Our minds, as well as our bodies, have need of the out-of-doors. Our spirits, too, need simple things, elemental things, the sun and the wind and the rain, moonlight and starlight, sunrise and mist and mossy forest trails, the perfumes of dawn and the smell of fresh-turned earth and the ancient music of wind among the trees.
~ Edwin Way Teale
As you may remember, I started my career with the North Carolina State Parks System. I really love our state parks and what they represent – the best of what this beautiful state has to offer. When I left the Division in 1989 to go to the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, I believe there were 29 state parks (plus some state recreation areas and state natural areas). Now, there are 34 state parks. With the 100th anniversary of the state park system approaching in 2016, I want to make sure I have visited all of our them. One park caught my eye on a very short trip a couple of years ago and, last week, I finally managed a more extensive visit to Elk Knob State Park.
Once in danger of becoming a housing development, Elk Knob was purchased through the concerted efforts of concerned local citizens, local landowners, and The Nature Conservancy. The land was deeded to the state in 2003 under the Division of Parks and Recreation and is now one of our newest state parks. It is one of a series of amphibolite mountains in the southern Appalachians, and its unusual geology and less acidic soils support a variety of ecological communities that are very different from most mountain habitats. The grasses and sedges seen in the understory give areas around the park office and along some of the trails a very distinctive look.
Everywhere you walk you see a tremendous variety of wildflowers – trilliums, Mayapple, cohosh species, violets, Solomon’s Seal, Bloodroot, Giant Chickweed, and many, many more. Having just been to the wildflower wonderland of Elk Garden in Virginia, I can truly say the trails at Elk Knob may be the second most impressive wildflower display area I have seen in many years.
The park is still under development and has picnic areas, trails, a new (and beautiful) outdoor amphitheater, park office, and primitive camping. We hiked a little over a mile down to one of the backpack sites and set up camp, the only campers in the park for those two nights.
Our campsite was next to a beautiful stream and set in a forest just leafing out in brilliant spring greens. I rarely carry any telephoto lenses with me when backpacking, but I regret it on this trip as the bird life was as spectacular as the wildflower display. I posted a few weeks ago about the Rose-breasted Grosbeaks passing through the Piedmont in migration. I think I now know where most of them went – pairs of these beautiful songsters were constant companions on the 9+ miles we hiked on park trails. We saw a lot of other species of neotropical migrants including Scarlet Tanager, Black-and-white Warbler, Canada Warbler, Least Flycatcher, Veery, Ovenbird, Black-throated Green Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, and a cooperative nesting pair of Louisiana Waterthrush (more on these in my next post). In addition, there were some resident species such as Common Raven, Blue Jay, and Barred Owl that were common during our visit.
We hiked the moderately strenuous 1.9 mile trail to the summit, where the advertised stunning views lived up to the hype. At an elevation of 5,520 feet, Elk Knob is one of the tallest peaks in the region, and looking north, we could see Mt. Rogers and Whitetop Mountain in Virginia, an area we had hiked in just a few days before.
But, for me, the vegetation, bird life, and beautiful rock outcrops along the trail are equally impressive. As you near the summit, the northern hardwood forest, dominated by Yellow Birch, Northern Red Oak and American Beech, becomes a gnarled and stunted forest due to the harsh conditions of winter winds and cold. And all along the trail, there are simple beauties to behold (especially if you stop frequently to catch your breath). I love the patterns, the lines and colors, of nature up close when you take the time to stop and look. And this park is one you will want to take in, a little at a time, until it fills you with its beauty and, both literally and figuratively, takes your breath away. Here are a few of my favorite breathless moments…
Walking in this incredible landscape I was struck by the dedication of the staff that have created the beautiful trail system and help protect this special place. They deserve our support. Learn how you can help your local public land agency managers and see if there are non-profit support groups (such as Friends of State Parks) that assist them with much needed financial and other help. I also give thanks to conservation organizations such as The Nature Conservancy and local land trusts and conservancy organizations throughout our state that lead the way in surveying and protecting critical habitats for the future. Purchasing and managing lands for the public and our native ecosystems is one of the most important conservation efforts we can support and I encourage everyone to do what they can for this cause. I am glad Elk Knob has been set aside for us and all the spectacular plants and animals that call it home. And I am thrilled to have discovered a new favorite to visit whenever I am in the Watauga County region.