Recently I joined my hiking buddy Bob S. for an off-trail adventure in search of some of the largest trees in the southeast.† Groves of old-growth forest in places like the Smokies and Joyce Kilmer are justifiably famous.† What is less known is that there are some impressive trees in the Mackey Mountain and Curtis Creek areas of the Pisgah National Forest.† In fact, that area was part of the Nationís first National Forest.† That probably has a lot to do with why those trees are still standing today.†
For years Iíd heard rumors of old-growth forest around Mackey Mountain and Curtis Creek.† Iíd even seen some of it, on hikes along Hickory Branch east of the Curtis Creek Campground.† A couple of years ago though, Bob read a report describing multiple groves of old-growth Tuliptrees on the west side of Curtis Creek, along the drainages on the east side of Laurel Knob and Snooks Nose Ridge.† Unfortunately, the only trail in that area follows the crest of the ridge, high above those hidden groves.† Finding them would require some serious bushwhacking.
Itís a big area, too, and I hesitated to just start thrashing around along random drainages.† A few weeks ago, Bob contacted someone at ENTS (Eastern Native Tree Society) who had explored the area.† He was nice enough to provide us with fairly detailed directions to several of the groves.
Bob and I met in Charlotte on Sunday morning and drove up to Marion, NC and on to Curtis Creek.† I like this area, because itís a bit closer to home than most and easy to get to from I-40.† It also tends to be rather quiet.† There were some folks camped along Curtis Creek Road, both above and below the official campground.† One thing I noticed is that the primitive sites along the road downstream from the campground now have a fee.† The ones adjacent to the creek are $10, while those on the opposite side of the road are $5.† For now, the sites upstream from the campground are free, though that could change at any time.
We drove about a mile past the campground and parked at the remains of an old campsite that is now littered with deadfall.† This spot was just beyond a bridge over Curtis Creek.† From there we headed downstream, follow a faint path along the bank of Curtis Creek.† This wasnít much of a trail, but it was by far the easiest walking of the day.
After a few minutes we began angling uphill away from the main stream.† Before long we began approaching a modest, unnamed tributary.† This tributary starts on Laurel Knob and drops steeply all the way to Curtis Creek.† This stream was the route that we hoped would lead us to a grove of old growth forest.
Early on we passed the remains of a settlement.† There wasnít much left there except the base of a chimney.† Beyond that point the miniature gorge we were following narrowed dramatically.† Before long, the north side of the valley was an imposing wall of massive boulders and overhanging cliffs.† The other side wasnít much better, as it was covered in tangles of Rhododendron.† Our only other option was to walk up the creek.† This stream was larger than I expected based on the topo map, but it was more or less passable.† The walking was slow and tedious though.† Rhododendron tangles and fallen trees slowed our pace to a crawl.† Meanwhile, a profusion of Stinging Nettle tormented us.† It turns out that we were wading through more than just Stinging Nettle though.† There was Poison Ivy there too, though I didnít become aware of that until a couple of days later.
The thing about this type of hiking is that you really have to be in the mood for it.† There are times when getting bruised, battered, and bloody on a sunny afternoon just isnít that appealing.† A few days before our hike Iíd been in the mood for this type of an adventure.† Unfortunately, by Sunday morning I really wasnít.† I was starting to feel discouraged and was wondering if this could possibly be worth it when we reached the base of the waterfall.
The directions we had received had mentioned the waterfall, but I hadnít been expecting much.† The usual sources (Kevin Adams, Waterfall Rich) donít mention any waterfalls in this drainage, and itís just a minor, unnamed tributary.† Still, there was a lot more water flowing through there than Iíd expected, and the falls are fairly significant.† The creek drops over 100í in a series of slides and steep cascades.† Itís not a terribly photogenic waterfall (particularly on a sunny day), but it certainly added a lot to our hike.† Anytime I stumble upon an undocumented waterfall Iím inclined to declare victory.
Bob suggested we call it Stinging Nettle Falls, in honor of the profusion of that lovely plant there.† The only problem with that is that it overlooks all of the poison ivy that was mixed in with it.† Maybe we should go with Itch and Burn Falls?
We took a break there and made some hopeless attempts at photography.† Later, on our way back, conditions had improved and those results were a little better.† First though, we still had our big trees to find.† Our source had told us that the first of several groves was upstream from the falls.† Encouraged, we pressed on, eagerly anticipating what was ahead.
Unfortunately this was the hardest part of the hike, as we had to climb a steep bank near the falls.† This was arduous and a little treacherous, but we managed to slowly work our way above the top of the falls.† We also passed some nice wildflowers along here, including some Fire Pink and a few other varieties I couldnít identify.† The one thing we didnít see was blooming shrubs.† Iíd anticipated Mountain Laurel, Rhododendron, or Azaleas in bloom, but apparently we were a bit early.
Not far above the brink of the falls we reached our first large Tuliptree.† It was impressive, and we paused there for a quick lunch.† Bob was too excited to eat, so while I relaxed he hiked farther up the slope in search of more.† He returned a bit later with reports of more large trees higher up on the ridge.† We resumed the hike, but continued upstream, sidehilling high above the creek.† This led us to more impressive trees.† In fact, the farther we went, the bigger the trees seemed to get.† Several were quite remarkable, and we spent the next couple of hours wandering from one to the next and taking photos.
The only drawback to this grove is that it is on a surprisingly steep slope.† In fact, it was rather astonishing that trees could grow that large in those conditions.† The secret there is deep, rich soil, which is apparently adequate to support them.
That grove eventually petered out.† We reached a minor tributary joining the main drainage on the right.† This finally enabled me to pinpoint exactly where we were on the map.† That was rather discouraging.† Weíd spent several hours hiking up the drainage, but had only covered perhaps a mile.† Originally Iíd flirted with the idea of climbing through the entire drainage and then picking up the Snooks Nose Ridge Trail, which would return us to the Curtis Creek Campground.† However, we were probably only 1/3 of the way up the drainage, and it was already early afternoon.† There was no telling how much longer that hike would take.† Our source had mentioned additional old growth Ė and more waterfalls Ė farther upstream.† Those will have to wait for another day though.†
We returned by more or less the same route.† I wasnít looking forward to the long bushwhack back, but at least going back down was a little easier.† We returned to the car around 4pm and headed out.† Back at the highway we made the obligatory stop at Dairy Queen, which was more than justified after a hot day of off-trail hiking.† I even bought Boone a cup of vanilla ice cream, which he enjoyed thoroughly.
I ended up enjoying our hike, despite its challenges.† Iím sure weíll return, as there are apparently several other groves of old growth forest in the area.† Next time, we may hike the Snooks Nose Ridge Trail to Laurel Knob, and then work our way down to the upper drainages.† That may not be any easier, but hopefully it will get us to other groves of old-growth forest.† Oh, and I think Iíll save future explorations of that area for winter, when the vegetation is less traumatic.
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