Wednesday, June 8, 2016

My New Favorite Trail: The Bearwallow Mountain Trail

I run into a lot of people who know about my history and work in Hickory Nut Gorge and often I hear the comment, "Well, I guess you've seen about all there is to see up there."  Truly I have been to a lot of places in Hickory Nut Gorge, either by road or on foot, but I can certainly not claim to have seen it all.  In fact any opportunity to visit a place I have not yet seen in Hickory Nut Gorge is certainly not worth passing up, especially when there are still species out there that need to be documented and photographed.

On June 1,2016, I had spent my entire morning doing a botanical inventory for a property owner in Buncombe County.  Having worked part of the Memorial Day weekend and with a busy work schedule facing me towards the end of the week at my real job, my day off was spent fulfilling an obligation to conduct this botanical survey.  After a half day of climbing and crawling through rhododendron thicket, I was certainly ready for a break, so I drove down Highway 9 back down to Chimney Rock and grabbed a quick bite at the Old Rock Cafe and contemplated how I would spend the rest of the afternoon.

There were several species that I had managed to photo-document earlier in the day, but there were still a few that I wanted to try to find.  Initially I decided to go to the Bat Cave Preserve because I knew I would find what I was looking for there, but then I thought, "Well, you know, I have never been to the top of Bearwallow Mountain.  I should go up there."

I am almost ashamed to say that in the twenty-four years I've worked in Hickory Nut Gorge, I have never visited its second highest peak.  Only recently has Bearwallow Mountain really fallen under my radar as "legally" accessible after Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy recently acquired a public right-of-way and constructed a trail up the mountain.  I had always heard that there was some cool stuff up there and the view was really spectacular, so on this particular day I decided that I needed to put a new destination under my belt.

I hit the road hydrated and with a full belly, headed up Highway 74A to Gerton, took the left onto Bearwallow Road and drove to the Eastern Continental Divide, where I parked my car at the small parking lot on the side of the road.  As an aside, this is also the location for the trailhead of the Trombatore Trail, another recently built trail that I have on my to-do list.

I crossed the road and squeezed through the narrow space between the gate and the fence post and made my way over to the trailhead.  I saw the trailhead kiosk but didn't read it because my eye was immediately drawn to purple on the forest floor.  I was happy to discover Virginia waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum) in flower. 
Eastern Waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum)
This was the first time I had seen this species in flower so I was pretty excited.  Another one to add to my ever growing list of Hickory Nut Gorge wildflower photos.  Without a backward glance I began my hike along a well maintained path, occasionally broken up by rock steps and a couple of switchbacks.  As I made my way through the first set of switchbacks, I saw some huge eastern columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) with the largest flowers that I have ever seen on that species.  There were also several nice spiderwort plants (Tradescantia sp.) that were a deep lavender.  I also saw (for the first time in flower) waxyleaf meadow rue (Thalictrum revolutum), common throughout the Gorge, but seemingly never in bloom when I find it.  As I moved up the trail, it was clear that elevation makes quite a difference in determining species and bloom time.  Many things that were blooming above 3,000 feet were already finished at the lower elevations in the lower Gorge. 

Eastern Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)

Spiderwort (Tradescantia sp.)
Waxyleaf Meadow Rue (Thalictrum revolutum)

I moved into a long, fairly flat section of trail where the forest began to open up with several large but weather-stunted oak and hickory trees, occasional patches of shrubs such as flame azalea (Rhododendron calendulaceum) and mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), and an herb layer that consisted mostly of ferns and other acid soil-loving plants.  As I moved along, the forest seemed almost ethereal in some ways, as clouds began to move in and the distant rumbles of thunder could be heard.  I began to realize I needed to pick up my pace.

Nice, flat trail.

A forest floor covered with ferns and low shrubs.
Flame Azalea (Rhododendron calendulaceum)
One rather disturbing thing I saw was that almost all the flame azaleas that I encountered were severely impacted by azalea gall.  The galls are caused by a fungus (Exobasidium vacinii) which can cause severe damage to affected plants and spread to other azaleas if not controlled.  There were some though that were unaffected and were still in flower.
Azalea gall (Exobasidium vacinii)
 At a slight bend in the trail I came to a place where I was treated with my first sighting of Catawba rhododendron (Rhododendron catawbiense).  Catawba rhododendron, while generally common in the higher elevations of North Carolina, is occasionally found on north-facing slopes at lower elevations.  I've seen it on the north side of Little Pisgah Mountain where I guess it would be considered out of the Gorge (That side of the mountain drains into the French Broad Basin as opposed to the Broad Basin), and I've seen a very small population on the north side of Rumbling Bald along the spine of the mountain.  I found that the farther I moved up the mountain, the more there was as I crossed the 4,000 feet elevation mark.
Catawba Rhododendron (Rhododendron catawbiense)
Northwest view framed by Catawba rhododendron.

I continued working my way up the path which had begun to steepen, increasing in difficulty with the addition of a series of log and rock steps that worked their way up the last leg of the trail.  Passing by a couple of large boulder formations, the trail came out into a flower-filled meadow.  I could see the summit ahead with its numerous radio towers and the historic fire tower that has stood atop the mountain for several generations, the trail intersecting with the dirt road that allows vehicle access to the top of the mountain.
The trail near the summit, surrounded by Catawba rhododendron.

Approaching the summit of Bearwallow Mountain.
Looking northwest across the ragwort-covered meadow.
 As I came to the road to finish my trip to the summit, angry clouds began to surround the mountain.  Off to the south, a rain squall was visible.  The wind began to pick up and a sudden chill went through me as the sweat evaporated from my skin.  As thunder rolled, I began to realize that I was probably not in a very good place.  The whole top of the mountain is pretty much devoid of trees.  The tallest structures are all made of steel and probably get hit by lightning pretty often during storms.  Not wanting to become a human lightning rod, but at the same time not wanting to miss any photographic opportunities, I quickly crossed the summit over to the forested east-facing side of the mountain for a view of Hickory Nut Gorge.  From my vantage point, I could only make out a few prominent features due to a rain squall that was pushing through the lower Gorge.
Storm clouds and a rain squall to the south.
Rain in the lower Hickory Nut Gorge.  Lake Lure can barely be seen.
Another Catawba rhododendron bush.
 I snapped off several photos of the angry clouds and some Catawba rhododendron and quickly made my way back over the summit to the dirt road to begin my descent.  By this time, the rain squall I had seen to the south had moved east, but another much closer squall had begun to form just off the south side of the mountain.  I could see the rain bands just over the trees.  Some grazing cattle at the west end of the meadow had begun to move from the high point down to a lower part of the meadow, both interested in me as well as probably understanding that a storm was coming, and they weren't exactly in a safe place either.  
Looking across the grassy expanse of the summit ridge as the wind picks up.
Rain coming down just beyond the trees.
As the clouds thickened and the thunder boomed , I snapped off a few parting shots and began to quickly descend the mountain, with drops of rain beginning to patter around me.  About a third of the way down the trail, I met a nice family on their way up the mountain.  Not wanting to sound too worrisome, I felt obliged to at the very least caution these "greenhorns" from Florida that things were getting a little gnarly up on the top and they might want to wait a little while before continuing their ascent and see what the weather was going to do.  Whether they followed my advice or not, I don't know.  My guess is they kept going, taking the gamble that they would be okay.  I didn't hear about any lightning strike tragedies in the news so I'm guessing they made it out alright.
Heading back down the trail as raindrops begin to fall.
Anyway, I continued on down the mountain, stopping only to get a sip of water and pack my camera for the inevitable rain shower that was closing in.  As I walked, I continued to kick myself for waiting so long to visit such a wonderful and unique place.  The Bearwallow Mountain Trail in so many ways reminds me of the Craggy Gardens trails on the Blue Ridge Parkway, passing through weathered woods with grasses and ferns covering the forest floor, with the occasional lily or trillium peeking out; lichens hanging off gnarled trees; and then the payoff with scattered rhododendron and exquisite views.  
The unusual Lungwort Lichen (Lobaria pulmonaria)
A field of ferns along the trail.
Patches of Catawba rhododendron.
I am so glad I took the opportunity to visit this wonderful place.  Hickory Nut Gorge still holds many secrets for me, and I relish the challenge of finding new species that I have either not seen or have not been documented for the Hickory Nut Gorge area.  Not only did I add species to my photographic list, I climbed the second highest peak in Hickory Nut Gorge, and I now have a new favorite trail.

Until Next Time!

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