Sugarland Mountain, GSMNP, TN   Jess Riddle
  Oct 20, 2006 14:25 PDT 


IMG_1017_1_1.jpg (251585 bytes) 
A striped maple, a yellow birch, and an eastern hemlock germinated out of the same rotting stump and all have survived. -Jess Riddle

On the Tennessee side of the Smokies, US 441 follows the narrow valley
of the West Prong Little Pigeon River up to the range's main divide at
Newfound Gap, elevation 5040'. The lower reaches of the valley
contain The Sugarlands, a broad area of gentle slopes at the foot of
Mount Le Conte that once supported many farms. Forest has since
reclaimed those fields, and dense stands of vigorous tuliptrees now
cover The Sugarlands and adjacent sections of the valley. Probably in
part because of the farming emphasis of the lower valley, commercial
logging operations never entered the upper watershed. Consequently,
highway 441 now offers a multitude the opportunity to see an ancient
forest of hemlock, yellow birch, red spruce and rhododendron. Two of
the most popular trails in the park originate on 441 and allow
visitors a closer look at the uncut forest. The Alum Cave trail
passes through spruce forest, heath balds, and a large rock overhang
on its way to Mount Le Conte. At 6593' elevation, Le Conte is the
third highest peak in the Smokies and provides a great deal of
sheltering to the West Prong valley. On the other side of the valley,
the Chimney Tops Trail ascends Sugarland Mountain through northern
hardwood, buckeye, and spruce forest to the namesake pair of exposed,
rocky promontories. The other upper, north facing slopes on Sugarland
Mountain, which might be more appropriately called 'Sugarland Ridge',
are similarly steep, so the West Prong valley is also well protected
from the south.

The Cove Hardwood Trail, a lesser known interpretive path, also
originates on highway 441, and loops across the lower slopes of
Sugarland Mountain. The Park Service has produced a good brochure to
go with the trail that, at numbered locations, points out interesting
forest features, such as an old chestnut stump or the gradual
transition going up the slope from previously cleared forest to little
logged forest. The trail winds through a forest with an unusual
abundance of bitternut hickory but otherwise typical cove hardwood mix
of tuliptree, black locust, black birch, sugar maple, and yellow
buckeye. The fall herbaceous layer had an exceptional covering of
acute-leaved hepatica and more typical populations of plantain-leaved
sedge, a goldenrod, and other rich site herbs.

While the trail is well situated to introduce people to mixed
mesophytic forests, the most impressive mesophytic forests in the area
grow farther upslope in a series of narrow, parallel, north-facing
coves. Buckeye becomes dominant in coves with basswood, silverbell,
and sugar maple also prominent in the overstory and smaller numbers of
hemlock and beech. Striped maple, mountain maple and a few yellowwood
make up occasional clumps in the understory, but saplings of the shade
tolerant hardwoods, buckeye, silverbell and sugar maple, comprise much
more of that layer. More herbaceous species thrive in the coves than
in the more disturbed forest down-slope with black cohosh, a
goldenrod, bishop's cap, rock stone crop, foam flower, recently
sprouted chickweed, and intermediate wood fern all common. Given the
steepness of the mountain's upper slopes, the cliffs facing into the
coves along some of the ridges separating the coves, and the cascade
in one cove, soil depth is surprisingly deep; boulders are only common
in linear formations along the sides of some sections of cove.

The low, steep ridges separating the coves appear nearly as moist as,
but less rich, than the coves. Hemlock covers the ridges for over
1000' of elevation range and mixes with silverbell, tuliptree, and red
maple at the lower ends. More than the overstory, the continuous
rhododendron cover marks the different conditions on the ridges.

Species                   Cbh      Height
Basswood, White   11'10"   ~124'
Buckeye, Yellow   13'11"   139.2'
Buckeye, Yellow   16'10"   139.2'
Buckeye, Yellow   13'7"     140.7'
Buckeye, Yellow   17'3"     142.8'
Buckeye, Yellow   12'0.5"   144.5'
Buckeye, Yellow   13'10"    145.5'+
Buckeye, Yellow    14'6"     145.6'
Buckeye, Yellow    11'0"     146.5'
Cherry, Black        11'7.5"   ~120'
Cherry, Pin            4'4.5"   86.0'
Hickory, Bitternut 10'5"    133.7'
Hickory, Bitternut NA       145.3'
Hickory, Bitternut NA       147.5'
Maple, Red           15'5"   ~120'
Maple, Sugar         11'7.5" 141.4'
Maple, Sugar         NA      141.5'
Tuliptree                20'0.5"   148.1'+

AEFL_sugarland_massive.jpg (157007 bytes)
  A columnar 13'10" cbh buckeye that is at least 145.5' tall even after a broken top. - Jess Riddle
buckeye1a.jpg (191663 bytes)
 Buckeye - photo by Michael Davie

The buckeyes stole the show. Even having seen several excellent
buckeye forests, this one has no equal. Buckeye has unusual dominance
in the coves and approaches records for both height and girth, and
likely volume. At all other sites where ENTS has measured buckeyes,
140' individuals are rare. Now, three of the five tallest known grow
at this site. Since the current and preceding national champions have
died, the 17'3" tree will likely qualify as a state champion. 

buckeye2a.jpg (166965 bytes)
 Buckeye - photo by Michael Davie
buckeye3a.jpg (217101 bytes)
 Buckeye - photo by Michael Davie

The tree also promises to grow even larger since unlike most large
buckeyes, it appears relatively young with a domed crown of straight
limbs. The two largest circumference buckeyes above have somewhat
flared lower trunks, typical of very large buckeyes, but the 145.5'
tall individual has an exceptional lack of taper making the trunk have
proportions similar to the largest hemlocks. Unfortunately, a storm
broke out most of the crown, so only one large limb remains to
continue growth; the tree may have been even taller before the crown

Several other bitternuts at the site approach or exceed the 10' cbh.
Taken together, the bitternuts are one of finest groups in the
Southern Appalachians. The 147.5' height just tops the former state
height record of 146'.

With even a modest crown spread, the pin cherry will have enough
points to qualify as a national co-champion under the American Forests

The sugar maples are a new state height records and the second and
third tallest ENTS has found.

Having seen a couple tuliptrees around 15' cbh, Josh predicted that
somewhere at the site one would reach 20' cbh. Within minutes we saw
the 20' tree listed above, but it grows on a rhododendron covered
slope rather than in one of the coves. The tree has a large crown and
little taper, although it is not as columnar as some of the large
tuliptrees. As far as I know, this is the first tuliptree over 20'
cbh found in the park in two years. The tree grows within site of the
145.6' buckeye with the 141' sugar maple in between them.

We saw three coves during our day of exploring leaving three similar
coves unexplored.

Jess Riddle, Michael Davie, and Josh Kelly

Re: Sugarland Mountain, GSMNP, TN   Neil Pederson
  Oct 22, 2006 23:06 PDT 

The buckeye are on the upper end of some you measured in Kalanu Prong - not
too much larger except for the 17'+ one, right?

So, is it the density of or perhaps the dominance by buckeye that makes
this area stick out in your mind?

Re: Sugarland Mountain, GSMNP, TN   Jess Riddle
  Oct 23, 2006 07:35 PDT 


Kalanu Prong certainly still qualifies as a good buckeye sight, but
the greater frequency or really large buckeyes makes Sugarland
Mountain more impressive to me. Kalanu Prong does have that one 15'+
cbh tree and a few others over 13' cbh while Sugarland Mountain has
two well over 15' and several of 13'. Sugarland Mountain also has
generally taller trees with and six over 140' tall to Kalanu's one.
Hence, with comparable circumferences the Sugarland Mountain trees
probably have greater volume. One tributary of Kalanu Prong probably
does have as high of buckeye dominance as any of the Sugarland
Mountain coves, but Sugarland Mountain probably has more acres of
forest with buckeyes in the canopy.

Re: Sugarland Mountain, GSMNP, TN   Jess Riddle
  Oct 23, 2006 12:51 PDT 


The coves on Sugarland Mountain are less disturbed and have larger
buckeyes than Ramp Cove. I think Ramp Cove was fairly heavily buckeye
dominated then had all the other hardwoods removed in the early
1900's; there are cut chestnut stumps on the steep slopes at the very
top of the cove. Buckeyes were able to exploit that disturbance
leading to the heavily buckeye dominated canopy of today with a
mixture of ages.

The coves on Sugarland Mountain appear to have had no disturbance
since they still have a few well formed cherries, ash, and other
commercially valuable trees. They may not have quite the buckeye
dominance of Ramp Cove but they are still close. Ramp Cove would
still qualify as a good buckeye site if it were in the Smokies, but
the park, especially on the TN side, has several comparable sites.
However, in Georgia and South Carolina, I've never seen a collection
of buckeyes approaching what's in Ramp Cove.


On 10/23/06, Greg Ehrenberg wrote:
How does Sugarland Mountain compare to Ramp Cove (GA) in the Kelly Ridge
Wilderness Area?

Greg Ehrenberg
Re: Sugarland Mountain, GSMNP, TN   Jess Riddle
  Nov 06, 2006 05:25 PST 

In the southern Appalachians, chestnut stumps are the only ones that
have commonly remained since the forests were first logged. They have
a characteristic bleached grayish-brown color, and logs often have
narrow fissures parallel to their long axis and elliptical scars from
the blight cankers. That descriptions rather vague, but you just have
to see the wood repeatedly to learn to recognize it.

On 10/25/06, ENTS <>; wrote:
Just out of curiosity, how do you know a stump is chestnut?