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Posts Tagged ‘Spruce-Fir Forests’

Trailhead on Clingmans Dome Road

Between the two hikes detailed below, Susan and I hiked Noland Divide Trail. I want to write about this trail separately because I love it. Thanks to its moderate descent, reasonable length, forest variety, accommodating surface, and special features, NDT easily makes my short list of favorite trails in the park. A lengthy shuttle between trailheads is the primary drawback.

The upper trailhead is located approximately 5.7 miles up Clingmans Dome Road. The 11.6-mile trail follows the south/southwesterly curve of Noland Divide to Coburn Knob before switching allegiance to Beaureguard Ridge and tacking southeasterly down to Deep Creek Campground.

Red Spruce lining the trail

It begins as a gated road, a mix of grass and gravel descending about a third of a mile. The road curves right and follows a line of young Red Spruce to a fenced enclosure containing monitoring equipment used by the National Park Service and Oak Ridge National Laboratory to measure “deposition of airborne pollutants to different forests to determine their effects on the ecosystem.” This involves continuous sampling of rainfall, canopy drip, soil solutions, and atmospheric chemistry.

Double-trunked Yellow Birch covers a boulder

Not far past the monitoring station, the road ends and the trail splits. A sign directs hikers to follow a well-traveled path straight ahead that levels for a while through spruce, Yellow Birch, Witch Hobble, Appalachian White Snakeroot, Shining Clubmoss, Intermediate and Mountain Wood Ferns. Noland Divide isn’t as rocky, mossy, or slippery as Fork Ridge, instead the trail surface is often quite soft underfoot from conifer needles.

Spruce-Fir forests are typically dense and dark, offering a quietness that defies description. Their insulating nature impresses all senses. To stand still in a Spruce-Fir forest is to become hyper-aware of the surroundings; a center-of-the-universe feeling. To move through it is to travel into a fairy tale where Hansel and Gretel’s bread crumbs could be found.

Lonesome Pine Overlook

A champion Yellow Birch reportedly occurs within the first mile. There are several grand specimens, including a double-trunked tree whose roots effectively ‘devour’ the big boulder over which it grows. As the descent continues, Spruce-Fir melds into Northern Hardwoods with American Beech and its parasitic partner Beechdrops. A cove predominately features Red Oak and an understory of Bear Huckleberry. Another draw contains a large grouping of Cinnamon Fern. Drier exposures have Sassafras, Chestnut Oak, Red Maple, and American Chestnut sprouts.

Knife Ridge

All of these forest types can be found on other park trails, but it is rare to walk so comfortably through them in a single day’s hike on a single trail. The Smokies hiking book says Noland Divide Trail provides the greatest elevation change on the park’s North Carolina side. It certainly provides variety.

View from Noland Divide

The greatest attributes on trail have to be the Lonesome Pine Overlook and knife edge ridge crest on Beaureguard. A slender side path leads to the overlook in a few steps with an expansive view to the southwest. Blueberry bushes have densely fuzzy lower leaf surfaces, likely black highbush blueberry (Vaccinium fuscatum).

Stiff-leaved Aster

Views continue along the knife-edge crest, where Sourwood, Serviceberry, White Oak, Chestnut Oak, Scarlet Oak, and several pines (White, Virginia, Pitch) cling to the steep slopes. The herbaceous layer is equally interesting with Little Bluestem, a bush clover, and Stiff-leaved Aster (Ionactis linariifolia). The not-so-surprising sight of Bracken Fern coincides with an unexpectedly lush run of American Strawberry foliage.

Garter Snake

After the knife ridges, Noland Divide begins its descent in earnest. The park’s southern boundary cuts sharply north to carve out the valley of Lands Creek and other private property northwest of Bryson City. The trail skirts very close to that boundary near the bottom, as barking dogs and the whine of leaf blowers testify. Near the bottom, are holes in ground resembling sinkholes as well as linear mounds to the right of the trail — a mystery for which I have found no explanation yet.

Only spot of trouble on Noland Divide Trail

For the vast majority of its length, Noland Divide’s surface is smooth with few rocks or roots. However, there is one major point of erosion. Not far into the trail proper, a perpendicular root has allowed rain water flowing down slope to wash out a three-foot-deep gouge from the trail below. This startling sight and ungainly step down is truly the only flaw of note.

I would hike Noland Divide Trail again in a heartbeat and look forward to experiencing it in different seasons.

 

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