Moving South Along the Parkway

It was as if all the world might be composed of nothing but valley and ridge.

~Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain

This is part two of our trip last month down the Blue Ridge Parkway. After the crazy weather at Mount Mitchell, we headed to our next destination, a somewhat out of the way campground, Balsam Mountain Campground, near the end of the parkway. Along the way, we experienced various timelines of spring as we changed elevation, moving back into early spring (with barely any leaf out on the trees) when we climbed higher, and then getting into a more summer-like forest cover down near Asheville. I love that about Spring in the mountains – if you miss something you can change elevation and experience a different part of the season all over again. There were impressive displays of azalea and trillium as we drove south so we pulled over at several spots to admire them.

Large-flowered Trillium along parkway (click photos to enlarge)
Pinkshell Azalea was in bloom in the higher elevations
View along the road to Balsam Mountain Campground

We settled into our next campsite at Balsam Mountain Campground and were pleased that the nearby RVs all had solar panels, so we heard only one small generator and only for a short while (there are no hookups at this campground). Having camped here before, we knew the highlight of any stay is to walk (via a half-mile nature trail through some beautiful trees) or drive over to the picnic area for sunset. And it did not disappoint!

The thing to do when at the Balsam Mountain Campground is walk to the picnic area for the amazing view of the sunset

Blue-headed Vireos were constantly calling around our campsite. Our second morning we saw one gathering nesting material off the ground and then Melissa saw it go to a nest right next to the nature trail. We walked over, she positioned herself near the tree, and I walked away. The birds came back, bringing some plant fibers (and maybe spider web?) and molded the nest. Melissa took a few shots and then we left them alone to their business.

Blue-headed Vireo adding to its nest (photo by Melissa Dowland)

After breaking camp our second morning, we decided to drive the one way gravel road from the nearby picnic area all the way down to Cherokee, a distance of about 23 miles. It passes through gorgeous forest with multiple seeps and springs and plenty of wildflowers, birds, and bugs. It’s a really pleasant drive where you can go at your own pace and stop to look and listen with relatively few other travelers along the way.

Doll’s Eyes flower with some beetle pollinators
Canada Violet was abundant along the gravel road
Umbrella-leaf in flower – note the huge leaf that gives this mountain plant its common name
I have seen these before and have not yet been able to identify them. I think they are a cocoon of some sort (most have a hole in one end where something probably emerged), and are about 1/4 inch long. They are laying on the surface of leaves or on the ground. If anyone knows what this is, drop me a note in the comments section.
A male Scorpion Fly. These were very common along this road. They feed on decaying vegetation and corpses of invertebrates (occasionally vertebrates). The curved abdomen tip of the male is not a stinger, but is used in reproduction.
This critter caught my eye (probably an inch+ in length and looking very Ichneumon wasp-like). Never seen one before – it turns out to be an Antlered Crane Fly (Tanyptera dorsalis).

We stopped several times along the road to get out and look at plants, insects, and listen for birds. There were lots of warblers singing (Blackburnian, Black-throated Greens, and Black-throated Blues especially). At one point, I was looking at some cool insects and I noticed Melissa looking off in the trees at something. She had found a Black-throated Green Warbler nest! It was some distance off the road but clearly visible in a gap in the leaves if you were standing in just the right place.

Black-throated Green Warbler sitting on her nest

We mosied on down to where the road becomes two-way and eventually intersects a paved road. We turned and headed to Cherokee, passing by a parking lot for a waterfall, so we decided, what the heck. After a short but steep walk, we were both blown away by the beautiful Mingo Falls. Looks like a popular tourist spot and I can see why.

Mingo Falls in Cherokee, a truly beautiful waterfall visible after a short walk on a well-maintained trail

Thunder chased us back to the car and we headed to our next overnight destination, Sky Ridge Yurts. Melissa has taken her teacher workshops to this location the past two summers but I had never been. I had signed us up for one of the two cabins (the yurts were booked) for the last two nights of our trip. The plan was to go backpacking after our stay at Balsam Mountain but the weather was looking foreboding and my aching knee was not cooperating (Melissa swears it starts hurting as soon as she utters the word, backpack). Luckily, the cabin I had reserved was available earlier in the week and they allowed us to switch our dates, and we are so glad they did. The next day it rained, and rained, and rained some more – all day in fact. We would have been soaked and my knee would have been like, “I told you so…”.

Our oasis for the full day of heavy rain – this is the calm before the storm

We had a wonderful two night stay in the cabin and then headed out for some more camping and hiking before being chased back home a day early with another significant storm front. More on this last part of our trip in the next post.

Elk and Islands in the Sky

Elk meadow in Cataloochee Valley

Cataloochee Valley (click photos to enlarge)

I had an outing this weekend with a great group of folks in Cataloochee Valley and up on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Our goals were to observe the elk during the mating season ritual called the rut and experience the beauty of the mountains during the fall leaf season. I’d say mission accomplished on both. It was overcast and cool on Saturday morning as we drove into the valley. We were greeted at the entrance by one lone bull elk and a little farther down the road a large crowd of visitors at the first elk herd.

Bull Elk in Cataloochee Valley

Bull Elk in Cataloochee Valley

One large bull was busy herding his harem of cows and occasionally chasing off a small spike bull that was feeding some distance from the herd of cows (but apparently not far enough away for the big bull). Early morning is one of the best times to see the elk as they tend to be feeding and, during the rut in September and October, interacting with one another.

Bull Elk bugling

Bull Elk bugling

Each year at this time males in their prime (usually 5 to 8 years of age) gather small herds of cows and calves and aggressively defend them from other bulls. This is done by a series of displays: bugling, a hauntingly beautiful and surprisingly high-pitched call; thrashing bushes and other vegetation with their antlers; and occasionally engaging in sparring matches with other large bulls by locking antlers and shoving in a show of strength.

Bull Elk checking a cow in his harem

Bull Elk courting a collared cow

When the cows come into estrus, the mating begins. A cow is receptive for mating less than 24 hours. She won’t be willing to mate again until her second estrus cycle arrives in 20 days so bulls are constantly checking on the cows in their herd. Bulls can be quite aggressive toward cows as they herd them, but then during courtship their behavior is decidedly more gentle. He may approach her and lick her to check her receptiveness and, if she is ready and willing, mount her to mate. This day had no actual mating or fights with other males, but the bull stayed busy, bugled often, and looked exhausted at times (bulls may lose 20% of their weight during the rut).

Palmer Church

Palmer Church

The rest of the day we explored the woods and stream sides and walked around some of the many historic structures in the valley. Several houses and barns, a one room school, cemeteries and a church are all that remain of a once thriving community that had to leave when the land became part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1934. There are auto tour brochures available for a nominal fee at the information kiosk near the valley entrance that give a detailed history of the valley and some of its notable inhabitants.

Bull Elk

Bull Elk with fall color

Late in the day we found ourselves (along with hundreds of other visitors in often car-clogged roads) watching the elk as they returned to the fields after being in the shade of the forest much of the day.

Mist along mountain ridge

Early morning mist along Blue Ridge Parkway

The next morning most of the group wanted to head up onto the Blue Ridge Parkway for some fall color so we headed out and started heading north from Balsam Gap. The cool night and humid atmosphere had created ideal conditions for mist and low hanging clouds, a photographers dream for this time of year on the Parkway.

Ocen of clouds in valley below Blue Ridge Parkway

Ocean of clouds in valley below Blue Ridge Parkway

At first, we saw only patches of mist hugging some ridges. As we climbed in elevation and the road shifted to the other side of the mountains, an ocean of clouds spread out above the valley floor with isolated peaks popping through the gray sea. This type of scene has given rise to the name, Islands in the Sky, for these mountaintops protruding above the misty sea of clouds. It also refers to the unique ecological communities that are adapted to the cold conditions atop our highest mountains.

panorama from Richland Balsam

Panorama from Richland Balsam

As we continued north, the warmth of the sun caused the sea of clouds to recede leaving us with an unobstructed view of row upon row of ridges speckled with fall colors.

Yellowstone Falls 1

Lower part of Yellowstone Falls

Our final stop was a short hike down to Yellowstone Falls, one of the more popular hikes along this section of the Parkway. After winding through a thicket of Rhododendron and Mountain Laurel, you come out on a beautiful series of waterfalls. The hike is well worth the steep climb back out. And here’s something to consider next time you visit a popular waterfall. If you are at the top of the falls and look down and see a group of people with cameras looking up at you, try not to stay too long out in the open…they may be waiting for a chance to get a photo or two of the scene without people in the picture. As we parted ways, I think we all were appreciative of the sights and sounds we had experienced on this magnificent fall weekend. I look forward to the cooler weather and changing landscape and wildlife that the new season will bring.

Here are a few more photos from the trip.

Barn siding

Boards of historic barn in Cataloochee Valley

Young bull Elk with velvet on antlers

Young bull Elk with velvet on antlers

Rough sawn board on Palmer barn

Rough sawn board on Palmer barn

Mountain Ash berries 1g

Mountain Ash berries

Sassafras leaves

Sassafras leaves

Red Spruce against ocean of clouds

Red Spruce against ocean of clouds