Archive for the ‘Biosphere’ Category

The Black Mountains and Mt. Mitchell in North Carolina


The photo above is not enhanced in any way.  Looking toward a direction slightly north of west, it shows a typically hazy Summer view of the south half of the longer east limb of the Black Mountain Range.

The Black Mountain Range of North Carolina is a part of

the Blue Ridge Province of the Appalachians.

As indicated below the photograph, the image above shows you only part of the range.  ALSO, AS INDICATED BELOW THE PHOTO, TWO LEFT CLICKS WILL GIVE YOU MAXIMUM ENLARGMENT. At the end of this posting I have included a distant view of the entire east limb (the shorter west limb gets much less attention).  Many people have been in the Blacks without knowing it. This is because at one time or another they have visited Mt. Mitchell State Park (named for the highest peak in the United States east of the Mississippi River) without realizing the name of the range to which it belongs. Mt. Mitchell’s summit is but one of a string of mountain peaks on the Black Mt. Crest Trail – which is a difficult hiking trail. It can be reached easily (in favorable weather) on North Carolina State Road 128 which dead-ends near the crest of Mt. Mitchell 6 miles north of the Blue Ridge Parkway. The towns of Burnsville, Marion, and Spruce Pine and the village of Little Switzerland are nearby.

Through the years I’ve hiked in many beautiful places

characterized by rugged topography –

including the Sierra Nevada of California, the Tetons and the Wind River Mts. of Wyoming, the Ruby Mts. of Nevada, and Grand Canyon. I’ve been above the tree line many times in mountains carved by glaciers and have been to the top of formidable peaks like Mt. Whitney. But, in spite of their “lowness” and densely forested slopes (compared to most of the mountains I’ve hiked) I find the Blacks to be so very special and unique. Furthermore, no trail has tested me as much as the Black Mountain Crest Trail when including the limb that runs down the western slope of the range near Bowlens Creek. The Blacks are extremely old compared to any of the mountains of western North America.  The convergence of the North American lithospheric plate with the African plate caused the compression that squeezed and rammed the mountains into being.  Weathering and erosion have carved the mountains to a mere remnant of what they used to be – more like the Himalayas at one time before those, currently the world’s tallest mountains, were lifted.  The agents of weathering and erosion (mostly water) have rounded the Appalachians and minimized the rocky outcrops that are so much more abundant in the younger mountains. But the soil derived from the weathered rock has become a medium providing an excellent foothold for the myriad trees along the slopes and on the tops of most of the mountains – both conifers and deciduous trees thrive making for a wide range of colors in the Autumn.

The Blue Ridge Province and

the Ridge and Valley Province

of the Appalachians trend “northeast to southwest”

as can be seen in a map of the U.S.A. showing topography. You can also see that trend running diagonally across the bottom-right quadrant of the Bing map that I’ve entered above.  However, some people who visit the Black Mountains, particularly people like me who like to be oriented direction-wise at all times, notice that the trend of the Blacks is closer to true “north to south.” In other words, they formed somewhat “against the grain” of most of the neighboring mountains. Though they are not the only mountains of the Blue Ridge Province trending that way they are, by far, the most conspicuous – probably because of how they tower above the South Toe River and the Kane River valleys.

Only one left click will adequately enlarge these last four images.  Two left clicks will probably make them too large for you to view each entire photo on your screen.

One of the most surprising characteristics of the Blacks,

even to some people who have visited the area multiple times and even some who live in the area, is that the range is not shaped like the letter “I.” Instead, it is shaped like the letter “J” – open on the northwest side. In other words, it would appear on a map just as a “J” appears on this printed page so long as the top of the map is the traditional north edge.  Perhaps you can detect that “J” shape in the Bing map. The image above, copied from Google Earth, shows the range looking from the west toward the east. Do you see the “J?”

If you don’t see the “J” configuration, look at the next image where I’ve traced it.  I’ve also labeled some of the peaks for you including two on the shorter west limb of the “J” as well as the town of Burnsville and the beautiful community of Mountain Air.  The vertical exaggeration of these two images is 2x.

Finally, here are two inserts of the same photograph, one unlabeled and one labeled of the entire longer east limb of the Black Mountain Range.  Details on distances and directions are given in the second image.

I urge you to visit the Black Mountains.

The ever-changing views are breathtaking and the movement of clouds in the vicinity can be almost hypnotic.  It is a place of extremes in weather and there are no guarantees regarding the views.  Of course safety must be ones primary consideration.  Awareness of the weather and its potential for rapid changes is essential.

The new observation deck atop Mt. Mitchell is an easy walk from the parking lot and those assisted in wheelchairs have access too.  With sensible precautions a short hike to a point a bit more than a mile north of Mt. Mitchell will have you upon the Crest of the second highest mountain in the eastern half of the United States, Mt. Craig.  Enjoy!

Note:  When I produced this last image I felt that Mt. Mitchell and Deep Gap were conspicuous enough that white line locaters were not needed.   For another view from even further away go to the following site and scroll down to image 21 taken from the trail leading to the top of Table Rock Mountain:

If you wish to see other posts on this web-log

but are unable,

please click on the “blog” tab

near the top of this page.


left click image twice to enlarge to the fullest

Ten days ago there was a fire near the summit of Mt. Mitchell.  The last image in this posting shows that fire’s location on the eastern side of the Black Mountain Range of North Carolina.  This beautiful country is important to me and countless others. Being near it and within its dense forested slopes has helped me to hold on to that one thin thread of sanity that keeps me functional.  Its 16 mile long J-shape is part of the beautiful Blue Ridge Province of the Appalachians. Most of the crests of the Blue Ridge trend northeast to southwest but the Blacks are among a few oriented almost perfectly from north to south. Such is the case for both limbs of the “J.” From the deck of our cabin I have spent hours gazing upon the south half of the eastern limb upon whose upper reaches  is the famous Black Mountain Crest Trail. That the surface of those formidable mountains could be threatened by fire concerns me immensely, particularly if it’s due to the carelessness of members of my own species. Lightning fits into the framework of acceptable but I have big time troubles with anyone who would walk or ride away from a campfire with embers remaining or toss a glowing cigarette aside into the freshly fallen leaves and dry needles of the understory.  In fact anyone who smokes in there any time of year would be hard pressed to get a break from me if I were in charge.

I could not begin to accurately estimate the number of people who have stood atop Mt. Mitchell at least once. Each time I’ve been there the panorama before me is different than the time before – but equally beautiful.  There are so many elements and they are ever-changing – the trees, the clouds, the wind, the temperature, the beckoning of distant old peaks worn by time from rocks that are over a billion years old. Mt. Mitchell is the highest peak in the eastern half of the United States at 6643’ but easily accessible. Between mile marker 355 and 356 on the Blue Ridge Parkway a spur road (N.C. 128) winds and twists northward for 6 miles to a parking area near Mitchell’s top. It is a well-maintained albeit narrow roadway providing access to Mt. Mitchell State Park. A handicapped accessible ascent from the parking lot will take you to the observation tower (also handicapped accessible) next to the mountain’s highest point.

Our cabin is slightly above 3000’ and 4.6 miles east of Mt. Mitchell (as the crow flies). It is modest, barely more than 1000 square feet of living area but it is a palace to me.  The “trout-supporting” South Toe River begins between the mountain and the cabin and flows northward paralleling the Black Mt. Range. The first image in this posting and the last were taken near the cabin. The one above shows Mt. Mitchell, Mt. Craig (6643’ according to a new survey), and Big Tom (6568’). I took that picture hurriedly about 100 yards upslope from the cabin where I could get a clear view of all three summits. I was not attempting to be artistic and therefore did not let the pole and lines in the foreground disturb me. My main purpose was to show you the spatial relationship between the three peaks.

I suppose that most people viewing from a similar point would consider Mt. Craig and Big Tom to be one peak but when once you get up there it’s easy to see the distinction between the two and to feel it when hiking the trail.  Here are two images that might help:

left click twice to enlarge image to the fullest

left click twice to enlarge image to the fullest

This next photo (below) was taken by a neighbor, Carole Pearson, from a point about a half mile WSW of the cabin near the Baptist Church on North Carolina 80. Carole’s interest was strictly to get a record of the fire – so likewise, wires were not a big concern for her either.

left click twice to enlarge image fully

The last photo was taken by Heath Holloway from a vantage point above the fire.  In his photograph you can also see in the distance the scars upon the landscape due to feldspar mining near Spruce Pine.

left click twice for larger image

I have searched on line and looked at local newspapers for coverage of this fire but have found nothing. It occurred on November 8, 2009 below the summit of Mt. Craig (the second highest peak in the eastern half of the United States). NOTE: There has been a long-standing debate about Clingman’s Dome in Tennessee which, to my knowledge, has not been surveyed since about 1920; some feel that it may eventually prove to be a few feet higher above sea level than Craig. By now I would think the debate is resolve but I’m ignorant on the subject.

By word of mouth I have heard that the fire was a small one (about 25 acres) and was “probably” caused by a campfire which had apparently not been properly doused or covered.  Heath Holloway (who submitted the last photo) is also unaware of the fire’s cause.  This part of the Appalachians is mostly temperate rainforest and gets more precipitation than any other forested areas in the continental U.S. other than along parts of the Olympics and Cascades. Therefore, I fear that there are many people, both visitors and locals, who are not as concerned about forest fires as they should be. Complacent might be a polite word – potentially careless would be more like it.  To my knowledge the exact circumstances concerning this fire, including who started it, are unknown. If I learn more I will update this post. If you know more I would appreciate input from you.

The Buncombe Horse Range Trail which begins at Carolina Hemlock Campground and Picnic Area leads up to the area of the fire. The event appears to have occurred along a stretch of the trail that follows an old logger’s rail bed at about the 5,800′ contour. If you look closely at the first image you can see where part of that bed sloped gently upward to the left (south) of where the fire occurred.  Though I was not in this vicinity at the time of the fire I learned from Carole that it spread fast. Thankfully, the response was relatively quick. Apparently helicopters were used to control and then extinguish it.

I know first hand that it’s very rugged up there. The last time I hiked the 5.5 mile Mt. Mitchell Trail to the top (from the Black Mountain Campground) it took me 5.5 hours up and almost 3.5 hours to return. It is difficult but beautiful country. But probably the most rugged and difficult trail I’ve ever hiked is the 11.3 mile Black Mt. Crest Trail. Mind you, I’ve hiked on many tough trails in this country including in Grand Canyon, the Sierra Nevada (including the summit of Mt. Whitney), the Tetons, etc. On one end is the Bowlens Creek segment beginning near a hairpin on N.C. 1109 near Bowlens Creek and on the other end is the parking lot near the top of Mt. Mitchell. It crosses over or near the top of a dozen peaks above 6000’ like a roller coaster. It’s tough hiking partly because the portion north of the state park is poorly maintained (if at all). When I hiked it there were places where the trail itself was somewhat elusive due to weeds growing much taller than my 6’ frame. Along certain parts of the trail hand holds are essential. By contrast, closer to Mt. Mitchell the trail is well maintained and even has some impressive stair steps of well-placed rocks.  The amount of work put into that section between Mt. Mitchell and Mt. Craig is impressive.  It’s only a mile hike northward to Mt. Craig from the trailhead on Mitchell and I highly recommend it.  The view in all directions from the top of Craig is one you would not likely forget.  Pictures don’t do it justice.

A serious error in a 1981 topographic map of the vicinity has been corrected in a 2003 map that is available at the National Forest Service Office in Burnsville. The error was in the vicinity of 6327’ Celo Knob. In 1996 that map error plus my naiveté in trusting its accuracy cost me and my 10-year-old daughter several additional hours to descend the range along Bowlens Creek. But that’s another story for later.  I expect to tell it on this site before the year is out. Suffice it to say, it was an adventure and even though we did not reach the end of the trail until 2:30 AM and I broke a few ribs – I’d do it all over again.  I don’t think my daughter, who is now 23, feels the same.

If you wish to see other posts on this web-log

but are unable,

please click on the “blog” tab

near the top of this page.


For an explanation of this photo please go to the “Assorted Pics” page; the tab is near the top of this page.

DISCLAIMER: Some of the information on this site is published close to “real-time”  particularly as it applies to tropical weather;  so – check the posting date carefully.  It is important to remember that this web-log is not an “official” source of environmental information.  Please do not make any decisions based solely on the information found on this site or any other sites that are recommended here – unless they are official. Listen to your local authorities when conditions are life-threatening or there might be loss of (or damage to) property.

Caution – I often leave “dated” posts available because of certain potential tutorial value.  I apologize if this causes you any inconvenience.  Also, I do not recommend this site for comprehensive coverage of weather.  There are times when I do not address significant storms.  Above all, do not consider me to be an authority.






Continue reading