Baxter Creek Trail   Jess Riddle
  Oct 17, 2004 08:46 PDT 

A couple of weeks ago I took a hike along the middle and upper sections of
the Baxter Creek Trail, and last weekend I returned with Michael Davie to
explore another section of the upper part of the watershed. After passes
through the spectacular rich cove forest where several eastern height
records grow, a switch-back in the trail takes the path up to the dividing
ridge between Baxter Creek and Bettis Creek. The dry conditions and heath
understory of the Bettis Creek side of the ridge contrast sharply with the
open cove forest of the first section of trail. Red maples and an unusual
abundance of ancient black gums form the canopy of the trail. The
heavy-limbed, chunky-barked individuals of the latter species displayed
brilliant rosy foliage on the second trip through the area. The trail
continues ascending the ridge and eventually crosses over the ridge into
open hemlock forests on the Baxter Creek side. Some of the hemlocks on
this section are clearly ancient and the potential state champion red
maple that Will Blozan recently posted photographs of grows within site of
this section of trail. On the way Sterling Ridge, the trail loops through
some small coves that eventually drain into Baxter Creek and passes under
a potential state champion black birch that Will first measured years ago.
Once the trail reaches sterling ridge, which it follows to the fire tower
on top of Mount Sterling, red spruce quickly gains dominance in the canopy
with a yellow birch subcanopy, and tangles of mixed rosebay and catawba
rhododendrons flank the trail.

The trail provides easy access to the east fork of the west fork of Baxter
Creek. Leaving the at around 4000', we dropped into a hemlock and black
birch forest with rhododendron understory that receives little sheltering
from the low ridges that define the drainage. Proceeding down the
drainage, the ridges relief increases and rhododendron gives way to
intermediate fern on the forest floor. Below where two coves coalesce at
around 3400', the forest becomes richer and reminiscent of the forests
farther down stream. Tuliptree, buckeye and sugar maple constitute most
of the canopy in the area although hemlock and red maple still dominate
the drier adjacent slope. Ages in this section appear comparable to those
along the rich section of the trail, and the rich forest does not extend
as far away from the east side of the stream. Buckeyes frequently reached
approximately 130', but the tuliptrees did not approach the heights they
achieve at lower elevations.

We also checked out a small tributary of lower Big Creek on the north side
of Buck Ridge. The area had high potential since it shares the rich soils
of the rest of the area and appeared to narrow for farming; However, a
roadbed parallels the stream and we quickly encountered metal housing
debris. The forest was generally young and spindly.

Species Height Cbh
Ash, White 126.4' 14'9"
Blueberry 12.8' 9"
Dogwood 43.4' 1'9"
Dogwood 44.9' 1'7.5"
Hickory, Bitter 146.2' 8'8"
Mag, Fraser 114.5' 6'8"
Maple, Mtn 32.1' 2'7"
Maple, Mtn 42.2' 1'10"
Maple, Sugar 139.9' 10'3"
Rhodo, Cataw 18.1' 1'3"
Rhodo, Cataw 24.5' 1'3"

The large white ash, which grows at around 4000' on the main steam of the
creek, has the worn bark and three massive limbs for a crown of an ancient
tree. The fraser magnolia should be a new state height record. Both
mountain maples are within site of the trail and could qualify as state
co-champions, but the larger diameter one was damaged by recent storms.
The sugar maple probably has another top a few feet higher. The taller
rhododendron, which leans across the trail, is a new height record and
potential national co-champion.