19, 2007 09:07 PST
Richland Mountain juts south from the central portion of the
main divide, and separates the main stem of the Oconaluftee
Bradley Fork. In the early 1900's, the confluence of those two
streams hosted a logging town called Smokemont, and many
farmed the surrounding coves and the flats along the river to
south. The National Park Service converted Smokemont to a
and halted logging in the watershed down to where the river
the Cherokee Indian Reservation. Cherokee, NC now caters to
more than any other town along the park's edge in North
that entertainment oriented development is largely confined to
banks of the Oconaluftee River. US Highway 441 facilitates that
development by paralleling the river through the reservation and
park to the mountains' crest and descending the other side of
Smokies to Gatlinburg, TN.
The river forms a natural travel corridor within the park since
flows straight along a major northwest-southeast fault line for
of its length. On the south side, tributaries drain northeast
Thomas Divide, a long ridge that stays around 5000' elevation
of its length and defines the western edge of the Oconaluftee
watershed. On the other side of the fault, streams drain south
the main crest of the Smokies or Richland Mountain directly into
Oconaluftee. Across Richland Mountain, the main ridges fork
streams follow a variety of aspects to reach Bradley Fork on
to the Oconaluftee. While the entire watershed contains rugged
topography typical of large mountains, upper Bradley Fork
especially harsh landscape as hinted at by the names of the
the area: Frowning Rock Prong, Gulf Prong, Washout Branch, and
Prong. That area of steep slopes, narrow ridges, and incised
drainages correlates to bedrock of the Anakeesta Formation
primarily of acidic slates. The area's high elevation ensures
abundant precipitation, which combines with the steep slopes to
the streams prone to flash floods.
Not surprisingly, with easy access and major tourisms centers
the Park Service has developed the Oconaluftee watershed more
most other sections of the park. In addition to the large
Oconaluftee features a visitor center complete with a living
reconstructed farm meant to demonstrate how many people lived in
lower part of the valley in the early 1900's. Just up the valley
the visitors center, Mingus Creek extends the historical
opportunities with a restored water-powered grist mill, and
the lowest entry point to a web of trails traversing the
Most of the trails follow low ridges or streams up to the large
that bound the watershed and tie-in with longer trails on them.
of the trails follow old road-beds that provided access to
areas or railroad grades that accessed the watershed's rich
reserves. Those railroad operations left little of the original
forests for the trails to traverse. Fragments
of the original forest
only survive in the main watershed on the upper slopes of Thomas
Divide, along one fork of Collins Creek, at the very top of the
watershed, and on a few dry, south-facing slopes. However,
of acres of untouched forests still grow on the steep slopes of
Red spruce, yellow birch, and rosebay rhododendron dominate
forests. On the highest ridges, fraser fir and mountain ash mix
the canopy, and the understory may shift to more Catawba
or lack rhododendron entirely. The latter areas tend to have a
developed herbaceous layer with sedges sometimes dominating and
hobble in the understory. Some ravines within the spruce forest
have well developed herbaceous layers with an abundance of ferns
umbrella leaf, yellow buckeye replacing red spruce in the
and mountain maple dominating the understory.
At slightly lower elevations, and especially along the western
the Oconaluftee watershed, northern red oak dominates the ridges
upper slopes. The abundant precipitation associated with the
elevation keeps even ridges somewhat moist, so the red oaks can
reach about three feet in diameter; however, the exposed
the red oak dominated forests keeps the canopy well under 100'
Red maple often makes up a significant proportion of the
also, and American chestnut was once an important member of the
community. Beeches and white oaks may also be locally abundant,
the beech are rapidly declining form the impacts of beech bark
disease. Underneath them, striped maple often dominates the
and the azaleas often outnumber the evergreen rhododendrons. The
of a dense understory and adequate moister supply allows
species to reach moderate coverage and diversity.
Moving down the watershed, rainfall decreases and the ridges
noticeably drier. Northern red oak and red maple can still
but they tend to do so on ridges that slope to the east or north
that are sheltered by higher surrounding ridges. On those sites,
chestnut oaks still mix into the overstory, and rosebay
with an upright growth form usually forms a continuous,
understory that precludes most herbaceous species. On other
below 4000' elevation, white oak and chestnut oak dominate, and
driest condition favor scarlet oak. Pitch pine mixes in with
oak on some ridges and mountain laurel typically forms a
shrub layer. Lack of light, soil moisture, and acidic soils
herbaceous growth in those forests, but galax can still hide
the forest floor at some sites. On slightly less austere ridges
2500' elevation, other species can mix into the canopy including
oak, southern red oak, and mockernut hickory.
Settlers chose more moist sites in that elevation range,
flat sites along the Oconaluftee itself, for agriculture. The
Service maintains a few of those sites as open, grassy fields,
most have reverted to forest. Tuliptree has had by far the
success in reclaiming the fields, but black locust grows
amongst them at some sites and black walnut has spread a short
distance from some old homesites. Shrubs and sampling generally
remain sparse underneath the tuliptrees, but buffalo nut has
continuous shrub layer on a few sites.
Throughout the watershed, tuliptree dominates along the streams
3500' although not to near the same extent it does on the old
land. Along the streams, black birch and yellow birch also mix
the canopy, and sycamore and hemlock are locally important;
hemlock is not nearly as prevalent as in many other sections of
park. Rosebay rhododendron consistently occupies the understory
often extends up slopes into adjacent forests.
Moving upslope from the streams into north and northeast facing
forest diversity and productivity increase dramatically. Those
consistently feature high canopies (over 120'), diverse
layers, and open understories. Many coves lack shrubs entirely,
although hydrangea may be locally abundant, leaving saplings of
shade-tolerant overstory species, most commonly silverbell and
buckeye, as the primary understory. Similarly sparse midstories
include silverbell and locally striped maple or hophornbeam.
Overstories may follow the pattern of lower canopy layers and
currently exhibit little diversity, or they may contain a
several hardwood species. In coves with broad, gentle bottoms,
tuliptree often excludes all other species from the canopy
black locust. On steeper or colder sites, basswood, sugar maple,
silverbell, black birch, and white ash all mix with a limited
of tuliptrees to form the overstory. Grape vines, often over
inches in diameter, frequently tie together all of the canopy
and may be accompanied by Duthcmans pipe vine.
ENTS has spent relatively little time exploring the Oconaluftee
section of the park, only about a dozen days looking at the
Other parts of the park contain far more uncut forest, and Big
has been seen as the premier area for second-growth hardwoods,
visiting Oconaluftee has not been a priority. However, we have
recently realized that the north facing coves in the area are
consistently productive, and hardwood growth rates may rival
found in lower Big Creek. Descriptions of several recent trips
area have not yet been posted to the listserve.
The lack of old-growth at low to mid elevations makes trees of
exceptionally large diameter rare in the area; hence, we have
measured enough large trees to compute a Rucker Girth Index. A
trees with notable circumferences that have been located
potential national champion yellow buckeye with a circumference
18'7", bitternut hickory 11'1", northern red oak
17'3", and tuliptree
Rucker Height Index: 152.9'
Black Locust 171.8'
Eastern Hemlock 156.2'
White Ash 148.6'
Cucumber Magnolia 147.1'
White Basswood 144.7'
Northern Red Oak 144.3'
Black Cherry 140.9'
The Rucker Index is the third highest known in the eastern US
the Cataloochee and Big Creek sections of the Smokies. Of the
contributing to the index, only the hemlock grows in an
forest. The tuliptree, locust, sycamore, ash, cucumbertree,
red oak, and beech were all located this year, suggesting many
tall trees remain to be found in the area. The watershed now
the tallest known individuals of black locust, black cherry,
serviceberry, and fraser magnolia, and tuliptree has been
over 170' tall at six sites in the watershed.
Any additional comments from others familiar with this section
Smokies would be appreciated.