Huckleberry Knob July 4, 2012Posted by Jenny in conservation, hiking, Nantahala National Forest, nature.
Tags: Cherohala Skyway, Huckleberry Knob, Joyce Kilmer/Slickrock, northern flying squirrel, red spruce, Santeetlah Headwaters
This post is one of a series about “North Carolina’s Mountain Treasures,” lands targeted for higher protective designation by the Wilderness Society. For more information about this campaign, please visit the Mountain Treasures website.
Huckleberry Knob is a 5565′ peak located in the Santeetlah Headwaters north of the Cherohala Skyway and adjacent to the Joyce Kilmer/Slickrock Wilderness. The tallest of the Unicoi Mountains, it is a grassy, meadowy bald that is mowed once a year to keep it open. I found it to be a remarkable place.
The trail starts off through a high-elevation beech forest that’s become ghostly because of the frequent fogs that foster lichens and moss on the tree trunks. Soon you reach open meadows filled with many wild grasses and buttercups, pale purple vetch, and fleabane. The colors run in swathes, forming a patchwork.
The pale purple vetch grows all along the borders of the Skyway. I passed several mysterious signs that showed the diagonal red bar (the “don’t do it” of traffic signs) across images of a tractor and a person spraying herbicides. I can only guess that random individuals have taken it upon themselves to spray along the highway to make it tidier. As it stands, the vetch makes a lovely undulation of color along the road.
It seemed as though motorcycles outnumbered cars on the highway, as bikers went out to connect Cherohala with the “Tail of the Dragon” section of US 129. Since the time I lived in Knoxville in the 80s, the “Dragon” has become a big-time biker mecca. It didn’t used to be that way. I just thought of it as the road that made quite a few people carsick (fortunately I’m not susceptible myself).
But back to the trail. I passed over the first bald, called Oak Knob, and saw ahead to Huckleberry Knob.
The meadows with their shifting configurations of isolated, scrubby trees reminded me of Dolly Sods Wilderness in West Virginia, which I visited last year. The main difference is that the Santeetlah Headwaters have no red spruce. I halfway expected to see red spruce as I drove past 4500′ elevation, then recalled that the Alarka Laurel bog near Bryson City is the southernmost location of spruce. According to the Wilderness Society, the Canadian northern flying squirrel lives in this area, a species that normally lives mainly in spruce forests. It had been flying from hemlock to hemlock instead of from spruce to spruce, and now that most of the hemlocks are gone, there are plans to plant red spruce in the area to sustain these remarkable creatures. It seems as though the climate would be suitable for spruce—it’s just that this area is not contiguous with other areas that have spruce.
At the top of Huckleberry Knob I encountered a cross marking the grave of a logger named Andy Sherman, who perished from cold on December 11, 1899. His body and the body of a companion were discovered by a hunter nine months later. Sherman’s body was too disintegrated for removal; the other body was sold to a doctor for use in medical study. An unkind fate for both of them.
This was a very short, easy hike of about 2 miles roundtrip and 250′ vertical. I combined this trip with a visit to Joyce Kilmer/Slickrock—I’ll save that description for another post.