Leaving the Great Smokies, we headed north on the Blue Ridge Parkway. This scenic mountain road, with many pull-outs, runs 469 miles through North Carolina and Virginia, without a traffic light or stop sign. It joins up seamlessly with the Skyline Drive, which adds another 105 miles of the same as it winds through Shenandoah National Park. These two roads provide a unique and lovely driving experience. We covered the southernmost 200 miles or so of the Parkway in ten days. Although we had quite a bit of rain, we were able to camp some at higher elevations than in the Smokies, and enjoyed the slightly cooler and (when not raining) drier weather. Fourth of July fell on a Wednesday this year, reducing travel volume compared to years when many people have a four-day weekend, and so we were able to find campsites without much difficulty.
We took a number of short hikes to reach higher elevation summits having open bedrock habitat, where rarer plant species of the region are concentrated. Locations visited included Waterrock Knob, Frying Pan Fire Tower, Mount Pisgah, Craggy Pinnacles, Rough Ridge, and Mount Mitchell. The latter is the tallest peak in the eastern U.S. at 6684 feet (in eastern North America, only Mount Odin, on Baffin Island, at 7044 feet, exceeds it). Its summit has dense Fraser Fir – Red Spruce forest, like that at Clingman’s Dome in the Smokies, mentioned in the last blog post. We caught Fourth of July fireworks in the town of Spruce Pine, and near there spent one night at a private campground to fully charge our batteries and make use of a cell signal.
We spent several days in the Linville Gorge area. This is the best place we know to see Carolina Hemlock, arguably the prettiest conifer in eastern North America. It has a very limited range in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and Virginia, but is common in the gorge and nearby areas. On one hike segment along the entrance road, we saw a black bear shoot across the road at a curve ahead. We hustled to that spot and were impressed to see that the bear must have climbed up a nearly vertical rock face or a very steep talus slope to escape.
Our last morning on the Blue Ridge Parkway, we were staying in the Julian Price Campground, which loops through a magnificent stand of Rosebay Rhododendron. At dawn I was thrilled to hear a Swainson’s Warbler singing nearby, and eventually concluded there were at least three birds on territory here. This southeastern warbler has an unusual distribution, being principally found in cypress swamps and rich bottomland forests in the southeastern Coastal Plain. However, there is a small disjunct montane population in the southern Appalachians, found in high-elevation rhododendron thickets, a drastically different habitat. We have encountered this population only once before, in Breaks Interstate Park, on the Virginia – West Virginia border.
We left the Blue Ridge Parkway to explore the little-known Amphibolite Mountains in Ashe and Watauga Counties in northwest North Carolina. Amphibolite is a low-silica mafic rock (high in magnesium and iron), which breaks down to form circumneutral soils (neither acidic nor alkaline). In contrast, most of the eastern mountains are decidedly acidic, so the Amphibolites harbor a number of species not found elsewhere in the region. This was reflected in our finding nine new plant species in three days – a rate one order of magnitude greater than our three new species in the preceding ten days on the Blue Ridge Parkway! The places we to which we hiked were Luther Rock on Mt. Jefferson; Three Top Mountain; and Elk Knob. These seem to be the only areas in the Amphibolites open to the public, though The Nature Conservancy has property there also, and occasionally offers guided public hikes.
From the Amphibolites we headed northwest, crossing over into Virginia to Grayson Highlands State Park, where we stayed several nights. This is the taking-off point for a hike to the summit of Mount Rogers, the highest peak in Virginia, at 5729 feet. This part of the Appalachians features somewhat more resilient rock than many other areas, so it has eroded more slowly, leaving higher peaks than elsewhere in the state. We only hiked about halfway to the summit, but I did do the entire hike back in college. This was in 1979, during the gas crisis, but I had managed to get a full tank of gas, and my friend Todd Wilson and I drove down there, arriving on fumes. We were hiking to the summit to try to find Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, a few of which occurred in the spruce–fir forest – 400 miles south of the nearest breeding station of this boreal species! The hike up was fairly difficult, but we managed to find the flycatcher, and also see Northern Saw-whet Owl, another rare breeder restricted to spruce–fir forests. On the way down we encountered extremely dense fog, and missed a turn in the trail. Eventually we came out to a road on the wrong side of the mountain, 20 miles from our car. A kind farmer drove us the whole way around, thank goodness, but we still had no gas. We kept asking people at the trailhead until someone said they could spare us a few gallons, which we siphoned from their tank. Once on Interstate 81 we managed to fill up and make it back to Charlottesville. Our visit this year seemed pretty tame by comparison!
Our last task in southwest Virginia was to track down Virginia Round-leaved Birch, Betula uber. This species, which is closely related to Black Birch, was originally collected in 1914 in southwest Virginia, and then not seen again. So it was big news when the tree was rediscovered in 1975 near the town of Sugar Grove. A few dozen mature trees and seedlings were found in a small area at the intersection of two different farmers’ lands and National Forest land. The farmers appreciated the fragility of this remarkable occurrence, and commendably erected a tall fence around the majority of the plants, to protect them from deer. But soon thereafter someone climbed the fence and stole half the seedlings, presumably for horticultural purposes. The Forest Service collected seeds and started a number of plantations, which eventually supplied more seeds and plants for ornamental uses, taking the pressure off the tiny native occurrence. But the remaining native plants died out over time, and now there apparently is only a single remaining tree from the original occurrence. With help from a local ranger, we were able to view this one tree, which I had seen back in 1979, more than 39 years earlier! It was exciting, but very sad, to contemplate the last known wild individual of a species.