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Longstreet Highroad Guide to the North Carolina Mountains

By Lynda McDaniel

Design by Lenz, Inc. Decatur, Georgia.



Sherpa Guides > North Carolina Mountains > The Balsam Mountains > Davidson River Area

Davidson River Area

[Fig. 26(10)] There is at least one spot in Western North Carolina where visitors are as likely to float along the edge of a Forest Heritage National Scenic Byway on an inner tube as they are to drive the route in a car. Cutting through a picturesque section of the Pisgah National Forest just north of Brevard, the Davidson River is the focal point for an active recreation area and one of the district's most popular campgrounds.

American toad (Bufo americanus) Despite popular myth, toads do not cause warts.East of the Pisgah Center for Wildlife Education, a host of tributaries—Laurel, Shuck, Daniel Ridge, Cove, and Caney Bottom—flow together to create the Davidson River. For the next 10 miles west, anglers show up in all seasons, fishing this mountain stream for hatchery-reared and native brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis). No size limits or bait restrictions exist for hatchery-stocked areas, but fishing in the natural trout water nearer the Davidson River Campground is all catch and release. A detailed river map outlining changing restrictions is available at the Pisgah Ranger Station across from the campground.

Though the river's consistent, shallow depth doesn't attract paddlers, it is considered a prime tube-floating river throughout the summer. In addition to the allure of the easy-flowing current, regulars are drawn by the cool water and wooded banks that provide an ideal spot for rest or play even on summer's hottest days.

A Davidson River Trail Guide, also available at the Ranger Station, lists nine area hikes that range from short interpretive loops to full-day hikes and overnight backpacking trips, all with starting points near the campground. The North Slope Trail, one of the most accessible, is an easy day hike that runs from the bottomland environment of sycamore and poplar up to the drier forests of primarily chestnut oak (Quercus lyrata) on top of North Slope Ridge.

Campers don't have to venture far beyond the river's plateau to observe a variety of birds in spring and summer. Mourning doves (Zenaidura macroura), blue-gray gnatcatchers (Polioptila caerulea), American redstarts (Setophaga ruticilla), and ruby-throated hummingbirds, among many others, are common near the campground. Other birds less commonly spotted include hooded warblers (Wilsonia citrina) and yellow-breasted chats (Icteria virens). Peregrine falcons, which were successfully reintroduced to the area several years ago, nest at nearby Looking Glass Rock and can sometimes be seen flying overhead. An Eastern screech-owl (Otus asio) or great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) may be heard after nightfall.

From Memorial Day through Labor Day and on weekends into the fall, the nonprofit Cradle of Forestry in America Interpretive Association offers a diverse array of programming at the Davidson River Campground. Focusing on local culture and the area's natural history, activities include guided hikes, stream investigation, and Friday and Saturday evening events such as square dancing and live bluegrass music. Guest speakers on animal rehabilitation and special children's programs are also presented.

Pisgah Center for Wildlife Education

[Fig. 26(12)] Pisgah Center for Wildlife Education is a new and modern facility operated by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission with a mission to teach how human activities affect and are affected by wildlife and the natural environment. The center is due to be finished in the summer of 1998, offering to the public the 17-acre educational and interpretive center featuring exhibits, programs, and hiking trails. It also serves as a gateway to the Wildlife Commission's adjacent Pisgah Trout Hatchery, explaining the hatchery's operation and function as well as the North Carolina Wildlife Commission's larger role in managing the state's wildlife and inland fish populations.

Jack-in- the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) This common biennial grows to 3 feet tall and produces bright red clusters of berries.The center is located at the base of an impressive geologic feature known as John Rock. This dome-shaped outcrop is part of the larger rock mass, Whiteside Granite—a 390-million-year-old igneous rock mass that cooled and crystallized from molten rock deep within the earth's crust. Several mountain-building episodes, followed by weathering and erosion, exposed John Rock and nearby Looking Glass Rock. John Rock is the centerpiece of the John Rock Scenic Area, a 435-acre area surrounding the center. To reach John Rock, hike the Cat Gap Loop Trail, accessed from the east end of the center's parking lot, for 1 mile until the junction with John Rock Trail. The yellow-blazed John Rock Trail climbs steeply through hardwoods, laurel, and shrubs en route to its namesake. Views of the fish hatchery, the Davidson River valley, and the other monolith in the area, Looking Glass Rock, are spectacular. A word of caution: water seeps from the mosses, making the rock's surface slippery. Staff members at the center suggest backtracking the trail to the parking lot, at least for first-time hikers, for a hike of approximately 5 miles round-trip.

The theme of this state-of-the-art facility centers around "Mountain Streams, Where Water and Life Begin," emphasizing the importance of clean water to the environment, wildlife, and people. The flow of water is tracked from its beginnings as rainfall and snow on mountains, down through the streams and rivers of the Piedmont and Coastal Plain to the Atlantic Ocean, and eventually to its reconversion into rain. Stations feature interactive displays, demonstrations, and hands-on activities on the state's ecosystems designed in a manner that allows visitors from across the country to relate the concepts to their own ecosystems.

The Pisgah Center for Wildlife Education also serves as an outdoor classroom and meeting place for environmental education workshops for the Wildlife Commission. Outdoor exhibits focus on wildlife management and protection, fish culture, and conservation education. Permanent and changing displays present general scientific concepts illustrated through specific examples relating to the Blue Ridge Mountains as implemented by the Wildlife Commission.

At the heart of the wildlife center, the outdoor interpretive exhibit on a .5-mile loop walkway incorporates a mountain stream, native plant and animal life, and the trout-rearing raceways. The raceway exhibit is one of three cold-water facilities in the state devoted to raising trout. (Other state hatcheries produce warm-water species including largemouth bass, striped bass, sunfish, and catfish.) Hatchery stockings enhance the angling experience by providing more trout than would be produced by natural reproduction.

During the spawning season at the hatchery, ripe eggs are hand-stripped from female trout and milt (sperm-containing fluid) is stripped from the males. Once the eggs are gently mixed with the milt and fertilized, they are placed in stacks of shallow incubation trays where they receive a constant flow of cool, clean water. The eggs begin to hatch about 30 days after fertilization. A newly hatched fish is called a sac fry because, even though the fish has emerged from the egg, it still feeds from the attached yolk sac. The young fish are kept inside the hatchery for four to five months until they become fingerlings, 2 to 3 inches in length. Fingerlings are then moved to outside raceways, elongated concrete fish-rearing ponds with a constant flow of fresh water, where they are kept for up to one and a half years. When the fish are old and large enough, they are removed for stocking in public trout waters.

More than 400,000 trout weighing more than 180,000 pounds are stocked from the Pisgah Forest Fish Hatchery each year. Hatchery-supported waters are stocked with a ratio of 40 percent rainbow, 40 percent brook, and 20 percent brown trout.

Art Loeb Trail

[Fig. 26(9), Fig. 27(2)] Blustery bald mountaintops, gaps filled with sun-scorched grasses, river lowlands of bee-balm (Monarda didyma) and cone flower (Rudbeckia hirta), and open groves of sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum), hickory, and maple. Those passionate about the Art Loeb Trail value it for its diversity—a captivating mix of breathtaking vistas and peaceful valleys, of challenge and tranquillity.

Designated a National Recreation Trail in 1979, this 30-mile trek through the Pisgah National Forest was named for Arthur J. Loeb, an active hiker and former leader of the 65-year-old Carolina Mountain Club. The Art Loeb Trail's four contrasting sections, determined by the Forest Service, begin at the Davidson River Campground and run northward. The trail connects with 13 other trails, climbing to an elevation of 6,030 feet along the trail to the summit of Cold Mountain on the north end. For a slightly less strenuous hiking or backpacking experience with a lesser elevation gain, the trail can be hiked north to south, starting at the Daniel Boone Boy Scouts Camp.

The Blue Ridge Parkway and several other roads and highways intersect with the trail, providing access points for shorter, customized hikes. The trail's first section begins in the cool, forested valley of the Davidson River, crosses several streams, and passes through woods of locust and oak and undergrowth of blackberry before winding to the summit of Rich Mountain. On the north side of Pilot Mountain, at the beginning of the second section, pink azaleas bloom in mid-May. Lower elevations feature the brilliant blossoms of dogwoods and Fraser magnolias (Magnolia fraseri).

Black Balsam Knob and Tennent Mountain, in the trail's third section, both provide spectacular panoramas at more than 6,000 feet before the trail enters Shining Rock Wilderness. Though this federally preserved wild area is heavily used, short paths that diverge from the Art Loeb Trail provide more of an isolated backwoods experience. Northern harriers and rare golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) can sometimes be seen on Black Balsam Knob. In the fourth section, the trail descends to the source of Sorrell Creek, passing small waterfalls, blankets of ferns, and wildflowers including painted trillium (Trillium undulatum), umbrella leaf (Diphylleia cymosa), and golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea).

Campers may pitch tents most places along the trail. A Pisgah District Trail Map plots Art Loeb's main route and a variety of connector trails through some of North Carolina's most picturesque terrain.

Richland Balsam Self-Guiding Trail

[Fig. 26(3)] Perched near the top of the Great Balsam range, Richland Balsam Overlook at 6,053 feet is the highest point on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The self-guiding trail from this overlook winds through spruce-fir forests, past flora and fauna more akin to Canada than the South, to the 6,292-foot summit of Richland Balsam. The experience is tarnished somewhat by the dead and downed trees surrounding the summit, where the struggle between the Fraser fir and the balsam woolly aphid is painfully evident.

The brighter side of this story is, of course, that life's natural cycle continues. Dead trees open space to new life that would otherwise not get enough sun, allowing blackberry and elderberry (Sambucus pubens) to thrive, ferns and trees to sprout, and the forest to continue its renewal. Rotting logs contribute to the cycle, too, providing homes for beneficial insects, rodents, salamanders, and other wildlife. Wildflowers and shrubs along the trail vary with the season—speckled wood lily (Clintonia umbellulata) in May, climbing false buckwheat (Polugonum scandens) in July, and hobblebush (Viburnum llantanoides) and red-berried elder (Sambucus racemosa pubens), both sporting white spring flowers that develop each fall into deep red berries, a favorite with the birds.

Other birds known to inhabit the region include the winter wren (Troglodytes troglodytes), red-shouldered hawk (buteo lineatus), yellow-bellied sapsucker, black-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus erythropthalmus), and pine siskin (Spinus pinus). The red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hundsonicus) lives here and the tracks of white-tailed deer have been spotted in the soft, rich soil from which "Richland" takes its name.

The Rhododendron Garden and Arboretum at Haywood Community College

[Fig. 21(27)] Dazzling white to lilac. Creamy yellow then magenta. Flaming red and back to white. The honey bees' dizzying excitement is contagious at Haywood Community College's Rhododendron Garden. The bees are the lucky ones. They get to come every day and watch 75 varieties of rhododendron unfold from early April through May. The garden was designed to extend the blooming season as long as possible, but once the rhododendron have given their all, colorful wildflowers and cultivars take over.

The Rhododendron Garden follows a delicate rhythm in harmony with nature. Careful landscaping gives the effect of a long, leisurely walk deeper and deeper into the forest even though the walk only measures .33 mile. The woodland canopy of tall oak, poplar, and hickory filters sunlight onto the rhododendrons which filter it yet again onto the herbaceous layer below, dense with ferns and wildflowers such as bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia), foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia), and bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis).

At the heart of the garden lies Ogden Circle, a council ring 24 feet in diameter surrounded by four walls tapering up from the earth. The walls define four paths that cross here, radiating from a centered millstone. Tall, columnar boxwoods punctuate the circle. Students contribute hanging baskets, wooden flower boxes of impatiens and lobelia, and a living sculpture of annual plants atop the millstone.

Structures within the garden, such as the wooden arbor supporting Dutchman's pipe vines or the split-rail fences dividing cinnamon ferns (Osmunda cinnamonea) and periwinkle, work with the native plants. The Rockery hosts lichen- and moss-covered rocks, thick ferns, and wildflowers. A virtual wall of Eastern hemlock glows bright green with tips of new spring growth. Queen Anne's lace (Daucus carota) grows near the trail's end.

The Rhododendron Garden is part of the 80-acre Haywood Community College Campus Arboretum which serves as a living laboratory for the students, faculty, and community. In addition to the Rhododendron Garden, the Campus Arboretum includes the Freedlander Dahlia Garden (peaks in September), Class of '74 Rose Garden (July), new Water Garden, dwarf conifer collection, vegetable gardens, perennial garden, herb garden, fruit tree orchard, greenhouse conservatory, and picturesque Mill Pond surrounded by weeping willow (Salix babylonica) and river birch (Betula nigra).

Landscape architect Doan Ogden designed the campus for industrialist A. L. Freedlander, who donated funds for the college with the stipulation that the property's sizeable oak forest be preserved. An early inventory recorded 880 trees including 22 native species (most averaging 100 years old) to which the Campus Arboretum staff has added 100 new species of trees, shrubs, and ground covers.

Cataloochee Ski Area

[Fig. 21(26)] High atop Moody Top, Cataloochee Ski Area holds the distinction of being the first ski slope in the South. Tom and Judy Alexander opened the slope in 1954 adjacent to their famed Cataloochee Ranch, a 1,000-acre resort that got its start in the late 1920s as North Carolina's first tourist camp in the newly legislated Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Five years later, when the federal government consolidated its holdings in the park, the Alexanders had to move and took the valley's name with them. They settled across the divide on Fie Top, where the elevation surpasses 5,000 feet and an ocean of breathtaking mountain ranges surrounds. Cataloochee, after all, is a Cherokee word meaning "wave upon wave."

The ski area is no longer part of the ranch, but it continues to offer excellent skiing on nine slopes. At 5,400 feet with a vertical drop of 740 feet, Moody Top is the highest. Other less-daunting slopes suit beginners and intermediates better; skiing instruction is also available.

Holmes Educational State Forest

[Fig. 25(7)] Created during the Depression-stricken 1930s, Holmes Educational State Forest got its start as a seedling nursery run by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). In 1972 the land received both a new name and a new purpose as one of six educational forests in North Carolina. Named in honor of John S. Holmes, one of the state's first foresters, the 235-acre forest treats visitors to a series of well-marked trails that, as they loop through the forest's abundance of hardwoods and wildflowers, are as informative as they are scenic.

The rugged geology of the area consists primarily of gneiss metamorphosed from granite approximately 430 million years ago by the forces of continental collision. Flecked with flaky, black mica, this gneiss is sometimes banded by layers of rock with eye-shaped depressions of minerals. Accessible by a steep .25-mile trail, Wildcat Rock is a good example of these outcroppings that typify the region.

An altitude change of 450 feet within its boundaries allows Holmes to support a wide variety of plant life. Hardwoods such as oak, hickory, and red maple flourish in the uplands while lower in the forest, coves of yellow-poplar, basswood (Tilia americana), and silverbell (Halesia carolina) thrive. Flowering dogwood grows throughout. Lovers of wildflowers will also find troves of colorful specimens. More than 50 species of blossoms have already been identified trailside, among them rhododendron, flame azalea (Rhododendron calendulaceum), trout lily (Erythronium americanum), yellow lady slipper (Cypripedium calceolus), jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), trillium, bloodroot, and violet.

In addition to the trail leading to Wildcat Rock, Holmes offers four other trails. On the Talking Tree Trail, a push of a button prompts trees to "tell" stories about themselves and the forest in which they live. Forestry practices are explained on the 3.5-mile Forest Demonstration Trail, while the handicapped-accessible Crab Creek Trail features equipment such as a helicopter and a fire tower used in battling forest fires. A 200-foot boardwalk crosses trillium-laden wetlands on the Soil and Water Trail. Ranger-conducted programs are also available to groups visiting the forest.

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