Saturday, April 3, 2010

Behind the Times at Big Creek

I was able to complete my annual wildflower pilgrimage to Big Creek yesterday, but it wasn’t easy.

If there’s a better place to visit early spring wildflowers than Big Creek, on the northeastern corner of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I’d like to hear about it. But with the closure of Interstate 40 near the state line, getting to Big Creek from anywhere besides Tennessee is tough.

If you’ve ever driven into Cataloochee Valley you might remember one point where you take a left turn for the final descent into Big Catalooch. At that point, a sign informs you that Big Creek is sixteen miles dead ahead. So instead of taking a left, I kept going straight. Now, Cove Creek Road, up to that point is a narrow gravel road with lots of blind curves and precipitous banks. If you can travel the whole length without having to squeeze past an oncoming horse trailer, consider yourself lucky.

However, Cove Creek Road to that point is a thoroughfare compared to the section extending on toward Big Creek. Forty-five bone-rattling minutes after leaving the fork in the road, I reached the metropolis of Mount Sterling, North Carolina where I listened for the faint echoes of Bonaparte’s Retreat still wafting through the air.

[For the story of what happened here on April 10, 1865, see The Grooms Tune on the Road to Mount Sterling, ]

From there, it’s only a short drive to the parking lot at the Big Creek Picnic Area.

I’ve come here during the first week of April for several years running and have taken hundreds of photographs while launching my education in wildflower identification. I was eager to see what there was to see on this warm and sunny day.

Impressive displays of Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) were the first flowers to greet me. I figured the Yellow Trillium (Trillium luteum) would be next as it grows abundantly along the entry road and near the parking area.

It was there, alright, but not yet in bloom. On all previous visits, the trillium had been in full flower.

Sparsely scattered about were the purples and yellows of violets. But I saw neither the purple Long-spurred Violet (Viola rostrata) nor the yellow Halberd-leaved Violet (Viola hastata) that I’ve seen in years past.

I knew that I wouldn’t have to walk far to get a bead on the progress of spring on Big Creek. The trail overlooks the magnificent creek. The first part of the trail is lined by a rocky face, facing more or less southeast, and watered by frequent seeps.

In previous years on this date, you could see the blooms of Stonecrop Sedum (Sedum ternatum), Star Chickweed (Stellaria pubera), Robins-Plantain (Erigeron pulchellus) and Fire Pink (Silene virginica). Fringed Phacelia (Phacelia fimbriata) looked like snow on the slopes dropping off toward the creek.

Perhaps the showiest of the lot in previous years was the Purple Phacelia (Phacelia bipinnatifida), generous swaths of it festooning the rock with a shade of purple that pulsates under the right light. Following our colder-than-normal winter, they’re yet to blossom. I did spot one lonely clump of Purple Phacelia.

I remembered a patch of Squirrel Corn (Dicentra canadensis) up a dry creekbed and veered off the trail to check it out. The delicate, ferny foliage was where I expected to see it, but nowhere close to blooming.

A few stray Toothworts (Dentaria laciniata ) were in bloom.

At one point, the air was perfumed with a familiar lemony fragrance and, sure enough, I saw several yellow trilliums that had bloomed before any of their comrades.

Seeing that I’d gotten here well before the peak bloom, and feeling the weight of a full arsenal of camera gear on my back, I decided to save a return to Midnight Hole, Mouse Creek Falls, Brakeshoe Spring and Walnut Bottoms for another day.

On the way back down the trail, I spotted newly emerging Squaw Root (Conopholus americana).

I would have time to return to the parking lot, cross Big Creek and take a short stroll on Baxter Creek Trail, one that I had never explored. This is an important trail, leading 6.1 miles up to Mount Sterling (elevation 5842). That’s a climb of more than 4100 feet.

I camped out on Mount Sterling years ago, but took the Pretty Hollow Trail out of Cataloochee to get there. It was less climb and stretched out over a couple of extra miles in distance. Baxter Creek Trail would be a decent workout with a worthwhile destination on the mountaintop. But not today, unfortunately.

Baxter Creek Trail starts off with the opposite exposure of the Big Creek Trail, and the vegetation is just as different. In a lusher and shadier environment, the yellow trilliums are absent, replaced by Large-flowered (?) Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum). Long stretches of the trail are lined with Hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba) and occasional Spring Beauties (Claytonia virginica).

There’s no telling how the cold winter has delayed the development of other plants in other places, but I’d estimate the Big Creek plants are at least two weeks behind where they’ve been in recent years.

Photos from top:
Yellow Trillium
Purple Phacelia

(all April 2, 2010)


joe said...

That road between Cataloochee and Big Creek is a bitch. I took it last year and I was really worried I was gonna pop a tire.

Also hiked the Baxter Creek Trail to Mount Sterling. It is one hell of a trail--almost a constant uphill walk. You'll definitely get a vigorous workout on this one. We hiked it while the rhodos and flame azaleas were out, and it was gorgeous.

Anonymous said...

Absolutly beautiful photos
keep em coming

Amy said...

Gorgeous photos! I enjoy reading your blog.