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Longstreet Highroad Guide to the North Carolina Mountains

By Lynda McDaniel

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Sherpa Guides > North Carolina Mountains > The Grandfather Mountains > Mount Jefferson State Natural Area

Mount Jefferson State Natural Area

[Fig. 8(4)] It measures only 541 acres, but Mount Jefferson State Natural Area has earned a reputation as a paradise for nature lovers. So much so that it was designated a National Natural Landmark by the National Park Service in 1975. Named after Thomas Jefferson and his father, Peter, who owned land in the area and surveyed the North Carolina/Virginia state line in 1749, the park features hiking and picnicking in the shadow of the mountain's summit.

White oak (Quercus alba) The leaves on a single oak tree may have different shapes, making identification a challenge. White oak leaves have deep or shallow clefts between lobes.Geologists know that the basement rock of Mount Jefferson is part of the Ashe Metamorphic Suite, rock deposited 800 million years ago as a mix of eroded land areas and volcanic debris in the floor of an ancient sea. What remains a mystery is why Mount Jefferson towers 1,600 feet above surrounding stream valleys. The black amphibolite, which gives Mount Jefferson its distinctive dark appearance, is usually found in lower elevations and is susceptible to erosion. Mount Jefferson's other dominant rocks—gneiss and schist—have a higher percentage of quartz, which makes them generally more resistant to erosion, but here they are thinner than usual, making them physically weaker and, therefore, more likely to erode. Except they haven't eroded—at least not as much the surrounding, softer, more sedimentary layers of an ancient plateau worn down by the two forks of the New River. This is but one of the conundrums geologists face as they study the complex geology of Western North Carolina.

Forest and plant life on 4,684-foot-high Mount Jefferson varies with altitude. A fine example of oak-chestnut forests lies above 4,000 feet on all but the north-facing slopes. Northern red oak (Quercus rubra) and white oak (Quercus alba) form the canopy over dogwood, mountain laurel, rhododendron, trillium, pink lady slipper (Cypripedium acaule), Dutchman's breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), and false lily-of-the-valley (Maianthemum canadense). At these higher elevations, the north-facing slope hosts the northern cove forest of yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis Britton), basswood (Tilia americana), red maple, and yellow-poplar, with prairie willow, dog-hobble (Viburnum alnifolium), bluebeard lily, and mountain pepperbush. Trees here are subjected to ice and wind and, as a result, appear stunted or pruned, often growing no higher than 20 feet. Below 4,000 feet, the forests are primarily chestnut-oak with hickories, mountain laurel, serviceberry, bush honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera), and rhododendron.

Typical of the stratification of wildlife in Western North Carolina, higher elevations are home to species usually found only in New England and Canada. The anomaly of northern species growing so far south is evident below Luther's Rock where large-toothed aspen, lettuce saxifrage (Saxifraga micranthidifolia), and the rare rusty cliff fern (Woodsia ilvensis) can be found.

Red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) soar above the mountains where chestnut-sided warblers (Dendroica pensylvanica), black-throated blue warblers (D. caerulescens), Canada warblers (Wilsonia canadensis), slate-colored juncos (Junco hyemalis), white-breasted nuthatches, and rose-breasted grosbeaks (Pheucticus ludovicianus) make their nests. Several species of woodland salamanders live in the higher elevations, although reptiles and amphibians are generally hard to find. Common mammals—raccoons (Procyon lotor), opossums (Didelphis marsuialis), red foxes (Vulpes fulva), eastern chipmunks (Tamias striatus)—thrive here as do shrews, moles, woodchucks (Marmota monax), white-tailed deer, and an occasional bobcat.

When Elisha Mitchell noted in his diary in 1827 that he had never seen anything so beautiful as the view from the summit of Mount Jefferson, few were hardy enough to make the trip for themselves. In the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration constructed a road to the top, but over the years its state of repair and disrepair varied. The park finally achieved state park status in 1956, thanks to strong community support and generous donations. And the site was named a state natural area in 1994. Overlooks from the park road and Mount Jefferson's summit offer panoramic views into three states—Mount Rogers and Whitetop Mountain in Virginia, Snake Mountain in Tennessee, and Mount Mitchell and Grandfather Mountain, among others, in North Carolina. You can also see Pond Mountain, which holds the distinction of lying in all three states.

Summit Trail

The Summit Trail, as its name implies, ascends .3 mile to the highest point on Mount Jefferson, where nearby overlooks provide spectacular views. The Rhododendron Trail, a moderate 1.1-mile loop trail that begins near the end of the Summit Trail, follows a horseshoe-shaped ridge southeast along the crest of the mountain to Luther Rock, which on clear days offers great views of the New River. According to local lore, the bluffs of black mica gneiss extending along the ridge below the trail served as stops along the Underground Railroad that led escaped slaves to freedom. The return portion of this loop trail descends to the southern slope of the mountain where trees sheltered from the cold northern winds grow tall. The trail passes through a virgin forest of large northern red oaks and the remains of American chestnuts. The Rhododendron Trail is also a self-guiding nature trail; interpretive pamphlets, available at the trailhead, teach about the natural environment, history, and legends of the area. Park rangers offer seasonal interpretive programs such as guided nature walks, talks, and demonstrations, and report that early June is the prettiest time to visit, when the purple blossoms of the Catawba rhododendron cover the mountaintop.

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