Overviewthe National Park Service website, “Balds are large meadows or treeless areas located at mid to high elevations in the park, and associated with distinct plant and animal communities. Balds are known to date back at least to the early 1800s, but their exact origin is unknown.” Actually, that origin is not so mysterious. When settlers, and eventually some Cherokee, began to move their livestock to high elevations in the summer, these living lawnmowers created the balds - - in the very early 1800s.
Once the park was created, the livestock were kicked out, and the balds reverted to forest. In a few places, the NPS trims back new growth - - or grazes its own livestock - - to keep a bald bald.
So, it’s pretty obvious where balds come from, even though the NPS wants to keep them “mysterious” as part of their tourism promotion activities. Your tax dollars at work.
Maddron Bald is a heath bald typical of the eastern part of the park, and it is gradually reverting to forest. It can be climbed as a dayhike along well-maintained trails but it’s best as part of a weekend backpacking trip.
Getting ThereFrom Gatlinburg, take Highway 321 “north” (mostly east) for 15.4 miles; from I-40, take the exit to the town of Cosby and continue for 2.9 miles south of town to the junction of 32 and 321. Follow the sign south on Laurel Springs Road to the park’s Cosby Campground, including a right turn off Highway 32 where you see a Park Entrance Store.
The hikers’ parking area is left just after the entrance gate to the campground. That’s also where you fill out your backcountry permit.
We didn’t have any problems but this area supposedly sees a lot of auto break-ins. Supposedly nearby businesses will allow you to park in their lots.
The Snake Den Mountain Route
There’s a natural loop from the Cosby Campground that takes you up Gabes Mountain, Maddron Bald, and Snake Den Ridge. The loop covers 17.8 miles, beginning at about 2000 feet and topping out at 5800 feet on Snake Den Ridge.
If that’s too ambitious a day trip for you, there are two campsites on the loop. First is the Sugar Cove Campground (#34) at mile 4.8, elevation 3240 feet. Second is the Otter Creek Campground (#29) at mile 11.0, elevation 4560 feet.
From Cosby Campground, take the Gabes Mountain Trail 6.6 miles to the Maddron Bald Trail, then up 6.1 miles to the Snake Den Ridge Trail for the return to Cosby (4.6 miles). Add 0.5 miles on the Maddron Bald Trail if you take the Albright Grove Loop Trail to see the old-growth trees, as you should. You’ll see the trailhead just before arriving at the picnic area and parking lots.
For more information, see Johnny Molloy’s Day and Overnight Hikes: Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The AT Route
While the Snake Den Mountain Route goes counterclockwise, this route sweeps clockwise along the Appalachian Trail. From Cosby Campground, the trail heads uphill to the left near the hikers’ parking area. Take the Low Gap Trail 2.9 miles to Low Gap and then climb along the AT to the Cosby Knob Shelter at mile 3.8. From there, hike west/south on the AT 3.8 miles to Inadu Knob at 5925 feet.
From there, it’s downhill for 2.5 miles to the Otter Creek Campground (#29) at 3240 feet. From the campground, it’s 11.2 miles back to Cosby, first downhill on the Maddron Bald Trail and then back on the Gabes Mountain Trail.
The Buckeye Creek Route (dayhike)
From a trailhead off Highway 321, you can climb Maddron Bald as a 6.9 mile roundtrip day hike, with 1974 feet of elevation gain. Most of this trail looks like an old road and/or railroad bed, so it’s fast. Above the Albright Grove it turns into a regular trail, and most of the elevation gain begins here. Access for this option is about 15 miles from Gatlinburg on US 321, turning up Baxter Road to the signed trailhead.
CampingYou can camp at the Cosby Campground for a fee if you like.
This is bear country, and the usual rules apply. Many of the bear cables are broken, so bring rope to hang your food and packs. Rodents are also a problem, so you may want a frisbee as a rodent guard on your rope.