Friday, September 26, 2014

North Carolina Mountain Treasures--Buck Creek Serpentine Barrens & Fires Creek WMA

New England Asters growing in profusion along Highway 64
near Murphy, NC 
Buck Creek Serpentine Barrens 
Sunday September 21, 2014

Dana & Kenny Koogler 

Hike distance approx 4 miles

North Carolina's Mountain Treasures 

Pictures are here:  Buck Creek Barrens Pix

        I recently ran upon something that has captured my attention and my heart.
I was searching for information about places to go and things to see while planning
a camping trip to the Nantahala area.   I sat down with the DeLorme Atlas & Gazetteer
for North Carolina and began looking at land forms.   I would then attempt to look up
information about them.   It was during this time that I ran onto a website that contained
an electronic book about North Carolinas Mountain Treasures.  Subsequent searches
for information about various places mentioned in there turned up a blog series written by my friend Jenny Bennett!  I realized in sorting through the list of 41 places that I had already 
visited twenty-one of them! I was aware they were "treasures" and how valuable they were
long before the material came to my attention. I am sure Jenny was way ahead of me on that.

      What are these "treasures"?  They are areas of wild lands with public access. Available for
people to use. Little known.  These places are unique, beautiful areas in need of permanent
conservation and permanent protection. The goal of the book is to increase awareness that these
areas exist. It is to encourage responsible visitation. It is to hopefully get folks to write their
congressional representatives asking for measures that will permanently protect them.
Wilderness designation means permanent protection. Wilderness study areas fall under different
guidelines and the protection is NOT permanent, but can be undone.  National Forests can be logged and mined or sold.  Those sorts of designations only provide temporary protection.
 The areas mentioned are rich botanically, historically, and are of great scenic value. 
Spots which are special and receive less visitation are what I crave.   These kinds of spots
provide a more restorative outdoor experience. Feeding the souls craving for lonely places.
At the end of this blog entry look for a list of the places I have already visited. I may re-visit them
and do a write up on each one, or I may simply star old blogs about those places as NC Mountain Treasures.   

       The first area I decided to check out was Buck Creek Serpentine Barrens.
I am a botany nut and a Science nerd from way back.  I was curious as to what serpentine
was?  Serpentine is a kind of rock.  It isn't found just anywhere.  Areas where it occurs
the soil is different than other places. The soil may be nonexistent or down to a depth of
about 20 cm.  It is high in magnesium and iron while being low in calcium, phosphorus, and 
 nitrogen.  The soil is often high in nickle and chromium.  The unique combination of soil 
is often toxic to plants. What can grow in a place like this?  Specialized plants that grow
slowly.  Grasses. Wildflowers. Scrubby, small trees like what I call bull pines.  Shrubs. 
The science aspect of it and the idea that specialized, different wildflower populations 
could exist here really had me stoked to check it out!

        We headed out to visit and it is in the Hayesville, NC area.  I am not going to provide
directions to this special area. I will tell you though that for anyone from the Maryville or 
Knoxville area wishing to visit that vicinity: Avoid Highway 129.. We took Hwy 411 South to Hwy
68 South. Route 294 SE to Hwy 64 East.  Went through Murphy on to Hayesville without a hitch.
It is a good road the whole way and a beautiful drive with little or no traffic!  Much better than
anticipated.  We took the grill with us to picnic and cook out, but planned to stop somewhere on the way home to eat.  Murphy, Hayesville, Madisonville all have good places to stop and get a bite to eat.   Picnicking here was pretty. We did not find any facilities this far down specifically for that, but it was a quiet, beautiful area to eat lunch.  


Masses of wildflowers lined Highway 64.  Appalachian sunflowers, New England Asters, goldenrod,
coneflowers, purple new york ironweed and pink Joe Pye weed.  As Linda says "Big Bouquets!"

    We found the area without any problems and  parked the truck.  I had to walk over  to have a
look at Buck Creek. It is a pretty stream. I looked up at the grape vines over my head while near the bridge.  Above me were muscadines!  I picked at ate a few and they were good!  The area is quiet and peaceful. We saw few others today,
and only two of those seen were hikers.    Hunting must go on  in the area because we heard
gun shots below us.  Kenny is not bothered by it, but it always messes with me when I'm hiking
and hear someone shooting.   We later found where the shooting was coming from and it was not
as close as it sounded.   


Above: Buck Creek viewed from the bridge
Below: Wild muscadines

    The path was even, grassy and pleasant.  We were not sure where we were going exactly so
we ended up hiking about twice as far as what we should have.  No matter, we enjoyed the easy walk
and found it just the same.   We saw lots of pretty wildflowers along the way.  Parts of the path were
gravelly and different looking. I saw spots with reindeer moss and lichens growing.  Nodding ladies tresses
were abundant.  Other species of wildflowers were goldenrod, greenheaded cone flower, asters,
mountain gentian, stiff gentian, fringed gentian, indian paintbrush, coreopsis, grass of parnassus, deer tounge grass, joe pye weed, ironweed, phlox, Canadian burnet, silverrod, sneezeweed, and jewelweed.  It is worth noting that we also saw cowbane! I read somewhere this is an indicator species and often lives where other interesting wildflower species live such as orchids.  The only native orchids we saw today were nodding ladies tresses. I did see
rattlesnake orchids but they were in the woods not in the barrens and they were way past peak.
I feel certain we only saw a smattering of what grows here. I am betting that subsequent trips during
different times of year would yield some interesting, unusual finds.

    We noticed the leaves on the sourwood trees beginning to turn red.  A little Fall color is on its way.
We wandered around the grassy barrens using care not to step on any wildflowers or snakes!
We did not see any snakes in the tall grass, but we watched close for them. It is cooling off, but I am
sure they are around. It warmed up nice during the day. We had perfect weather and the perfect
temperatures for hiking.   We could hear the creek murmuring.  We were treated to a pretty view
of the mountains across the barrens.    True to what I had read we were wading around in grasses,
wildflowers, a few scrubby pines and some shrubs. 

 Nodding Ladies Tresses


Fringed Gentian

View across the way.
What its like in a serpentine barren.  At least we did not see any serpents in the barren. :-)

Grass of parnassus growing.

    It is worth mentioning that Grass of Parassus grows here. It is a rather rare species.
It always comes to mind as a wet area species of wildflower. Stream banks. Sides of cliffs that
stay perpetually wet. Places like that. So what's it doing growing in a barren? I think of those as dry areas
generally speaking.  I can't speak for all areas considered barrens, but these barrens have something else
going for them that attracts flowers and plants that like moisture.  Some of the types of rock here
deteriorate and form clay soil.   Serpentine soil and kaolin .. or clay.. are often found together.
Clay soil holds water.  The areas of the barrens where clay is abundant have a perched water table.
We went to another area in the vicinity and got to see an example of that first hand!    It made for
some squishy walking.

       It was past lunch time and we were growing hungry and tired of fretting with the weeds and
briars.  We headed back to the truck.  We parked at a nearby campsite and  fixed lunch.
Kenny grilled hamburgers on the tailgate.  It was marvelous!  Talk about a cheeseburger in paradise!
Someone had made a homemade bow and hung it in a tree. They must have camped with kids.
They had also dammed up the creek while playing.  We used to do that as children to make us a better
swimming hole.   I feel fortunate to have grown up an outdoorsy, country girl. I learned back then to appreciate the simple pleasures of life.  It has become a lasting part of who I am. Sharing times like this
with my favorite guy is the BEST of times for me. 

Short pretty video of Buck Creek and its riffles. It also shows Kenny grilling!

     We explored the area a tiny bit more after lunch and discussed what to do next?
I wanted to hike to the top of Boteler Peak, but that was going to be a six mile round trip hike.
I knew Kenny was not going to be up for that at three in the afternoon and then driving
a long way home.. then going to work the next day.  I did not argue about it. We tried to come
up with an alternative plan for something short in the general area.  We opted to go by
Fires Creek and see Leatherwood Falls.   We passed a nice overlook on the way back toward
Haysville and this time we stopped to check it out.  It is the Shooting Creek Bald overlook.

  View from the Shooting Creek Bald Overlook along Hwy 64

           We made our way back toward Fires Creek. We had been there once before a number
of years ago.  It was bear chase season and the water level was low. We had NOT been impressed.
We decided to give it another try just the same.  We turned out to be very glad we did!
It is a nice place in a quiet area and very family friendly.  Everyone we ran into was in good spirits.
Happy to share info and help orient us as we waded through their picnic sites. Excuse me!
Leatherwood Falls is visible from the picnic area.  There is a trail to hike to it and see its upper portions.
The best view and photo of it is to be had by wading the creek and getting right in front of it.

   We hiked up the trail. It was a pretty good trail, but not much to see. Thankfully it was short.
The upper falls is there, but it is a little humdrum.  A couple sat up there on the logs in front of the upper
parts of the cascade having some sort of discussion about relationships.  I hate those sorts of talks.
I hate to have them. I hate to hear them.  We left out of there.   We went back down the trail
and decided the best thing was to ford the river and see the falls that way.

       The stream is beautiful. I enjoyed the crystal clear waters of the stream more than I did the waterfall.
Fires Creek WMA is not part of the North Carolina Mountain Treasures, but it contains one spot that IS
listed.  High above us was Tusquittee Bald and that spot is listed. We will have to come back to see it
when we have more time!   In keeping with my new and improved personal philosophy of sharing
information instead of keeping secrets all the time...    I am going to give you a heads up on a potential
waterfall in the area. I read from two different sources that there is another waterfall in Fires Creek WMA.
One source was this page from the Blue Ridge Highlander.  Leatherwood and Bald Spring Falls
The second source I am sorry to have misplaced. It was someone's personal blog. Should I locate it,
I will amend this blog entry to include it.   Reasons to believe this might be true?

1. Leatherwood Falls really does exist.
2. There really is a Bald Spring Branch and from the looks of the topo it might well have a waterfall on it!
3. Mentioned in two sources which is usually confirmation.

Reasons to doubt the validity?

1.  Leatherwood Falls is not 100 feet tall. The listing in Blue Ridge Highlander mentions a pair of 100 ft falls.
2. The area by Bald Spring Branch has a trail right by it and the trail kiosk does NOT list it as an attraction.

Kenny believes if it existed we'd know about it and it would be mentioned in a guidebook or at the kiosk.
I am willing to believe it might exist and go back to look for it.  The area does not get a huge amount of foot
traffic. It is used by hunters and hunters most often don't take pictures, write blogs, share trip reports, etc.
They are hunting game. Not waterfalls!

Hiking to Leatherwood Falls along the trail.. You can see the creeping in of Autumn. The leaves just
beginning to change.

Leatherwood Falls. Very pretty.  Better than last visit for sure!  Much of the trees and shrubs and growth
that covered the falls has been taken down by some trees falling.

Fires Creek flowing ever on....

We forded the stream and boy was it slippery! It was deeper than it looked too. I didn't fall in, but
I did get my butt wet. I had to do a quick change in the parking lot just to be dry to ride home.
One of the cutest things we saw today was a little boy fooling with his families two pitbulls.
He was trying to get one of them into the stream and the dog was going, but not liking it.
The little boy's mom said they liked water, but they were used to the warm lake.. not the cold creek!
The little boy was my kinda guy. He jumped right on it and went under. He came up grinning.
I said to him "Its not cold, is it?!" to which he shook his head no!   He knows how to have a
good time and make his own fun. 

Above is a short video of Leatherwood Falls. It is about 25-30 ft high.

       Here is a list of NC Mountain Treasures we have already been to.  I will just go ahead and say now
I expect knowing me I will go back and re-visit every one of them if the chance comes along.
One example of an area I've visited, but will return to see is Santeetlah Headwaters.
I have been to Huckleberry Knob, but there is so much more to see than that tiny corner of it! You
may also have been to visit these areas without even realizing the significance of it.

Unicoi Mountains Conservation Area
Upper Bald River Wilderness Study Area
Snowbird Creek Wilderness Study Area
Sycamore Creek
Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Extensions
Santeetlah Headwaters

Ash Cove--I visited Teyahalee Bald, but want to return.
Southern Nantahala Wilderness Extensions
Alarka Laurel
Panthertown Valley
Middle Prong Extension
Shining Rock Wilderness Extension
Daniel Ridge
Linville Gorge Extensions
Wilson Creek
Harper Creek
South Mills River
Pink Beds
Lost Cove
Nolichucky Gorge
Highlands of Roan

    Get out and see these beautiful, unique areas off the beaten track for yourself.
Write to your congressional reps and express your desire to protect these areas permanently!


  1. Bald Spring Falls is located at N 35.12726° W 83.78130°

    1. Thanks very much. Please let me know if can ever return the favor. You are most kind.

  2. Dana! How did I miss your blog? It's a wonderful recounting of your trips around the Appalachians, and very easy to read. I stumbled upon it after searching for articles about Buck Creek Serpentine Barrens. My son and I are heading up there tomorrow to find a site for the northern form of Platanthera flava. Wish us luck...

    Jim Fowler, Greenville, SC

    1. Hi Jim! Good luck finding the orchids. I enjoyed being there and exploring. I sold some photos from this trip and they were published in Natural History magazine! I was honored. It is very cool that your son enjoys native orchids. Best to you. Dana Bee


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