Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Carnivorous Plants Galore

       As I rose from a good night's sleep on the morning of June 11, I was strangely anxious.  All the arrangements had been made and everything seemed to be in order.  Perhaps it was more a feeling of anticipation than anxiety.  Sore from a long hike the day before, I stretched my legs to work out the stiffness.  I rotated my bum right shoulder to see how much pain it was going to cause, but surprisingly it felt pretty good, letting me know that donning a backpack later would not create any unnecessary aggravation.  I got dressed, woke Cayden up as I typically do on a school day.  Colby was laying sideways and face down in his bed with one pillow across his back.  I thought about how great it would be to still be able to sleep like that.  I helped get Cayden's breakfast ready and then went to kiss my lovely wife goodbye before taking off.

      This trip was a much anticipated adventure that for all intents and purposes had taken much longer to get together than intended.  In truth, I had been planning a trip of this sort for almost two years, but things always happen that cause the best laid plans to go awry.  It was critical that I schedule the travel time around bloom dates, and of course that's not always a guaranteed method of accomplishing the goal.  My research for this trip had been going on for about a month and it took me another week and a half before I could adjust my schedule and take a much needed day off.  Once I knew what days I could possibly take off, I started calling and e-mailing hiking buddies.  It's a pretty short list, let's face it.  There are not a lot of people who like to go off the beaten path and potentially face ticks, chiggers, steep slopes, slick rocks, venomous snakes, impenetrable rhododendron thickets, waterfalls, bees, precipitous dropoffs, impalement, and other known hazards that often go with bushwhacking.

      My good friend Travis Smith was the first one to sign on for the trip.  When I talked to him he was on his way home from Indiana.  He was glad I invited him because neither he nor I have gotten to hike together in a long time.  Travis was one of my early mentors as my naturalist career began.  He was also a Park Naturalist and my former supervisor at Chimney Rock Park.  Travis and I began hiking together as part of conducting educational hikes at the Park.  We would often tag team large groups.  This evolved into hiking excursions when we would attend conferences in the Smokies.  Some of my most memorable hikes were spent with Travis as we trudged to Charlie's Bunion in the snow, hiked Mt. LeConte twice, and stumbled along in the dark after a late evening ascent to the Chimney Tops.  Travis needed this particular outing as much as I did so it made plenty of sense for him to go.

      James Padgett is another good friend of mine and also an avid hiker.  James is an inventory biologist for the NC Natural Heritage Program and certified mountain goat.  When it comes to steep places, James and I have always ended up hiking either into or out of some of the steepest places in Hickory Nut Gorge.  James is an excellent botanist and keeps me up to speed on all the botanical name changes that occur way too frequently.  He has the job that most of us would love to have, spending the majority of his time outside looking at plant communities.  What attracted him to this mission, aside from the fact that I invited him, was the opportunity to do some comparative analysis of rare community types and species makeup.

      In doing my research of our hiking destination, I stumbled onto a gentleman by the name of Jim Fowler.  Jim is a computer guy by profession but spends a great deal of time outdoors doing nature photography and is an avid, largely self-taught botanist.  I had seen Jim's photography blog online and he had a great deal of knowledge about the place I was interested in visiting.  I e-mailed him and after a little confusion on my part was able to arrange for us to meet Jim at the site where he could serve as our local expert and guide.

      Our destination was the Eva Russell Chandler Heritage Preserve in northern Greenville County, South Carolina.  Our purpose was to see and photograph carnivorous plants, including the federally endangered mountain sweet pitcher plant (Sarracenia jonesii).  My initial intention for visiting this preserve was to photograph roundleaf sundew (Drosera rotundifolia), another carnivorous plant.  Carnivorous plants are a unique group of species that rely on insects as their nutrient source.  They typically grow in nutrient poor soils in bogs and fens and have modified leaves that function as trapping mechanisms for unfortunate insects that are drawn to their sweet smelling flowers or colorful trapping structures.

      It was actually Drosera that drove me to put the trip together to begin with.  Way up at the top of a cliff face in Chimney Rock State Park (the attraction part), there is a small stream that flows over the rock face.  The rock face and stream are actually visible from the Meadows.  About 20 years ago, Elizabeth Feil and I were bushwhacking in that area looking for rare wild bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia) and Divided-leaf Ragwort (Packera millefolium).  Our belly crawl through the rhododendron thicket let us to the small stream which we had to cross to get to the Packera population we were surveyingElizabeth pointed to the edge of the vegetation where the exposed rock began and there was a small little patch of Drosera rotundifolia.  I would visit that site at least three more times after that, each time hoping to photograph the sundews, but never successful.  The streambed is so slick that to try to walk the stream is risking a certain fall down the 150 foot rock face.  Not the kind of memorable outcome that I care for.  In fact I came close one time to sliding down that same rock face.  If it hadn't been for the quick hands of an intern and some blueberry bushes that actually held when I grabbed them, I would have been a goner.  This particular location is the only known location for roundleaf sundew in Hickory Nut Gorge.  That's not to say that it doesn't occur elsewhere in HNG, it's just that no one has never reported finding it.  Anyway, after too many close calls, difficult access, and the fact that I'm not twenty-something anymore, I felt I could get a picture of roundleaf sundew somewhere else and that somewhere was the Eva Chandler Preserve.

      I picked up Travis in Edneyville and we headed to Hendersonville, grabbed a quick biscuit at McDonalds and scooted down Hwy. 25 towards Greenville.  The plan was to meet James in Cleveland, South Carolina, which I discovered is practically nowhere.  I think I actually passed it.  Anyway we got on Hwy 11 and then turned right where 11 and 276 join up.  We met James at the F-Mart and then followed him up to another preserve called Bald Rock, an impressive granite dome, probably made more impressive (in a bad way) by the excessive grafitti and vandalism that likely has destroyed what was likely once a significant plant community.  I didn't take a picture here, but instead became rather reflective.  Someone had written messages about accepting Jesus as your savior and surrounded it with swastikas.  Another one said something to the effect that Jesus would not do what the artist was regarding as a sinful act.  I truthfully don't even remember fully what it said because I was so irritated by just the sheer disregard for what we attribute to our Creator.  My thought after reading that message was that Jesus wouldn't paint grafitti on rocks.  Such backhanded hypocrisy is why we as Christians fail to successfully share the gospel.  We spend more time condemning the flaws and shortcomings of others and conveniently fail to see and work on our own...but I digress.

      We got back in the vehicles and turned onto Persimmon Ridge Road, a washboarded dirt road that slowly wound down the mountain.  About three-fourths of a mile down the road we came to a curve and saw the entrance to the Eva Russell Chandler Heritage Preserve.  Jim Fowler was there waiting for us.  After quick introductions and grabbing of gear and water, we headed out the trail through a pine forest and down to a substantial granite dome with a nice little stream flowing over it.  Jim pointed out that we were at the top of a small cascading waterfall/waterslide and that the plan was to carefully cross and bushwhack downstream to the bog.  Locally, the waterfall is known as Slickum Falls and that is a good name.  We cautiously picked our way across the slick rock face where the stream passed over it.  Fortunately, there were spongy little patches of algae that were actually somewhat firm and offered a slight amount of grip, making the crossing a little less treacherous.

      We followed the leader, making our way through the woods, passing some nice patches of royal fern (Osmunda regalis) and sweet azalea (Rhododendron arborescens).  We dropped down to the bottom of Slickum Falls, passing over a very nice population of Packera millefolium, which before this day I had only seen in Hickory Nut Gorge.  At the base of the falls, the ground quickly became very soft and slick as patches of sphagnum moss replaced soil.  We emerged out onto another granite dome whose dry parts were covered with twistedhair spikemoss (Selaginella tortipila), but where Slickum Creek flowed over the dome lay a veritable treasure trove.  Little islands of vegetation measuring anywhere from six inches across to six feet across lay along the margin of the stream.  Each little "island" was its own little carnivorous plant colony containing mountain sweet pitcher plants, roundleaf sundew and horned bladderwort (Utricalaria cornuta) as well as other associated non-carnivorous species.

       We got the cameras out and started collecting photographs of this rare plant community.  Cataract bogs, as this plant community is called, are very rare.  Most of the documented cataract bogs are in the mountains of South Carolina.  As streams of water flow over granite domes, the water sheets as opposed to falling.  This reduces the erosive potential of the water in all but the heaviest rains.  Minute amounts of soil will accumulate in depressions along the stream margins.  The amount of soil that collects is minimized by the flow of water and the gradient of the rock, but is enough to allow the accumulation of shallow rooted plant.  Because the amount of soil is so miniscule and the water is continuously flowing, there is virtually zero nutrients to be had.  It's a very harsh environment that only highly adapted species can survive in.  Carnivorous plants are adapted to low nutrient conditions and occupy this special niche in a harsh environment.
Cataract bog beside Slickum Creek.  The wet areas are extremely slick.
       The cataract bog is also a very dynamic environment that is always changing.  It is not unusual for heavy rains to inundate the vegetative pockets, completely washing them away.  Sometimes small islands will grow larger, given enough time to reproduce and fill in the depressions.  Rainy periods promote the longevity of the islands, providing the necessary moisture in what would otherwise be a very dry environment were it not for the stream.  In dry periods it is not unusual for the vegetative pockets to completely disappear, only to re-colonize anew when conditions become favorable again.  The presence of these wet pockets is also quite remarkable considering that the typical granite dome is dry and inhospitable to all but a few highly adapted plants that manage to survive in this extreme environment.

      My experience with carnivorous plants was somewhat limited to the small Drosera population at Chimney Rock State Park and things we would see on our annual coastal trips in my college years.  Our ecology and botany professor, every year, would take a class through Green Swamp in Brunswick County, North Carolina where we got to see the big yellow trumpet pitcher plants (Sarracenia flava), venus flytraps (Dionaea muscipula), and other carnivorous species growing in the pocosins and pine savannas.  When I came to learn about mountain bogs and the presence of carnivorous plants nearer to home as opposed to closer to the beach, naturally it was something that I sought to add to my life list of must see species.

      Mountain sweet pitcher plants are federally endangered, only occurring in ten locations along the NC/SC line along the Blue Ridge Escarpment.  Collection and destruction of habitat have greatly reduced the numbers of what was probably, many years ago, a somewhat more abundant species.  I'm an endangered plant nut and have always loved seeing rare species and any opportunity to advocate for those species is not easily passed up.  Seeing these rare pitcher plants for the first time was very moving for me.  The understanding that comes from seeing such a beautiful and delicate plant in its natural habitat, and knowing that it literally sits on the edge of being wiped completely out of existence is quite sobering.  Pitcher plants consist of a modified leaf that looks oddly like the old smokestacks on transfer trucks that had the flap on them.  The flap prevents excessive rainwater from filling the space.  Flies and other insects are attracted by the sweet smelling flowers and guided into  the pitcher.  Once inside, the waxy coating on the interior of the pitcher prevents any insect from climbing out.  The sweet-smelling fluid in the bottom of the pitcher serves as a paralyzing agent and helps the plant to digest whatever falls inside and can't escape, thereby providing the plant with the nutrition it needs to survive.
A cluster of Sarracenia jonesii.
Some close-ups of the pitchers and seed heads.
They come in all sizes.
      As I stated earlier, my main intention was to photograph roundleaf sundews and at first I was a little worried because there didn't seem to be any good specimens, but eventually we found some that were worthy of some photographs.  I was literally laying on my belly on the wet rock trying to get halfway decent pictures.  My intention was to photograph the sundews in flower but we were a little early.  The few that actually had begun to flower were extremely difficult to get good shots.  The small size of the sundew plants make them hard photographic subjects anyway.  I can already tell that another visit will be necessary to be able to get my technique down pat and properly capture the entire plant.

      Sundews are just as interesting as pitcher plants, if not more so.  The small, round, modified leaves have multiple sticky, red hairs that have large drops of sugary mucilage that glisten like dewdrops and serve as an attractant and a trap, catching ants, flies, or other insects that happen to crawl across or land on the hairs.  Once caught, the mucilage begins the process of digesting the insect which will ultimately supply the sundew with its nutrients.
Roundleaf Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia)
Another shot of Roundleaf Sundew
A little closer shot showing greater detail of the sticky hairs.
      Other notable plants growing in the vegetative mats and along their margins were horned bladderwort (Utricularia cornuta), another carnivorous plant; grass pink (Calopogon tuberosus), an orchid that is associated with bogs; there were also hatpins, also known as pipewort (Eriocaulon compressum), as well as numerous grasses and sedges.  A few alders and small pine trees were struggling to get a foothold where soil pockets were a little thicker, but those mostly yield to the much more dominant herbaceous species.

      After finishing our photography session, we headed back up the slope to where we crossed the creek.  Jim then led us along a trail that tracked alongside Slickum Creek.  The woods surrounding the creek were very flat, with a species makeup typical of what you would see in a wide floodplain.  The forest floor was dominated by New York Fern (Thelypteris noveboracensis) and yellowroot (Xanthorrhiza simplicissima), with several other species that would be found in cove forests.  Jim pointed out the biggest pinxter flower (Rhododendron periclymenoides) that I have ever seen.  The shrub was single stemmed and probably close to six inches at its base.  We meandered along, botanizing as we went, with the trail ending back on Persimmon Ridge Road.  A short walk up the road and we were back to the parking area.

      Jim told us that he had one other area that he would really like to show us that also had some great stuff, so we hopped in the vehicles and drove down the road a short distance and parked.  He led us down an old road bed and then down onto another granite dome.  Like the granite dome at Slickum Falls, this one was also very exposed, but flatter.  Jim explained that what we were looking at was a Southern Appalachian fen.  Fens are specific types of wetlands that are fed by seepage or groundwater.  Cataract bogs are a type of fen.  This was not a cataract bog as we had seen at Eva Chandler Preserve.  There was no stream in this location.  The rock face was intermittently wet and dry.  The wet portions surrounded vegetative mats that were thick with sphagnum moss as well as numerous grasses and sedges.  There were metal grids laid in several places between the vegetation mats, for the purposes of keeping wild hogs off the plant communities, according to Jim. 
A Southern Appalachian Fen.
      Growing in the dense sphagnum mats were more mountain sweet pitcher plants as well as some grass pink orchids (Calopogon tuberosus).  As James Padgett and I made our way over to one of the larger vegetation mats, slipping and sliding on the slick rock, I noticed how extreme this rock community was.  These granite domes are places of extremes and it is rather rare to see extremely dry on the open rock faces and also see extremely wet, where the vegetation mats are and their associated seepage.  The interface between xeric and hydric is so sharp, with no gradation between the two extremes.

      I eased onto a mat that had an extensive pitcher plant colony, being careful not to step on anything of significance, which is sort of difficult considering that almost everything in this plant community is significant.  The wet sphagnum made a sucking sound as my boots sunk into it.  Water welled up around my boots as I took delicate steps.  Not wanting to push to far onto the mat, I shot some additional photos of pitcher plants as well as some grass pink that was still in flower.  I then carefully stepped back onto the dry rock face to see what other neat plants were around.

Grass Pink (Calopogon tuberosus)
Grass Pink (Calopogon tuberosus)
      Around the border or the vegetation mats were a host of other neat plants.  There were several clumps of hatpins, also called pipewort (Eriocaulon compressum).  There was also Carolina false pimpernel (Lindernia monticola) scattered among the other plants, but I failed to get a really nice shot of it.  One notable occurrence that we had seen at the previous site was horned bladderwort (Utricularia cornuta).  At the previous site, there were only a few plants and most were pretty well done flowering.  At this site, they were still flowering like crazy and ringed the vegetated mats like a golden necklace.  Horned bladderwort is another carnivorous plant.  It's named for the bladders found on each plant's simple root system which are typically not visible to the casual observer as they are buried in the thin soils of the seep.  The bladders have little trigger hairs that, when touched, take in water along with whatever aquatic insect may have touched the trigger, trapping it and slowly digesting it, extracting the nutrients from the insect as a way of making up for he lack of nutrients in the wet environment.  It is called horned bladderwort because of the downward-pointing horned appendage located on the back of the flower.
Horned Bladderwort (Utricularia cornuta)
Pipewort (Eriocaulon compressum)
      After snapping our last photographs, we wandered back to the parking area.  We thanked Jim for his expertise and willingness to show us these unique places.  He told us about another preserve that we should check out but we decided it would have to wait 'til another day.  According to Jim, May 15th is the magic time to see things at their best in these Southern Appalachian bogs so we will definitely be back next year.  We loaded up our stuff and headed back out to Hwy 276.

      We drove up to Caesar's Head State Park and looked out over the Escarpment towards Table Rock State Park, snapped a few photos and slid back over the state line into Brevard, NC for lunch.  I reflected as we drove back towards home on the emotional experience of seeing such unique plants for the first time and how they live in such a precarious, extreme ecosystem.  I also felt quite uplifted despite being tired, hot, and thirsty.  I don't often get to take days off where I can go in search of rare plants or just enjoy a day in the woods.  Sometimes you have to take time and re-center, to keep from going insane with the daily routine.  Being outside in the woods is so much a part of who I am and it's important to be in tune with that part of my personality and to take the time to just be a part of the landscape, or as I like to say, to embrace the fact that I am a Southern Appalachian endemic.  Travis certainly felt the same way and we lamented that we don't get into the woods enough.  Hopefully, we'll get another trip planned very soon (when it cools off a little) and we'll see where the next adventure takes us.

      To see the photo album from the trip click on the link below:

Until Next Time!

Monday, June 1, 2015

Decisions, Decisions...Connecting the Past to the Future

I've always heard it said that it's not healthy to live in the past, the future us unreliable because we are not guaranteed another day, and we must live in the present because it's the only reality we have control over.  On some level, I agree with those mixed sentiments, but I think it creates a somewhat cynical perspective.  The past is our key to where we have come from.  The present is where we are right now.  The future is where we want to go.  I like to look at it like this: the past is what shaped me and showed me my mistakes; the present is guided by my past as I make daily decisions that will shape my unwritten future.  If we live in the past, we become cynical and bitter.  If we live entirely in the present, or better yet in the moment, we never advance our position in life by seeking to fulfill those things that we desire.  If we live in the future we spend our time dreaming and we never reach our goals because we fail to do what is needed in the present to achieve the knowledge or raw materials to fulfill our dreams.  Now certainly all of this philosophical diatribe may sound like utter nonsense, but it certainly applies to the processes that are required for properly planning various projects.  In this case, I'm talking about a trail; more specifically, the Skyline Trail at Chimney Rock State Park.

I was fortunate to hike with some of the Friends of Chimney Rock State Park on their summer hike.  The hike was led by Park Superintendent, James Ledgerwood, and was planned with the objective of reaching the top of Hickory Nut Falls via a newly proposed re-route of the Skyline Trail.  This was the first opportunity for members of the public (exclusively members of Friends of Chimney Rock State Park) to go to the top of Hickory Nut Falls since the closure of the Skyline Trail back in 2008.  For those of you who read my blog, you will remember that I visited the Skyline Trail last summer with Ranger Tyson to document the Skyline Trail in its present state, but other than me and the handful of people who have likely snuck out on the trail illegally, this was the first official public visit to the top of the falls.

I really appreciated the way James started this hike.  We all met in the top parking lot at the tunnel entrance after a brief rendezvous at the Ticket Plaza.  Of course, the elevator was down so James explained to the group that it was going to be a "day of decisions."  Our first decision was made for us as James explained that we could ride the elevator, as it was operational for staff, but due to its lack of reliability, this might not be a good decision.  Thus we opted to hike up through the Outcroppings via the newly constructed stairway that replaces the majority of old structure to places such as Vista Rock, Pulpit Rock, and the Subway/Grotto.  The Subway and Grotto, along with Pulpit Rock are the most recent openings after being closed for many years so it was nice to re-visit those places again.
The stairs to the Outcroppings.
The new stairs to the Grotto and Subway replace a structure that was old and in pretty poor shape.
The view from the recently re-opened Grotto.
The Subway was always one of my favorite attractions in CRSP.
This recently added feature gets visitors back up to Pulpit Rock.  What's your opinion of this structure?
Another view up the steps to Pulpit Rock.

Once we reached the patio and the steps to go up, once again James mentioned that it was decision time.  This was our opportunity to visit the Chimney, go to the restrooms at the Sky Lounge, or continue on the hike.  Our group opted to continue up the mountain.  I made a conscious decision that I would take my pictures on the way back down.  It was particularly hot and muggy and I was already sweating profusely, so I decided that I didn't want to take the effort to continuously remove my pack to get my camera out, nor did I want to carry it around my neck.

As we walked up through the switchbacks on our way to Exclamation Point we saw quite a few Sundrops (Oenothera fruticosa subsp. tetragona) that were flowering.  Leatherflower (Clematis viorna) and tall thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana) were also beginning to open up.  Mountain bluets (Houstonia purpurea) grew in patches along the trail, announcing the arrival of the summer flowering season.  At the top of the last long stairway before Exclamation Point, some shootingstar (Dodecatheon meadia) plants remained, having already flowered and beginning to develop fruit.
Sundrops (Oenothera fruticosa subsp. tetragona)
Tall Thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana)

We arrived at the location of the recently removed Exclamation Point rain shelter.  This was still standing on my last visit so it was fortunate that I had taken a picture of it at that time.  Again, more decisions.  Would it have been more appropriate to try to repair a structure that was in pretty rough shape to begin with, build a new structure, or tear the old one down and build nothing back in its place?  The old shelter, while probably providing a crude layer of protection during thunderstorms, was probably not the safest place to be during said storms, so removal was probably a good idea.  Not to mention, some of the colorful language written on the walls was certainly not something that children should be sitting around reading while waiting on the passing rain shower.  Again, as so many things do, the rain shelter will pass into history as a memory as the future moves ever closer.

At the rain shelter, the hiker is presented with a choice of continuing straight ahead, around the bend to Exclamation Point, or taking the route to the left up the rock dome.  I chose the latter as I was interested in seeing if there was any pale corydalis (Corydalis sempervirens) along the edge of the forest.  Unfortunately, I didn't see any so it may be that climate change has made the site less favorable and it is gone.  The species was always somewhat sporadic there anyway, so it could be that this was just not the year for it to be there.  Life is tough on the edge of a granite dome where soils are thin, water is often scarce, and the sun beats down on you most of the day.
They don't call it Exclamation Point for nothing.

James assembled our group together after a quick look at Exclamation Point.  He led us to the gate that has been erected at what I always called the orchard access road.  James unlocked the gate and let us through, allowing us to walk a short distance.  He began to explain the finer points of trail construction and some of the logic for constructing a new and improved Skyline Trail.  The new proposed route would make partial use of the old orchard road before meandering into the woods along the contour about 25 yards above the old Skyline Trail.  The route meanders through rhododendron thickets and will offer some really awesome views once some trees are removed and windows opened.  As we walked along the recently cleared corridor, I was overcome by this feeling of deja vu.  I then remembered that sometime back in the late 90's, Todd Morse and I had walked along the same route, although it wasn't cleared all those many years ago and was actually quite a difficult bushwhack.  Now, with the rhododendron cleared out of the way, it was quite obvious that this was a very doable route.  I wish I could remember the reason Todd and I scouted that route so many years ago.  It is quite possible that we were looking for an alternative route for the Skyline Trail then, but I've slept a few nights since that time so there's no telling what we were actually doing.  The newly cleared route came out where I expected which was above the Skyline Trail near Peregrine's Rest on another orchard access road.  I was also pleased to see that the old picnic table was still there by the road.  I've eaten a few Clif Bars and sandwiches at that old table. 
The orchard road on the other side of the fence.
Galax (Galax urceolata)
Cleared path through the forest.  Notice the big chestnut oaks.
Another shot of the proposed route.

So, just to give a little more background, these old roads have been used over the course of Park history for the purpose of bringing in materials for trail construction.  At one time they were used for getting asphalt to the trails and some people still remember those sections of trail that actually had asphalt on them.  Much later, after Last of the Mohicans was filmed, those roads served the purpose of getting lumber to the trail for construction of the numerous boardwalks that were put in place along the trail between Exclamation Point and Hickory Nut Falls.  It's interesting how we have sort of come full circle.

My first memory of the Skyline Trail was when I was a child and visited, never knowing that such a huge part of my life and career would be dedicated to the Park.  I remember walking along the trail on a narrow path of low-to-the-ground boardwalks that were basically constructed of 2 x 12 boards laid side by side and supported and elevated by 4 x 4 posts in order to reduce the erosion that had occurred along the trail bed, which for so many years had no form of protection from the damage caused by natural erosion and human impact.  Park management at the time was foresighted enough to see what the long-term effects would be and developed a strategy for replacing those old structures which was essentially implemented a little at a time over most of two decades.  It worked too.  The new improved boardwalks provided a stable, even surface that made getting to the top of Hickory Nut Falls much easier, such that it was not uncommon to see people walking the trail in flip-flops.  A down-side to this was that while protecting the natural resources and supposedly improving safety, it created a false sense of security as well.  We commonly let our guard down when we have a perception of safety, and that's when accidents occur.  What is so easily forgotten is that at one time the trails didn't have easy walking surfaces and nice picketed handrails.  Hikers knew the dangers that existed and there was a sense of personal accountability.  If you veered off the trail, there was a really good chance of falling to your death, so usually common sense prevailed.  Again, decisions and choices guided those early decisions, and we find ourselves there once more.

State Parks, to their credit, have a pretty good understanding of the conundrum that exists with respect to the Skyline Trail.  While they don't know the entire history, they know enough to understand that there has to be a balance between public safety, protecting the natural resources, and good stewardship of tax dollars.  It is also a matter of what can be done quickly and inexpensively versus the alternative.  This discussion was very much a part of the hike as we stood atop an outcropping overlooking the old Skyline Trail, just east of Peregrine's Rest.
View from above the old Skyline Trail near Peregrine's Rest.
Another shot.
The access trail from the Peregrine's Rest Orchard Road to the old Skyline Trail.

We clambered down the old access trail to the old trail bed and walked down to Peregrine's Rest discussing the remaining difficulties that CRSP has in completing the trail to Hickory Nut Falls.  As we hiked along the old Skyline Trail we passed by the Gorge's only known population of rock gnome lichen (Gymnoderma lineare).  This federally endangered species has suffered dramatic decline since it was last inventoried in 2005.  No one seems to know why the species is disappearing at CRSP, but oddly enough, its decline seems to parallel the degradation of the Skyline Trail since 2008.  Could it be that some human impact along that trail is necessary to ensure the population survives, considering that  Park staff used to regularly maintain the trail corridor by cutting back overgrowth.  Disturbance is such an important aspect in many ecological communities.  It is quite possible that some disturbance is necessary to manage the species, particularly when there are so many other environmental hurdles that the species has to overcome.  My feeling is that if no further study or management of this population occurs, CRSP is going to lose rock gnome lichen to natural succession that is occurring at unnatural rates due to global climate change.  That's my hypothesis as to what's going on, now it's time for someone to prove me wrong.
View from Peregrine's Rest.
Rock Gnome Lichen (Gymnoderma lineare)

Our group meandered along, passing the skeleton of a long dead Carolina hemlock (Tsuga caroliniana) that was struck by lightning back in 2001 and later succumbed to hemlock woolly adelgid infestation.  The discussion centered around the fact that at one time there were no boardwalks along the Skyline Trail and very few handrails.  The barriers were vast thickets of Carolina rhododendron (Rhododendron minus) that lined the trail edge and more or less created a natural handrail that was impenetrable in all but a few places.  The question goes back to whether or not you can still protect the natural resources without structure.  Lack of structure probably reduces the number of users because of safety perception, but how does that impact a trail that already has significant damage from nearly 100 years of use?  These are the types of questions that CRSP and NCSP staff are trying to get a better handle on.  The answers are not always as cut and dry as we might like to think they are.

We finally arrived at the top of Hickory Nut Falls.  As I had mentioned in last year's post on the Skyline Trail, the pool between the upper and middle cascade has changed quite dramatically.  Rocks have moved around, aquatic plants are growing in a partially submerged sandbar.  Small trees now lean over the creek where the upper cascades descend into the plunge pool.  It is no longer easy to hike along the side of the creek to reach the flat rocks alongside the upper cascades where so many people used to sit in the sun, eat picnics, and slide down the waterslide (not something that we typically encouraged).  The little bridge that served as the barrier between safety and danger has lost a handrail since I was out there last summer.  Lack of maintenance and the movement of time continues to take its toll on the remaining structures.

Our group sat down at the top of Hickory Nut Falls for lunch and reminisced about what used to be and the various memories some of us had at the top of the falls.  It was so much fun telling stories about the many people we encountered back in the good ol' days and the experiences.  I keep saying that one day I'll write a book about some of that stuff.  Maybe somebody will want to read it.  One bonus for eating at the top of the falls is that currently there is an unobstructed view across the Gorge and along the cliff faces.  The old fence and boardwalk at the falls is gone, most of which was washed away in 2006, opening the view.  I snapped a few shots of the cascades and we headed back up the stairs.
Lower Cascades.
View from the top of Hickory Nut Falls.
View of the cliff faces from the top of Hickory Nut Falls.
Middle Cascades.
James led us up to the falls orchard access road along an old path that had consisted of old rotted steps built beside a long since removed rain shelter.  I saw the old trashbin we constructed many years ago, still sitting there, almost as if it's waiting for more trash to be placed in it.  The old bin was built like a cage out of wood and hardware cloth to serve as a place we could place full trash bags on weekends until we had a chance to put them in the back of a 4x4 truck that we would keep at the top of the falls in case of emergencies.  The old orchard road allowed us to be able to get the truck in to the falls area and made a difficult job much easier.  At this point, James showed us the area that was being considered for possible new trail as a way of connecting the area to the new corridor.  The plan is not without its challenges.  One of those challenges is the crossing of Fall Creek.  Do we abandon the old trail completely, remove the old bridge and create an upstream crossing along the old access road bed or do we use portions of the old Skyline Trail and renovate the existing structure?  A higher stream crossing means either building another bridge or wading the creek which adds a challenge element to the trail.  Crossing the creek in the same place means upgrading the existing bridge and figuring out how to use the old trail in the safest way possible.
Falls Orchard Access Road, looking downhill towards Hickory Nut Falls.
Old ford crossing upstream of the Cascades and a possible challenge for trail construction.
A small waterfall at the ford crossing.
James explained that when the trail crew scouted the new route above the old Skyline Trail, they ran into a very steep drainage area.  I knew exactly where he was talking about as I had hiked that route before.  The same drainage area is crossed by the old Skyline Trail over a mostly dry streambed.  All possible new routes are choked with rhododendron thickets that are practically impenetrable, making it very difficult to properly plan and execute a feasible route.  This shows the difficulty with creating something new where few options exist.  So, this brought us back to the original question:  what can be done to incorporate the old trail as opposed to creating new trail?  As we walked back along the route we had taken, this question resonated with each hiker as we pondered the various choices that must be made with respect to the Skyline Trail. 
Our merry band in single file on the proposed re-route.
And what about the Cliff Trail?  The Cliff Trail was the first trail to the waterfall and the location for the Last of the Mohicans.  It is also the most awe-inspiring trail in the entire Gorge.  How do we resurrect this trail in a safe and affordable manner?  There are plenty of ideas but none that equal the experience of being able to simply walk unimpeded and without a guide.  Having all the trails open to the public is the only way to truly restore the identity to CRSP.  Sure the Park's namesake is Chimney Rock, but everyone who knows and loves the Park knows that the Park's heart and soul are the Skyline and Cliff Trails which make it possible to truly experience the awe and wonder of the mountain.

So what can the public do?  It is important for the people who love CRSP to make your voices heard.  Without voices, it is much harder to get clear direction, and the planning gets left to bureaucrats and engineers who don't know the Park and don't know its history.  Do the trails need structures?  Probably.  Do those structures need to be engineered at the cost of hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars and then constructed for even more?  Not likely.  Engineers didn't build Chimney Rock State Park.  Skilled carpenters and men with a lot of common sense built those trails and their work was good enough for the ones who ordered it.  That is part of the Morse Family legacy.  They did it right the first time.  Granted, I'm not taking anything away from engineers because they are necessary, but why is it necessary to over-engineer a trail?  Considering the overall safety record of the Park for several generations, low level of severe accidents and fatalities compared to other similar attractions, it tells me that somebody did something right.  I visited Whiteside Mountain last year and they have trails that are very similar to CRSP and have similar issues.  Whiteside is part of the Nantahala National Forest, has some of the most precipitous drops in eastern North America, and is not over engineered.  Rather it has very simple structures that serve their purpose, are easy to maintain, are safe, and were inexpensive to build.  In my opinion it comes down to being a good steward of the environment and the money of the taxpayers.
Cable fence is all there is between my wife and a 1,000 foot drop at Whiteside Mountain.
If this is good enough for the national forest, surely it would work at CRSP
So my plea to my faithful readers and Friends of Chimney Rock State Park is to make your voices heard.  Let's return CRSP to its former glory, unencumbered by bureaucracy and overkill.  Also, let CRSP staff know how much you appreciate them.  Those guys and gals do a fantastic job and are faced with a lot of challenges that don't just involve the Skyline Trail.  They have approximately 6,000 acres to look after.  Give them your support and continue to support CRSP and the Friends of CRSP.

I just want to throw a huge shout-out and thank you to James Ledgerwood who so patiently and deftly fielded our questions and comments as he guided us along the trail .  This hike would not have been possible without his willingness to share his vision with those who care so much about "our State Park."  Below are a few more pictures I snapped while on our hike.
Path to Exclamation Point
Close-up of the Devil's Head.
The classic view of Chimney Rock.
The climb to the top of the Chimney.
View of the Rockpile from Pulpit Rock.
View from the recently re-opened Pulpit Rock.
Rock formation on top of Pulpit Rock.
Banding and folding in the rock detailing the early geologic history of the Henderson Gneiss.
Grotto Alumroot (Heuchera parviflora), a plant of extremes.
Another view of the walk up the Outcroppings.
Until next time!