Southern Nantahala Wilderness   Jess Riddle
  Jan 30, 2007 18:31 PST 

Hello all,

The Southern Nantahala Wilderness straddles the North Carolina-Georgia
state line, and includes the third and fourth highest peaks in
Georgia, Dicks Knob (4600'+) and Hightower Bald (4588'). However,
broad valleys boarder much of the area and lead to private ownership
of much of the surrounding land, especially on the Georgia side.
Consequently, an extensive trail network never developed in the
wilderness, and visitation in Georgia is largly restricted to the
Appalachian Trail, which passes through the wilderness' central and
eastern portions. Hence, the ridge extending west from the AT at the
state line is especially isolated. After forking at the top of
Hightower Bald about a mile west of the trail, the ridge remains
continuously over 3600' elevation, and extends another five miles west
through Georgia before finally dropping lower south of Eagle Mountain.
The ridge's biotite gneiss has eroded into varied topography,
including steep slopes, hanging coves, and sheltered north aspects,
that combines with the relatively high elevations to provide likely
habitat for unusual communities, but the area remains little explored
by naturalists.

However, the area has not always been so isolated. In the early
1900's, logging operations from the surrounding valleys extended up
the slopes and cleared the high productivity forests in the coves. In
the 1940's or 1950's, by which time the Forest Service had likely
purchased the area, portions of north facing coves were again clear
cut and ridge crests were selectively cut. No additional logging has
occurred in the area since 1984 when Congress designated the land as
wilderness. However, old road beds crisscrossing the slopes bear
testament to the earlier logging and the more recent Forest Service
roadbeds serve as ready-made trails for illegal all terrain vehicle
activity in the area.

The forests that have re-grown along the ridge in the wilderness
area's western reaches consistently suggest rich bedrock and soils.
Oaks, chestnut and northern red but especially white, dominate the
forests along comparably large and exposed ridges in north Georgia.
While northern red and white oak do occur along the ridge, tuliptree
forms much more of the canopy. Tuliptree probably gains an advantage
over the oaks from the deep, black soils that cover the ridge crest
from Eagle Mountain to Sassafras Knob. Those soils may also explain
the presence of cucumbertree and basswood on top of one of the smaller
peaks and the frequency of white ash and yellow buckeye saplings in
the understory. The shrub layer shows analogous differences from
other north Georgia ridges. Along the ridge, Mountain laurel and
rhododendron, which frequently form thickets elsewhere, only occur
near the rocky summit of Sassafras Knob and on the steep slope north
of Rattlesnake Knob, respectively. Instead, the understory is open,
but gooseberry, blackberries, and beaked hazelnut are locally
abundant. Isolated individuals of other species typically found in
coves at lower elevations also take advantage of the moist soils on
the ridge and reach exceptionally high elevations including shagbark
hickory (4100'+), spicebush (4000'), and American hornbeam (4100'+).

Somewhat surprisingly, some of the hanging coves on the north side of
the ridge between Eagle Mountain and Rattlesnake Knob appeared less
moist and rich than the ridge crest. Northern red oak, white oak, and
tuliptrees occupy the gentle upper sections of some of the ridge's
north facing coves, but the presence of yellow birch along the small
streams suggests the coves are colder than most areas in north
Georgia. Azaleas dominate the hanging coves' sparse understories, but
a few scattered yellowwood also occur in them.

However, where the slopes descend steeply from the ridge to the north,
mesophytic species dominate the forest canopy. Where the coldest
conditions prevail, on the steep slopes below Sassafras Knob, the
forest tends towards northern hardwoods with yellow buckeye, yellow
birch, basswood, and white ash forming the canopy over ravines of
mountain maple. On slightly lower north facing slopes, especially in
Milksick Cove, a wider mix of species compete for overstory space
including white ash, tuliptree, black cherry, basswood, and bitternut
hickory. A well developed midstory also occurs on those slopes
dominated by an unusual abundance of yellowwood along with some beech.
Moving farther down the slopes, tuliptree forms nearly pure groves.

Species                             Cbh   Height
Ash, White                       11'9.5" 122.7'
Basswood, White             6'11.5" 133.3'
Birch, Yellow                   6'1"    89.3'
Birch, Yellow                   4'5"    91.0'
Cherry, Black                   6'6.5" 126.1'
Dogwood, Alternate-leaf 1'8"     29.8'
Locust, Black                   5'0"    127.5'
Locust, Black                   NA     139.8'
Locust, Black                   8'5"    141.0'
Magnolia, Cucumbertree NA      121.7'
Magnolia, Cucumbertree 8'0.5" 134.3'
Sycamore                         4'10"   126.5'
Tuliptree                           NA     149.2'
Tuliptree                          10'6"   150.0'
Tuliptree                          9'4"     151.3'
Tuliptree                          8'5"     152.7'
Yellowwood                    7'3.5"   NA
Yellowwood                    6'6"     74.4'

The white ash is large enough to qualify as a state champion, but a
larger tree has been located.

The white basswood is the second tallest so far recorded in the state,
but this height measurement may not be very accurate.

The previous state height record for yellow birch was 90.6'

Black cherry on the upper north facing slopes frequently reach
approximately 120' tall.

The previous state height record for black locust was 121.3', and the
8'5" circumference tree also has enough points to qualify as a new
state champion.

The tallest known cucumber magnolia in the state was 127.8' before the
134.3' tree was found in Milksick Cove.

The sycamore was the only individual of the species encountered in the
area, and grows at the unusually high elevation of about 3150'.

Many other tuliptrees reach approximately 150', especially on the
western side of Milksick Cove. Taller trees certainly occur in the

7'3.5" is the second largest circumference recorded for yellowwood in Georgia.

None of the coves were explored entirely, and some north facing coves
were not visited at all on this trip. Hence, other exceptional trees
and unusual species surely occur in the area.

Jess & Doug Riddle
RE: Southern Nantahala Wilderness   James Smith
  Jan 30, 2007 20:51 PST 

Thanks for the report.

I've hiked in there, mainly along the AT, but I have done a little
bushwhacking, mainly around Ridgepole and Little Ridgepole. In that
area, I did not notice any exceptional trees, but there is some
extremely rugged territory there with some spectacular cliffs. So it's
possible there could be some isolated patches of old growth.
Re: Southern Nantahala Wilderness
  Jan 31, 2007 05:35 PST 
Jess and Doug

Nice finds. You blew the Black locust height record out of the water! Congrats on the new state champs too. I am sure Will will be happy to hear of them.

Re: Southern Nantahala Wilderness   Jess Riddle
  Feb 02, 2007 16:04 PST 


I think there is still old-growth in the S. Nantahala Wilderness,
especially in the eastern part. I've hiked to the top of Ridgepole
also, and the uppermost slopes and ridge coming south, witch currently
forms the wilderness area boundary, looked uncut to me. Some areas on
the ridge are so wind-blasted that the canopy tops out around thirty
feet. As usual, the least productive areas are least disturbed.