Posts Tagged ‘Cove Hardwoood Nature Trail’

Cove Hardwood Nature Trail sign

Most designated “nature trails” in the park are general in scope and associated with the campgrounds, though two occur near Sugarland Visitor Center. Two others are dedicated primarily to the intrinsic biological identity (plant and animal communities) particular to their specific settings. Cove Hardwood Nature Trail and Spruce-Fir Nature Trail explore the elements that comprise these two iconic forest types in the park.

Cove Hardwood Nature Trail

Located in the Chimneys Picnic Area, Cove Hardwood Nature Trail is probably one of the most visited park trails without a waterfall or historic structure. Part of that allure may be attributable to its short length (0.7 mile), ease of access off Highway 441, and adjacency to a very popular picnic destination. Just as relevant as these selling points, however, is its rich spring wildflower display.

Sharp-lobed Liverleaf creates colorful carpets in early April

Carpets of white, pink, lavender, blue, and purple Sharp-lobed Liverleaf (Hepatica acutiloba) begin the show in late March, quickly followed by stunning displays of Fringed Phacelia and Large White Trillium among dozens of other spring wildflowers through early summer. This appeal lasts until October’s asters and goldenrods bid farewell amid colorful autumn foliage.

Cradled within Sugarland Mountain’s curve to the northwest and Chimney Tops to the east, the site’s northern exposure near the slope’s base provides the necessary protection from winds and solar radiation to maintain more consistent moisture and support this rich diversity of plant and animal life.

Aging Large White Trillium clothed in pink

Cove Hardwood is the park’s most challenging nature trail. The short loop traverses a narrow cove between two finger ridges descending from Sugarland Mountain and climbs 250 feet in elevation to the trail’s midpoint at about 0.4-mile. A few brief sections qualify as steep. It’s enough to raise the heart rate, generate some heavy breathing, and work up a sweat. The trail surface is also quite rough in a few places with patches of asphalt on the steepest pitches to provide better traction and slow erosion.

Carolina Spring Beauty

The lower part of the trail has a gentler grade and once grew corn and potatoes for a family in Sugarland Valley. The lower half was also selectively logged. The younger denser forest resulting from these impacts provide a comparison with the forest at the trail’s apex where characteristics of older growth such as larger, more widely spaced trees and a more open understory can be appreciated.

Dwarf Ginseng

In 1950, Kentucky plant ecologist E. Lucy Braun published Deciduous Forests of Eastern North America, a seminal work examining forest composition distinctions among 9 different regions. The Allegheny and Cumberland plateaus and mountains of Tennessee, eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, and eastern Ohio and were classified as the Mixed Mesophytic Forest Region characterized by a high diversity of tree species on rich, moist, well-drained soil. This forest type occurs in other regions too when physical conditions are supportive.


Even though she placed the Southern Appalachians in the Oak-Chestnut Forest Region, she noted, “Cove forests of the Southern Appalachians are typical mixed mesophytic communities… [limited to] …coves and lower north slopes.” She perfectly describes Cove Hardwood Trail’s physical setting. Indeed, the diversity of tree species in general and the occurrence of certain ones, such as Carolina Silverbell (Halesia carolina), Basswood (Tilia americana var. heterophylla), Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), and Yellow Buckeye (Aesculus flava) are classic traits of mixed mesophytic forests. Braun also notes that in the Southern Appalachians these forest areas are variously referred to as mixed forests, cove forests, and cove hardwood forests.

Brook Lettuce

In 1956, Robert Whittaker published his study, “Vegetation of the Great Smoky Mountains” in the journal Ecological Monographs. From his field work, he developed oft-cited graphic illustrations showing distribution of plant communities based on soil moisture and elevation gradients. The moisture gradient corresponds to topographical variations from coves and flats to slopes and ridges. Cove hardwoods occupy moist, sheltered locations up to 4,500 feet.

The self-guiding brochure for Cove Hardwood Nature Trail discusses all these aspects and more.

Spruce-Fir Nature Trail

Spruce-Fir Nature Trail

The Spruce-Fir Nature Trail is located on the left side of Clingmans Dome Road, well past Road Prong trailhead and before Fork Ridge Trail. A large sign and long parallel pullout mark the spot.

At one time, this trail must have been longer with a different route. The sign indicates a 0.4 mile loop trail with steep sections exceeding a 12% grade. The National Geographic Map says 0.3 mile. Not much difference, but if I had to choose, I’d side with NatGeo. As for the grade warning, it’s patently false, and it’s a shame. It might dissuade people from walking this trail. I didn’t even notice a grade change, much less 12%.

Carbon Antlers fungus on Spruce-Fir Nature Trail

The path often follows walking planks to spare hikers’ shoes from wet and muck accompanying copious precipitation at high elevation and discourage stepping off trail. Ultimately, the nature trail’s goal is to educate people about the Spruce-Fir ecosystem while protecting this sensitive biological community, a goal it achieves.

An accompanying brochure does an excellent good job explaining the natural history of this forest type and discussing impacts from fir mortality due to the introduced Balsam Woolly Adelgid. It was written in 1996, and I wonder if it might benefit from an update regarding this and other threats.

Corner Bench on Spruce-Fir Nature Trail

Despite its short length, the trail is very evocative of this forest type, featuring many of the standard associated species — Yellow Birch, Rugel’s Ragwort, Bluebead Lily, Witch Hobble, Mountain Ash, Mountain Wood Fern, Mountain Wood Sorrel, and Whorled Aster.

Not too far past the halfway point, a sturdy corner bench creates a lovely spot to listen to the characteristic hush of this environment, broken only by occasional bird song and, unfortunately, the swish of cars traveling up and down Clingmans Dome Road. The bench’s location amid dense shade is brightened with large chunks of white quartz.

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