Chestnut Creek & Bearpen Gap, NC   Jess Riddle
  Jun 18, 2006 11:58 PDT 


Last weekend, Michael Davie and I visited the southernmost stands of
red spruce and fraser fir, which grow along the southern extreme of
the Blue Ridge Parkway. Not surprisingly, those stands grow among the
southernmost 6000' peaks in the Appalachians. Some maps also show
those peaks, the southern end of the Balsam Mountains, as the wettest
area in eastern North America; several peaks receive over 100" of
precipitation annually.

We stopped at two locations along the parkway amongst the spruce:
Bearpen Gap and Chestnut Creek, where Rob Messick and others
previously reported 42.5" and 43" dbh red spruce. Chestnut Creek
flows south from the Parkway between Chestnut Bald and Devils
courthouse and down the well formed escarpment that marks the southern
edge of the large mountains. However, the steep sided and parallel
Chestnut and Courthouse ridges still provide considerable shelter to
the upper parts of Chestnut Creek. In those conditions, red spruce
grow throughout the watershed above 5000', but are most prevalent on
the east facing slopes. In moister areas, they mix with sugar maple,
yellow buckeye, and beech and some black cherry and white ash, and on
the west facing slope northern red oak and red maple. Yellow birch
and beech are also ubiquitous canopy components. Rosebay rhododendron
thrives under the densest spruce groves while mountain laurel forms
thickets in the more oak dominated areas, and mountain maple, beech
sprouts, and blackberries compete on the richest sites. Herb
communities correspond well with to shrub layer with little growing
under the rhododendron, only galax growing under the mountain laurel,
and a diverse mix including wood fern, christmas fern, american
cohosh, blue cohosh, indian cucumberroot, and ramps among others on
the richer sites. That diversity contrasts with many areas of
comparable elevation in the Smokies where only spruce and yellow birch
form the canopy. The difference may result from differences in
bedrock; Anakeesta slate releases sulfuric acid in the Smokies due to
the weathering of pyrite while less acidic gneiss appeared to underlie
Chestnut Creek.

An old roadbed ascends to Bearpen Gap, approximately 5580' elevation,
from the west. Cut stumps and patches of young forest occur along the
road, but old spruce and yellow birch are also common.   Other common
canopy species in the area include pin cherry, serviceberry, and
beech, most of which have recently succumbed to beech park disease.
Mountain maple occasionally reached the canopy in gaps, and fraser
fir, mature but young, line the Parkway.

Species                             Cbh Height
Cherry, Pin                        5'1"    58.4'
Fir, Fraser                         3'1"    44.7'
Maple, Mountain              1'7"    36.0'
Mountain Ash, American 2'9"    49.5'
Mountain Ash, American 3'3"*   53.8'
Spruce, Red                       11'7"   NA
Spruce, Red                        7'10" 123.0'
Spruce, Red                     9'8"    124.8'
Spruce, Red                   11'1.5" 127.5'
*circumference at six feet.

The mountain ash falls just slightly short of the tallest confirmed by
rangefinder, 56.1', but the tree likely has a higher obscured top.

In many high elevation drainages in the Smokies, red spruce reaches
maximum dimensions of approximately 11' x 130', so at the southern end
of the range spruce reach dimensions comparable to those at typical
Smokies sites. However, a few sites in the Smokies support much
larger individuals, and only a small fraction of the spruce forests in
the Smokies have been searched.

Jess Riddle & Michael Davie
RE: Chestnut Creek & Bearpen Gap, NC   Joshua Kelly
  Jun 18, 2006 13:49 PDT 

Jess and Mike,

Some of the areas you two visited have previously been reported as primary,
what are your impressions of this area? Sounds like there was significant
logging, at least in some places. I have also found descrepancies with the
reports of old-growth in this area, particularly in Log Hollow Creek, far to
the east of your expedition. I would like to talk to you guys about what
you saw in order to better define the old-growth acreage at this important
site. Thanks for the report!

Re: Chestnut Creek & Bearpen Gap, NC   Jess Riddle
  Jun 18, 2006 16:29 PDT 


Chestnut Creek is primary as far as I could tell for the portion we
saw. I didn't notice any cut stumps, old road beds, or other direct
evidence of human activity. The few chestnut logs we saw were uncut,
and large sugar maple and spruce that I assume would have been the
most commercially valuable trees were still present. We only went
down to about 5000', so I don't know about lower down.

Bearpen Gap may have a more complex human disturbance history. We
stayed primarily on an old road bed that now serves as a connector to
the Mountains to See Trail. Along the road bed we saw some obviously
cut stumps but also large yellow birch and somewhat older spruce.
Without looking around more, I'm not sure how much cutting was done in
that area. Mike may have noticed some things I missed. Once we got
to the Mountains to Sea Trail, which follows another road bed, the
forest had obviously been cut in the past few decades.

Re: Chestnut Creek & Bearpen Gap, N   Joshua Kelly
  Jun 19, 2006 09:16 PDT 

Thanks for the further information, Jess. I checked on Bearpen Gap and
noticed it is further west than the Pisgah Ridge old-growth site. If you
are back in that area, you may want to visit upper Buckeye Creek in Middle
Prong Wilderness. Where the MST crosses the headwaters of the creek there
are some very large spruce. The NC NHP also lists Buckeye Creek as having
high quality northern hardwoods forest.

Re: Chestnut Creek & Bearpen Gap, NC   Jess Riddle
  Jun 22, 2006 16:38 PDT 


Yes, that section of the parkway has a good bit of old-growth along
it, which doesn't surprise me given the height of the mountains. The
upper Chestnut Creek area is part of a large stand that occupies the
upper slopes of an escarpment that the parkway follows the top of. In
the same area, Shining Rock wilderness has at least a few hundred
acres of old-growth with trails passing through some nice stands.


On 6/18/06, James Smith wrote:
  That's one of my favorite hiking areas. I didn't know there was any old
growth in there. I assume it's all bushwhacking? I'll have to look for
the roadcut you mention the next time I'm in there. I need to go back to
bag a few of the Southern Sixers.