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In the Amphibolite Mountains October 15, 2011

Posted by Jenny in hiking, nature, Southern Appalachians.
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View from Bluff Mountain

Yesterday my friend Seth and I ventured into the mysterious realm of the Amphibolite Mountains. They are named for the particular metamorphic rock that composes them. Located in remote sections of Ashe and Watauga Counties, NC—north of Boone—they are little known and rarely visited.

We visited two mountains and had two very different experiences. First we visited the top of Bluff Mountain (5,100′), where The Nature Conservancy has a 2,087-acre preserve. It can only be visited by prior arrangement with TNC. Then we climbed Snake Mountain (5,518′). Portions of it are protected by the Highcountry Conservancy, but much of the mountain is privately owned.

We had reserved spots on a guided walk on Bluff led by Kim Hadley, scheduled to start from a gated entrance at 1:00 in the afternoon. Our route from Asheville took us from interstate to US highway to state highway to paved country road to gravel road.  By the time we got through Blowing Rock and Boone, we were late. We arrived at 1:20 to see the line of cars parked at the gate. We knew the plan was to ferry the visitors via high-clearance vehicle up to the summit area. We quickly changed to hiking boots and gathered up our gear, heading up the rough road as fast as we could. It turned out to be a 900-foot climb to catch the group, but we managed to do it.

Kim was telling the group about an unusual fen past the top of the road. It appeared as a treeless area surrounded by the mountain’s haunted-looking forest of stunted red and white oak, mostly less than 15 or 20′ high. The shallow marshy basin was populated by tall grasses and unusual wildflowers, now in their seasonal dry phase. We continued past the fen and walked through the forest. Every now and then, among the predominant oaks, a taller tree would appear.

Gnarly sugar maple

We emerged onto an open ledge of amphibolite with its  grainy, salt-and-pepper appearance and looked across the brownish-red tops of many oaks.

I believe the point we were looking toward is called the "Cow's Head"

We were bombarded by fierce wind gusts, strong enough to knock you over if you were caught off balance. But it was worth enduring the wind to take in the views. We looked across a valley to another of the Amphibolites, a mountain called Three Tops. Climbing its craggy knobs involves scrambling at the easiest and Class 4 climbing at the hardest, depending on the route that’s chosen.

Looking over at the pointy ridgeline of Three Tops

The oak forest behind us seemed huddled in the wind. The stunted quality has to do with both the wind exposure and the high-pH soil, fed by the alkaline bedrock.

Short, wind-buffeted oaks behind the open ledge

The unusual soil chemistry seems to make for something almost like mutations in the occasional acid-loving plants we spotted. For instance, the rhododendrons and laurels had leaf shapes that looked abnormal to me, smaller than usual. We walked past an old dead tree with a strange corkscrew texture that made it fit well into the haunted forest.

Corkscrew tree

We came out at another viewpoint.

Clouds scuttled across the valley

To one side grew a surprisingly healthy-looking stand of Carolina hemlock. The ones we saw along the path had only small infestations of the woolly adelgid that’s decimated hemlocks in the region—perhaps the isolation of the population helps protect it.

Carolina hemlocks

Reindeer moss took well to the amphibolite bedrock.

Reindeer moss

We were all back down to our cars by around 4:30. But Seth and I pressed on toward our other destination, Snake Mountain. We got there on a series of winding back roads with odd names like Longhope Road and Meat Camp Road. We followed a gravel road to Rich Mountain Gap, where we parked and crawled under a barbed wire fence to cross an alpine pasture. This area is said to be managed as gameland by the NC Wildlife Resource Commission.

We crossed the pasture and found a very rough, steep unmarked path leading up into a forest with the same stunted quality as the one on Bluff, but with more beech trees mixed in with the oaks. At times we followed a clear footway and at other times it disappeared, but routefinding was not really a problem, as all we had to do was follow a long ridge to the high point. We eventually emerged from the trees onto a long backbone of amphibolite.

Near the top of Snake Mountain

The lowering sun bathed the mountain in a glowing light.

Looking down the summit ridge

I had in the back of my mind the possibility that we could run out of daylight. When I reached a small knob and looked toward the high point, I estimated that it would take 15 more minutes to get there—too long considering the lateness of the hour. But Seth thought it would only take five. It turned out he was right—my estimate of the distance was distorted because of the strange shortness of the trees!

But it was indeed getting late, and after briefly touching the actual summit, we turned around to retreat. We passed some good amphibolite formations.

Balancing rock

The intersection of place and time of day made for extraordinary beauty.

Late afternoon. Snake Mountain.

Seth enjoys the moment

He was deleting pictures frantically to make space on his memory card!

We made it back to the car just as the sun was setting. A memorable hike.

Declining light