Bradley Fork, GSMNP, NC   Jess Riddle
  Feb 04, 2006 19:25 PST 

A few weeks ago, Will Blozan and I hiked the Bradley Fork and Cabin
Flats trails along Bradley Fork. The stream begins on the main divide
of the Smokies at about 5900' elevation, and flows south for a little
under ten miles before emptying into the Oconaluftee River above
Cherokee, North Carolina. Above approximately 3000', the watershed
avoided logging, and in that area, streams maintain surprisingly low
gradients between high, steep sided ridges.

The Bradley Fork Trail co-opts an old roadbed, and for the first four
miles closely parallels its namesake stream. Black birch, sycamore,
and pockets of hemlock line the stream. The sycamores include many
old, remnant trees bypassed when the area was cut. Storms have
consistently snapped the tops of those trees leaving them to hollow
and become living tubes with bases over four feet diameter. The
younger sycamores have reached about 125', and a few tuliptrees exceed
them in height. However, the second growth forest along the stream
generally appears only moderate in vigor and richness.

The Cabin Flats trail cuts along the slopes by Bradley Fork, and
passes through ancient forest before reaching the previously cleared
namesake flat, which has been converted to a backcountry campsite.
Old hemlocks showing adelgid induced decline grow below the trail, and
old tuliptrees with deeply furrowed bark extending onto the stout and
contorted limbs that top their columnar trunks grow on both sides of
the trail. Chestnut oaks also creep down the slope above the trail
suggesting that despite the sheltered environment growing conditions
are sub-optimal.

Upstream from the trails, rhododendron closes in on the stream-bank,
slopes steepen, and rock outcrops jut to the waters edge making travel
arduous. Small, sheltered flats along that section of stream
contained old trees, but none nearly as large as grow at comparable
elevation and topography elsewhere in the park. The first tributary
in that stretch, Louie Camp Branch, has more open forest. Yellow
buckeye, yellow birch, black birch, and basswood flank the stream with
a witch hobble (Viburnum alnifolium) understory, and hemlock and
rhododendron cover the low, parallel, north-facing slope. Tuliptree
is strangely absent from the stream given the 3200 to 3700'
elevations. Again, the forest does not appear disturbed, but trees
are surprisingly small. A 135' basswood and a 142' white ash were the
only trees on Louie Camp Branch of noteworthy heigh.

The Dry Sluice Trail provided a convenient means of returning to
Bradley Fork. The lower part of the trail descends along Tennessee
Branch. Tuliptrees over four feet dbh are common along the trail, but
a 169.8' tree appears to be an anomaly.

Around 2900' elevation, one second-growth grove on Bradley Fork
appeared to contain much faster growing trees than anywhere else along
the stream. The grove occupies a bench above Bradley Fork, and two
small, shallow coves separated by a steep ridge. The whole area faces
west, and was cleared 70 to 100 years ago, probably towards the lower
end of that range. Tuliptree dominates, as usual, with many basswood
and black locust mixed in the canopy, and many more locust laying on
the forest floor. Some hophornbeans grow on the ridge, but the stand
generally lacks a midstory and understory. All of the trees listed
below grow in this stand.

Species Cbh Height
Basswood 3'4" 127.7'
Basswood 6'4" 136.1'
Basswood 5'7" 138.0'
Basswood 4'7" 138.6'
Basswood 6'0" 140.4'
Basswood 4'1" 140.9'
Locust, Black 5'3" 141.8'
Locust, Black 6'6" 151.8'
Magnolia, Cucumber coppice     138.1'
Oak, Northern Red 6'9" 140.5'
Tuliptree 10'2" 153.6'
Tuliptree 8'8" 159.7'
Tuliptree 7'3" 162.8'
Tuliptree 10'11" 165.6'
Tuliptree 8'0" 171.6'

Jess Riddle & Will Blozan