The Great Smoky Mountain National Park was created in 1934 by President Roosevelt, to protect the area from logging. The park consists of 521,895 million acres and is visited by more than 9 million people annually, the largest attendance of our national parks. My family spent four wonderful days in the area of Mt Leconte, near Gatlinburg, TN. hiking last week. While the east coast was broiled in the oppressive heat wave, I pulled out a sweatshirt for the cool mountain evenings.
It all started about 1 billion years ago. The Great Smoky Mountain National Park (GSMNP) is situated within the Appalachian Blue Ridge geologic and physiographic province. At it’s core, these rocks were the building blocks of the ancient Appalachian Mountains. Within this province is Mt Leconte at 6593′. Most of the sedimentary rocks in GSMNP formed 800-450 million years ago. The last “building” phase of the Appalachian chain took place about 300-200 million years ago. This was during the time when the North American continent collided with African and European land masses. It is believed that the mountains may have been much higher than they are today, with elevations similar to the present-day Rocky Mountains.
The highlight of the trip was a 5.5 mile hike up Alum trail to Mt Leconte lodge. The lodge is the highest lodging east of the Mississippi at 6593′ These lodges are primitive, built in the 1920s. Alum Cave Creek is at the trail head, 3830′, the ensuing 5.5 mile hike is strenuous and dangerous at times. Nicknames accompanied the trek; monikers such as Arch Rock, Inspiration Point, Alum Cave Bluff, Gracie’s Pulpit, Old Man’s Stump, Grassy Slide and Old Horse Gate.
I was not only excited for the next 4 hour vertical adventure but wanted to watch the plant speciation change with elevation. Moving up in elevation is like traveling north in latitude. I had also read that these forests are under sever threat due to non-native insects and air pollution and wanted to see first hand.
The major tree species at the trail head, 3830′ were Betula alleghaniensis, yellow birch, Tsuga canadensis, Canada hemlock, and Aesculus flava, yellow buckeye. There were some beautiful specimens as we began the ascent. The shrub layer was vigorously growing with 15′ tall Rhododendron maximum, great laurel and R. catawbiense, Catawba rosebay. In addition, Leucothoe racemosa, dog hobble filled out the shrub layer. The ground was complete with numerous remnants of early spring ephemerals and blooms yet to open.
A heath bald was a curious ecotype and geologic formation at about 4700′. Growing on this exposed rocky site were Vaccinium corymbosum, blueberries, Diervilla lonicera, northern bush honeysuckle and Leiophydium buxifolium, sand myrtle. When the trail moved off the bald and back to high forest the occurrence of Picea rubens, red spruce and Abies balsam, balsam fir were more apparent. With this was the troubling sight of ghost trees. Long dead, standing silhouettes of spruce, fir and hemlock, devastated by non-native insects and air pollution. Rhododendron minus, piedmont rhododendron was seen at some high altitudes and was very stunted in growth, more than likely do to its growing on sheer rock out droppings with little soil and constant exposure to wind.
I was fortunate to spy on the trail two perennials that are endemic to the Smokies and one to the Mt Leconte peaks. These were seen at high elevations. Regelia nudicaulis, Rugel’s ragwort is a curious looking flower without petals. Resembling a common dandelion, Krigia montana, mountain Krigia was growing on the grassy slide at 6000′ among an unknown to me grass species. This perennial is known only to be growing in this locale on Mt Leconte, seeing something so scarce was very special.
We spent the night in cabin high atop Mt Leconte and descended early the next morning. The 5.5 mile hike back down the mountain was easier on the lungs but tougher on the legs. A hot shower and lots of rest was not far off.
After the long ride back to PA, back to work !