Western North Carolina and Southern Appalachians Ecology

The Southern Appalachians are one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. A combination of factors, including latitude, elevation, soil types, proximity to the coast, and geologic history have come together to allow the evolution of seemingly countless species of plants and animals. Some of the species are common around the world; others are endemic to just a few isolated mountaintops in the region. One of the best ways to discover and learn about this incredible community of life, of course, is by hiking the area's trails, so a brief discussion of area ecology is warranted on this site.

The community of plants across the southern Appalachians is incredibly diverse, including trees, shrubs, wildflowers, and other herbaceous vegetation. Heavy rainfall spread out fairly evenly throughout the year allows plants to thrive. The growing season starts as early as March in the lowest elevations for certain plants and can last into November. However, as you rise in elevation, the season shortens considerably, to generally May to September on the highest peaks. Thus, forest communities traveling up the mountain slopes resemble those you would encounter traveling north. A trip through the forests up Mt. Leconte, on the Tennessee side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is often cited as being similar as a trip up through the forests of Georgia to Maine.

Trees in the area range from longleaf pine forests in the foothills, to high-elevation spruce-fir forests on the mountain peaks. Scattered pines on the ridges, and dense primeval forests of lacy hemlocks and bristling white pines grace the middle elevations. As for the hardwoods, you'll find everything from rows of low elevation sycamores on riverbanks in the valleys, to hardy, high-elevation birch and mountain ash groves on summits above 5000'. In between, a forest so diverse that on one trail you'll loose count of the types of trees you find, graces the slopes, summits and valleys of the middle elevations. The richest type of forest, the Cove Hardwood forest, can contain up to 60 major species of trees, while within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park over 100 types of trees can be found altogether. The Cove Hardwood forests contain deep, rich soils which help these plants take root and grow fast.

Another integral part of the forest, and perhaps one of its most charming, is the wildflowers. Nearly 1,500 varieties of them - including flowering shrubs - grace our mountains and can be found blooming from late Winter to late Fall. Venture out on the last warm day of a January thaw, and you may be lucky enough to find an early, isolated flower poking up early from the dense carpet of fallen leaves - tricked into blooming by the wild weather and soon to be frozen and buried under feet of snow. Do you like ferns? If you do, you're in luck - along our trails grow over 50 varieties of them! And this doesn't include the non-flowering plants, of which there are over 450 more varieties to see. In the Great Smoky Mountains National park alone, 76 species are listed as federally threatened or endangered. To protect them, please stay on the trail. Whether it's the trees, the shrubs, the flowers, the herbs, or the entire forest you're viewing - there's plenty to look at and study while hiking in WNC.

It's not uncommon to encounter various types of wildlife while on the trails in WNC. And no, I'm not talking about the local college students! In the Great Smoky Mountains alone, we have mammals: over 60 species, including bears, deer, and (recently re-introduced) elk. You may find an opossum lumbering up the trail or across the road, looking back at you with its beady eyes. Perhaps a red squirrel will sit and chatter at you from a high tree limb. Or, if you're lucky, you may see a bear - probably disappearing over the top of a ridge as it tries to get as far away from you as it can. More likely, however, is to see a bear's rear sticking out of an improperly secured trash can in a picnic area.

Mention of bears, of course, raises the issue of safety. While most wild animals are afraid of humans, it is imperative to be careful and never approach, feed, or try to touch any wildlife. Stay away from animals that are acting strangely - they may be too accustomed to humans or worse, rabid. Elk and deer are big and powerful, and though they won't attack, they will defend themselves. Bear attacks are rare - only two deaths have ever resulted from a bear in the area - though tragic. Please give wildlife the respect it deserves, and observe from a safe distance.

Birding in the southern Appalachians is second to none, and what better place to do it than from a wilderness trail? A few of our feathered, flighted friends flit freely over the mountaintops as they move on an incredible migratory journey each season. You'll have over 80 species of migratory birds to look at out of at least over 200 that live, permanently or part-time, within the area. And some birds have even found the easy way to migrate. Instead of flying thousands of miles north and south to their breeding and over wintering sites, they just fly up and down the mountains! Maybe you'll spot a species not normally found this far south - such as a slate-colored junco, a raven, or a saw-whet owl. Or perhaps you'll see a rare, beautiful Peregrine Falcon in its trademark, high-speed dive.

Reptiles & Amphibians

You'll notice them, especially during the summer. It's important to keep bug spray handy, and use it while hiking the trails. But aside from repelling, swatting and killing these creatures, take time to notice how they are an integral part of the area's ecology as well.

Biosphere Reserves
Western North Carolina contains two International Biosphere Reserves, declared by the United Nations: the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Grandfather Mountain. Grandfather Mountain is the only privately owned reserve in the world.

Invasive Species

Due to the format of this site, an in-depth exploration of the ecology is not feasable. Only a general summary is presented here.