, connecting northeastern Tennessee with the Great Smokies to the southwest.

The stories of Big Bald have fascinated me from when I was very young, listening to my older relatives — who lived in the shadow of the mountain — tell about the bear hunters, moonshiners and other frequenters of its lofty lairs. My favorite was the incredible tale of Hog Greer, the "Hermit of Big Bald," who lived for years in a rock shelter just below the summit, kept hogs and cattle in the high meadows and spread considerable trouble and fear whenever he came down the mountain.

But Big Bald is much more than its myths and mysteries. Almost lost to development by the owners of a nearby private resort, the land was saved when the U.S. Forest Service acquired it in 1977. It is the highest and arguably the most scenic place along the Appalachian Trail between the Great Smokies and the spectacular Roan Highlands and stands more than 900 feet taller than famous Max Patch Bald, which lies at the opposite and southern end of the Bald Mountain Range.

Aside from its importance to outdoor enthusiasts and hikers of the Appalachian Trail, Big Bald is a highly valuable area of the southern Blue Ridge for scientific research pertaining to native wildlife, particularly the numerous species of migratory birds that rely on such vital habitat. The Big Bald Banding Station is a volunteer-staffed project that gathers data for identifying trends in bird population health and provides a valuable educational resource. Raptors, songbirds and owls, including the northern saw-whet owl, frequent the mountain during their migrations. Big Bald has been designated as an official Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society and Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.

As part of the original purchase agreement between Cherokee National Forest and the nearby resort development, landowners in the development are still allowed to access the bald by motor vehicle. Everyone else must hike there via the Appalachian Trail from either Spivey Gap on Highway 19W or Sams Gap just off I-26. But the payoff for visiting Big Bald Mountain via leg and lung power is well worth the price of a little exertion.

David A. Ramsey is a regionally and nationally recognized writer and photographer from Unicoi, TN. His recently released book, Rocky Fork: Hidden Jewel of the Blue Ridge Wild, is available at www.ramseyphotos.com and at Mahoney's in Johnson City.

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