Table Rock State Park Ranger Adam pinned a Junior Ranger badge on my seven-year old daughter’s shirt. Along the trail, she showed every hiker her new badge, and we searched for spring flowers, animals, and heart-shaped rocks. This was our first visit of the year to the Southern Blue Ridge Escarpment, and we were just in time.
Next to us, Carrick Creek babbled and the trout lillies, one of the first spring ephemeral wildflowers bloomed. Above, the red maples flowered, yet the trees were barren of leaves. Lacking a leafy canopy, abundant sunlight reached the forest floor, warming it and stimulating the growth of ephemeral plants. But once the red maple leaves fully emerged, along with the leaves of the tulip poplar and other trees, light in the understory would diminish. In the shade, the spring ephemerals would begin to wither. Because of the emergence of nature, spring in the Southern Blue Ridge Escarpment is a remarkable time to visit.
The Blue Wall
As viewed from the Piedmont, the Blue Ridge Escarpment rises in hazy blue splendor. Indeed, surrounding the Blue Ridge is a wall of gorges, cliffs, and mountains. And the gnarly mountain vegetation in these areas—hells and dog-hobbles—provided further barrier to the lowlanders. The paradox is that the hellish, rugged landscapes of the Blue Wall are now places of beauty and provide endless opportunities for nature exploration.
The Blue Wall offers botanizing, birding. hiking, camping, backpacking, canoeing, and kayaking. Here is the land that inspired James Dickey’s Deliverance. This was the land where the gorge, valley, and hill people lived until their land was taken to modernize the Upstate. Big dams and their watersheds needed to be free of the hill people in order to provide clean water to Greenville.
Thus the Jocassee, the Toxaway, the Horsepasture, and North Saluda Rivers disappeared under reservoirs, along with towns, mills, pastures, farms, churches, cemetaries, and a rugged way of life tied to the land. Also underwater was the epicenter of the endemic Oconee Bells.
But though cultures and species were lost, others were found. For one, abundant clean water and hydropower have transformed Greenville into one of South Carolina’s most thriving cities. The Oconee Bells survive in protected forests. And tens of thousands of acres of mature forests are some of the most biologically rich areas in America.
Oconee Bells are can still be found in several sites. The most accessible one is Devil’s Fork State Park. There, take the Oconee Bells trail and you can’t miss these plants. Indeed, though rare, here they are locally abundant. Look near the banks of the creeks under a carpet of rhododendron around mid-March and you’ll likely spot them flowering.
Opportunities for nature exploration abound in the area between the Chatooga River up to the Lake Lure area. The epicenters of hiking are the Foothills Trail area, Hickory Nut Gorge, the Pacolet River, and the Green River Gamelands. Further north are Grandfather Mountain, Linville Gorge, and Stone Mountain State Park. To the west in Northeastern Georgia are other opportunities to explore the Escarpment.
Green River Gamelands
Not far from Hendersonville, the most rugged and dangerous of trails occur in the Green River Gamelands. To see Bradley Falls, for example, you need to traverse a creek and rappel down a cliff using a half-worn rope somewhat secured to a rock. Whoever provided the rope likely did so out of kindness, with no fear of liability. But at the bottom, if you choose to go, you’ll be blessed with an abundance of wildflowers, a view of the waterfall, and old growth forest. Other hikes descend to the Green River, where kayakers test the roaring cascades of the Narrows.
Once out of the Escarpment, however, the Green River turns into a peaceful river for tubing excursions. Or, in terms of nature exploration, grab your snorkel and float down the river while an abundance of aquatic species approach with curiosity. Typical of the Escarpment area, aquatic diversity is high, and rare species of fish and crustaceans occur on almost every river.
Hickory Nut Gorge
By contrast with rappelling and daredevil kayaking, Chimney Rock State Park offers a wide variety of accessible hikes, including paved trails and an elevator (when open) to the rock itself. At the top, have panoramic views of Hickory Nut Gorge. Waterfalls from mafic cliffs tumble into rocky rich cove forests, where Green Salamanders live. In addition, an abundance of neotropical migrant songbirds, such as the Cerulean Warbler, led the Audubon Society to call the gorge an Important Bird Area (IBA).
The nutrient rich rocks and unique climate in this area are some of the root causes for why the white irisette, an Endangered Species grows only in this Isothermal Belt portion of the Escarpment. Here, temperature inversions in the local weather create a longer growing conditions than nearby areas. Thus, another name for this endemic species is the Isothermal irisette.
Less well known are trails that Conserving Carolina recently constructed Upper Hickory Nut Gorge Trail. This 15-mile trail links a variety of nature preserves and reaches the summit of Bearwallow Mountain at over 4000 feet. Aside from being a marvel of trail engineering, the trail provides excellent views and opportunities to view rich cove forests, boulderfields, rich cliff natural communities, Carolina hemlock forests, and basic glades. Many of these are rare natural community types and are home to rare species of plants and animals.
The Foothills Trail ranges 77 miles from Oconee State Park, along the Chattooga River, to Whitewater Falls and through North Carolina, along the Laurel Valley, and ending in Table Rock State Park. You can do a variety of sections one at a time or the entire trail. Shuttle service is available for through hikers. Should you choose to hike in the late winter and early spring, keep your nose attuned and you might find the rare Sweet Pinesap, a diminuitive species of mycotrophic plant. In other words, the plant has no chlorophyll and derives its energy surrounding plants via a fungus intermediary. So the scent is an end product of vast underground networks of which we know little.
North Carolina portions of the trail are part of the Nantahala National Forest and are managed as Gamelands. In addition, the trail crosses Gorges State Park. In South Carolina, the trail crosses the Jocassee Gorges Management Area and Sumter National Forest.
This area classifies as a temperate rain forest, receiving over 80 inches of rain a year. Rare mosses and liverworts thrive along rivers and spray cliffs surrounding waterfalls and cascades. Here as in most of the Southern Blue Ridge, arboreal salamanders reach their maximum diversity. Within these forests are dozens of rare species of plants, including some newly discovered. L.L. Chick Gaddy, for example, stumbled upon a new sedge, Carex radfordii, several decades ago.
Nearby Mountain Bridge Wilderness also provides a wide variety of trails for nature exploration. At the cliff tops of Caesar’s Head State Park, look for nesting Peregrine Falcon. This area, in addition to the Foothills trail, is the best location for backpacking and remote camping. The other areas described above are more suited for day hikes.