Ramsay Prong & Lester Prong, GSMNP, TN   Jess Riddle
  Jul 03, 2006 11:24 PDT 


Over the weekend, my dad and I hiked up both Ramsay Prong and Lester
Prong on the Tennessee side of the Smokies. The two streams in the
Greenbrier district flow down Mount Guyot (6621') and Mount Kephart
(6217'), respectively. The high elevation streams represent opposite
ends of the topographic spectrum; Ramsay Prong requires 1.75 miles to
drop from 5800' to 5000' elevation; contrastingly, the slope at the
top of Lester Prong loses 1300' of elevation over a horizontal
distance of only 1300'.

A popular hiking trail follows the Middle Prong Little Pigeon River
and Ramsay Prong for four miles, all but the first quarter mile
through old-growth forest. Rapid drainage allows oaks to dominate and
thrive on the gentle slopes the lower part of the trail traverses, but
hemlocks and cove hardwoods line the moister section along Ramsay
Prong. The trail terminates at Ramsay Cascades where the stream
crashes over a massive rock wall. Immediately above the cascades on
Ramsay Prong, red spruce is a major canopy component although hemlock
is still common up to approximately 4700'. Among hardwoods, yellow
birch is by far the most abundant, but yellow buckeye and pin cherry
also reach the canopy. Rosebay rhododendron covers the slopes except
for a few boulderfields where witch hobble and mountain maple fill the
understory. Moss and bluebead lily covered the boulders.

Between the main cascades and 5000' elevation, the stream tumbles down
five more cascades over twenty feet high, but above that point, the
stream's gradient drops dramatically. Several flats half an acre to
an acre in size, some with sedge filled boggy areas, occur scattered
along the stream. Red spruce still dominates the overstory, but forms
a much more open canopy than just a short distance down stream.
Consequently, most of the stream flows in full sun. Yellow birch
still frequently reaches the overstory, especially on the north facing
slopes. That slope has a well-developed understory of witch hobble
and mountain maple; two of the later reached 2.4' cbh. A thick tangle
of rhododendron, rosebay with scattered catawba, covers most of the
south aspect slope. However, an extremely dense understory of 30 to
40' tall red spruce and fraser fir excludes all other vascular plants
from some sections of the slope. Areas without a dense evergreen
understory typically have continuous herb cover dominated by a wood
fern (?), mountain wood sorrel, shinning club moss, and a few other

Lester Prong hosts ostensibly similar forests, but the watershed has a
much different character. Steep slopes flank the stream for its
entire length, yet the lower half of the stream maintains a low
gradient and has occasional flats along the sides. Two and a half to
three foot diameter hemlock and spruce logs lying across the stream
produce an abundance of debris dams along that lower section of
stream. Flat gravel bars of dark, angular Anakeesta slate pile up
behind the dams. The slate underlies much of the higher elevations in
the Smokies, and produces a rugged topography of steep slopes and
knife-edge ridges. Intense thunderstorms have left landslide scars on
many of the steep slopes, and the weathering of the slate's pyrite
leaves the remaining thin soils highly acidic.

Hemlocks dominate the slopes along lower Lester Prong while yellow
buckeye and yellow birch form the canopy over the flats. Moving
upstream, yellow birch becomes the only large hardwood, and the red
spruce stand like sentinels on the narrow rock ridges and straight and
vertically out of the steep slopes. Some of the lower flats have
sparse understories of only scattered mountain maple and witch hobble,
but tangles of rosebay rhododendron completely cover the slopes under
the hemlock and spruce. Logs and wet rock faces also support minnie
bush and thick layers of moss. The density of the rhododendron
precludes an herb layer on most of the slopes, but thickets of
blackberry and some species of Eupatorium grow in sunny, gravely areas
near the stream.

The effects of abundant moister are evident at both locations in where
trees will root; nurse longs, epiphytic plants, and adventitious roots
are common in the moist forests. Mountain maples hanging over the
streams have sprouted fine roots from their twigs, and multiple yellow
birches have epicormic branches and roots originating from a common
point of their trunks. One nurse long on Ramsay Prong supports over a
hundred red spruce seedlings while another nurse long on Porters
Creek, which Lester Prong flows into, supports nine species of tree
seedlings (beech, white ash, red maple, sugar maple, hemlock,
serviceberry, fraser magnolia, silverbell, and yellow birch). A
yellow birch snag on Lester Prong has a row of rhododendron growing
out of a crack while a living yellow birch on Ramsay Prong has two red
spruce over 20' tall growing out of its trunk.

Jess Riddle
RE: Ramsay Prong & Lester Prong, GSMNP, TN   Joshua Kelly
  Jul 04, 2006 15:25 PDT 


I read a piece about Ramsay Prong above the cascades once that described
open understory spruce. It sounds like you saw similar stuff on your trip.
Measure any whoppers? Maybe we can visit Buck Fork later in the summer. I
spent the weekend in the Deep Creek area. There are some awesome hemlocks
there, and Noland Divide and Fork Ridge have great spruce - but you probably
know that. I was suprised to find a 19+ gbh poplar (measured with arm
lengths) near where the Fork Ridge Trail meets Deep Creek. It seems like
upper Deep Creek and tributaries (Pole Road Creek surprised me in a good
way) were only lightly logged for cherry and the biggest poplar.

Thanks for the description,