Sterling Ridge (GSMNP, NC)   Jess Riddle
  Oct 26, 2003 13:09 PST 

Saturday I took a brief hike through varied forest communities on the
northeast end of Sterling Ridge on the NC side of the Smokies. I accessed
the area by ascending a narrow, northeast facing cove that drains into
Laurel Creek just east of the park boundary. Flat, loose rocks and
unusually loose, dark soil support thickets of stinging nettle,
jewel-weed, Christmas fern, glade fern, and maidenhair fern on the lower
slopes. Silverbell and basswood grew in the canopy, but yellow buckeye
was by far the most common species. Some of the buckeyes, many of which
were around 10' cbh, were probably left when the other species in the cove
were logged.

Northern Red Oak played a much greater role in the forest on top of the
ridge above the cove and in the adjacent, relatively flat, northwest
facing cove draining into the east fork of Baxter Creek. Basswood,
buckeye, and sugar maple were present in this cove, but at much lower
concentrations. Little rock float occurred on the ground in the area,
and, combined with the lack of understory, made walking through this area
unusually easy.

The next cove to the west presented a striking contrast with a dense
growth of hemlock saplings at the top giving way to a partial open forest
dominated by stout, old hemlocks. In the most open area of the cove,
black birch, fraser magnolia, and rhododendron were the only other tree
species present. Fortunately, the rhododendron was not continuous, and
even with dog-hobble mixing in in the lower part of the cove did not
present a serious obstacle. Yellow birch also grew in the lower part of
the cove, often on top of the boulders that formed the ground in the
middle of the cove.

Along the east fork of Baxter Creek between the mouth of that cove at
3400' and the opening to the next north facing cove at 3800', rhododendron
fills the understory on the east side of the creek and the west side is
open, except for patches of mountain maple in boulder strewn areas.
Hemlock, yellow birch, and red maple were most prevalent on the east side
while yellow buckeye, basswood, yellow birch and minor sugar maple, beech
and white ash mixed on the west side of the creek.
The lower section of the cove that enters Baxter Creek at 3800' resembles
the adjacent cove to the east. However, the upper section is dominated by
beech and buckeye with an open understory.

BC=Baxter Creek. Coves are numbered from east to west, the order they are
described in above.
Species Cbh Height Drainage Comment
Ash, White NA 115.8' Laurel Creek Typical of canopy in area
Ash, White 14'0" ~120' BC cove #3 Massive tree, looks old
Ash, White 12'8" 125.0' BC East Fork
Ash, White 9'7" 139.1' BC East Fork Within sight of above tree
Buckeye 13'4.5" NA Laurel Creek Largest cbh in drainage
Buckeye NA 130.0' BC East Fork
Buckeye NA 131.2' Laurel Creek
Hemlock 12'10.5" BC East Fork Near ash, dead top
Hemlock 13'7.5" NA BC cove #2
Hemlock 10'3" 123.8' BC cove #2 typical of the exposed upper cove
Oak, N. Red 14'3" ~92' Sterling ridge 3 others on ridge top similar cbh
Oak, N. Red 14'0" ~101' BC cove #1
Oak, N. Red 13'10" ~122' BC cove #1
Yellowwood 6'2.5" 81.5' Laurel Creek NC record? Near park boundary

Jess Riddle