False Gap Prong, GSMNP, TN   Jess Riddle
  Feb 18, 2007 17:52 PST 


A few weeks ago I traveled to visit several spots in the vicinity of
False Gap Prong, one of the larger streams in the Greenbrier section
of the Smokies. My first stop was a flat on the Middle Prong of the
Little Pigeon River a few hundred yards over a ridge from False Gap
Prong. An old stone foundation in the flat attested to the area's
former use as a farm field, and the spindly second-growth forest of
mostly tuliptree with some sweetgum and red maple confirmed the past
cultivation. However, the steep, northeast facing slope adjacent to
the flat's west end escaped soil depletion since settlers cleared the
slope only for timber. Hence, the slope's forest, while still largely
tuliptree dominated, has grown back more robustly with larger
tuliptrees and an abundance of spicebush and silverbell saplings in
the understory. Tuliptrees along the base of the slope routinely
reach around 150' tall, and a 7'11" x 167.8' individual appears to be
the tallest tree on the slope.

A small stream flowing between the flat and the northeast slope and
draining the larger ridge behind made a convenient path to follow to
Woolly Tops Prong, a tributary of False Gap Prong. Settlers had
cleared multiple small farms on the flatter stretches of the small
stream as well as on the broad flats along Woolly Tops Prong's lower
reaches. The old fields on the latter remain surprisingly productive
with the tallest tuliptrees growing next to old stone walls having
already reached 150'. The farmers only cleared the stream up to about
2800' elevation, where the valley becomes much narrower. Many old
silverbells and sugar maples cover the north facing slopes, and
hemlocks and rhododendron line the stream side. Tuliptrees also grow
amongst the other rich-site hardwoods, but most appear young and have
not reached the sizes the area appears capable of supporting; hence,
the farmers probably highgraded Woolly Tops Prong for the larger
tuliptrees as well as white ash and cherry. Among the trees they left
behind is a white basswood growing at the edge of a boulderfield about
200' up the slope south of the stream. The tree has now reached 13'5"
cbh and 137.1' tall, large enough to qualify as a potential state

At the foot of the other side of the ridge the basswood grows on,
flows Kalanu Prong, the largest tributary of False Gap Prong. For
decades the flats on Kalanu Prong have been known to support some of
the finest forest in the Smokies, thanks to the area having escaped
not only farming but also highgrading.   Much of that perception of
the forests comes from the immense tuliptrees that still grow around
the flats; three of them exceed 20' cbh, and all have the columnar
trunk and massive branches typical of old tuliptrees. They grow
amongst large sugar maples, silverbells, basswoods, and buckeyes in an
unusually broad expanse of rich cove forest. Hemlock and red maple
dominated acidic cove forest surrounds the rich cove and makes
occasional inroads into the flats.

A steep sided ridge rises above those forests and separates the flats
from False Gap Prong, but half way up the Kalanu Prong side hangs a
shallow, north facing cove, one of the main intended destinations of
the day's hike. While one side of the cove climbs up a couple hundred
feet to the crest of the main ridge, the other side rises up only
about 40' before descending to Kalanu Prong. Basswoods and buckeyes
line the stream while rhododendron and hemlocks cover with slopes with
scattered red maples, tuliptrees and birches. Directly on top on the
ridge that forms the cove's lower side stands a massive, 19.8' cbh
tuliptree snag. Young birches sprout from the snag's top where
immense limbs have broken of, and linear shards of five inch think
bark litter the ground below.

On the other side of the main ridge, False Gap Prong displays a
strikingly different character. A sea of rhododendron replaces fields
of herbs, and hemlocks and red maple line the stream. Tuliptrees grow
in about the same abundance as on the other stream, but do not reach
near the size; possibly due to more extensive logging on False Gap
Prong. Below the two stream's confluence, settlers entirely cleared
the sides of False Gap Prong for farms. Next to a stone chimney
stands the co-record holder for sassafras height, a skinny 119' tall
individual striving not to be overtopped by tuliptrees. Nearby stands
one of the last surviving black locusts in the fields, which my dad
and I originally located several years ago. The locust has now
reached 6'5" x 152.1', a height record for Tennessee. Also in the
same vicinity, grows a 3'8" cbh umbrella magnolia, the largest
diameter individual known in the park. Boulderfields around the edges
of the fields tend to sustain greater diversity since they could not
be farmed. Those sites now support a 9'1" x 143.5' white ash, and
upstream from it grows a 7'2" x 136.2' white basswood.

Jess Riddle