Winter Tree ID in Montreat

Cold but pristine headwater streams in the wilderness area.

Cold but pristine headwater streams in the wilderness.

This year’s winter tree identification hike took place in the beautiful Montreat Wilderness. As our intrepid, aspiring dendrologists hiked near Montreat’s streams, cold conditions and overcast skies gave way to a wonderfully pleasant western North Carolina winter day. Our guests were treated to a variety of topics, including native plant communities, forest health issues, and the cultural history of Montreat.

Chris Coxen, SAHC's Field Ecologist, led the winter tree identification hike.

Chris Coxen, SAHC’s Field Ecologist, led the winter tree identification hike.

Chris Coxen, SAHC’s Field Ecologist, discussed basic tips for winter tree identification success. Examine the form of the tree — is it straight or does it dramatically bend to seek out sunlight (like a sourwood tree)? What does the bark look like? Are the twigs coming off of the main branches alternate or opposite?

Participants put the tips into practice along the hike.

Participants put the tips into practice along the hike.

One of the most important steps someone can take when identifying anything in the field, flora or fauna, is to think about the forest community in which it is located. When you consider the elevation, aspect (north or south facing slope), proximity to a stream, or soil (thin and rocky or dense and rich?), you can narrow down the possible forest communities and create a smaller pool of potential plant or animal species.

The group hiked a 3.5-mile loop along the Sanctuary, Harry Bryan and Grey Beard trails, stopping at various points to talk about tree identification and the history of the area. We hiked near the old hydroelectric dam, reviewing times past when it provided electricity to the community in the 1920’s. SAHC was fortunate to also have Bill Sanderson, a local high school teacher and ranger of Montreat, join our hike. Bill gave the hikers a behind-the-scenes tour of the dam, old reservoirs used for drinking water and general history of the town of Montreat, which was created in 1967.

Educating hikers about the impact of ginseng & galax poachers.

Hikers learn about ginseng and galax poachers.

Toward the end of the hike the group gathered at a rock outcrop near a small stream where Chris Coxen and Bill Sanderson educated the hikers about the ongoing poaching of threatened species in the area, including galax and ginseng. Ginseng is a fleshy root often used in energy supplements and herbal medications. This plant only grows in the Appalachians and in the Himalayans. Ginseng is not as plentiful and harder to find in comparison to galax.

Blog post author and SAHC's AmeriCorps PR & Outreach Associate Anna Zanetti on the trail.

Blog post author and SAHC’s AmeriCorps PR & Outreach Associate Anna Zanetti on the trail.

Galax is a small, high elevation, cool-weather plant with broad, waxy, heart-shaped leaves. It’s picked mainly for floral arrangements because the leaves hold their green color for up to several weeks after they’ve been picked. Galax poachers are hired to rummage through the woods of the Appalachian region, illegally packing duffle bags full of galax which can weigh as much as 100 pounds. Montreat has had a hard time curbing the poaching population that enters its woods. Once the galax has been picked it cannot be replanted. We hope that educating hikers about poaching problems for these unique plants will lead to better understanding and assistance in reporting illegal activity.

Overall, the 30 hikers on SAHC’s Winter Tree Identification hike not only learned how to identify the barren woody companions but also learned about the overall health of the forest and a community like Montreat that works hard to protect these features for present and future generations. Thanks to all who came out to join us!

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Hiking Into The Lost Cove

Although we are in the midst of an arctic freeze in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, we’re eagerly looking forward to the slate of outdoor adventures our outreach team has planned for this year. To whet your appetite, here’s a narrative from one of our 2013 fall hikes – a trek into the 95-acre Lost Cove tract that SAHC purchased in 2012, led by our AmeriCorps PR & Outreach associate Anna Zanetti:

Paddlers along the Nolichucky River on the edge of the Lost Cove property.

Paddlers along the Nolichucky River on the edge of the Lost Cove property.

“Lost Cove, once a self-sustaining community nestled on the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, has become a mere ghost town with the occasional company of a destination hiker.

In late November I led 22 people on a hike to the old settlement where only abandoned and crippled buildings now exist. The group hiked up to Flat Top Mountain where we peeked over the edge looking down on the Nolichucky Gorge catching a glimpse of the Lost Cove Property. During the 1940s, from this point, you would have been able to see white buildings consisting of homes, the schoolhouse and the church, but all we saw was overgrowth amongst the color changing leaves. We headed west and began to descend two miles along the old soil bed road until we came to an intersection in the trail. This intersection marks the beginning of the Lost Cove settlement and to the left marks SAHC’s property.


View from Flat Top Mountain looking down upon the Lost Cove.

We walked quietly under the dark clouds that came rushing in, covering the sun. Searching around the group examined the free standing stone chimneys and the decaying structures. Every few feet we would see old deteriorating cans, rusty car parts and we even found a wood-burning stove. We all navigated around on and off trail as if we were investigating an ancient civilization. Everyone was dispersed when a hiker called out, “Come up here, I found their cemetery.” We all rushed together to the top of a hill off of the trail to find a small gated graveyard with tombstones and some flowers. We knelt down reading the literature engraved in the stones — some had poems or just the family name, in places the letters were a little off and the p’s and d’s were backwards. On top of the hill we had a brief snack, but we were too engaged to turn around at that point. As a group we decided to push forward and hike down to the Nolichucky Gorge to see the train tracks and where the train platform once existed.


The group hiking down to the edge of the property.

The group hiked about 1.5 miles descending through bolder fields with moss and lichen in every nook and cranny. It was like a sea of rocks flowing and rising within the tress. This section of the trail is by far my favorite because of its natural beauty. We reached the edge of our property looking upon the Nolichucky River and the train tracks nestled between the surrounding mountains. We all dispersed around the edge of the property to explore. Then we reconvened around an abandoned campsite,  all quiet and ready to eat our lunch. As I was getting settled the ground began to shake and we all stood up to see a train coming around the bend along the river. The graffiti covered railroad carts rushed by caring black coal and other cargo.


The train coming around the bend along the Nolichucky River.

After the train was gone a fellow hiker said aloud, “These people had to hike 1.5 miles down here for goods and then proceeded to hike back up the steep and rocky trail with extra weight on their backs.”  This reminded everyone that Appalachian folk were and still are resilient people who don’t back down from a challenge. We packed up our belongings and I handed out trash bags and gloves to anyone willing to pickup and pack out the garbage from the abandoned campsite. Buddy Tignor, President of SAHC’s Board of Trustees, single-handedly packed out around 30 pounds of empty propane cans and debris.

The train was long gone and we were finishing packing up when it began to rain. We didn’t think much about it until the rain became worse, eventually turning into hail. We all looked at each other and understood that it was time to begin the trek up and out the gorge. The hail stinging our bare skin was not our only concern —  the slippery unsure footing made me nervous. A total of 45 minutes later and 1.5 miles up the steep terrain the rain and hail had stopped, giving us the opportunity to catch our breath.

The hike back was severely strenuous especially with the added weight from the trash we had picked up below. That morning we began the hike at 10:00 am and did not make it back to Flat Top Mountain till 5:00 pm. To say the least we were all exhausted, but we had formed an undeniable bond and gained a deeper appreciation for all the settlers who chose to call the Lost Cove their home.”

Group photo within the Lost Cove settlement.

Group photo within the Lost Cove settlement.

The next Lost Cove Hike will be held on April 26, 2014. Due to the increased popularity of this guided hike, we will open registration to SAHC members from March 1st through the 31st, followed by open registration for the general public after March 31. Please email Anna@appalachian.org for more info or to register.

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Fall “For Love of Beer and Mountains” Partnership Hikes


Group photo atop Blackrock Mountain for the Thunderstruck “For Love of Beer & Mountains” partnership hike.

Our new AmeriCorps PR and Outreach Associate, Anna Zanetti, launched into a full schedule of fall hikes when she came on board with us in September. Part of that slate of fall hikes included our “For Love of Beer & Mountains” Clawhammer and Thunderstruck partnership hikes — which luckily occurred on two lovely October weekends. The Thunderstruck hike also gave the group an opportunity to visit one of SAHC’s newly protected tracts  — Blackrock Mountain. Below is Anna’s take on the experience:

“SAHC partnership hikes with Highland Brewing and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are one of the highlights of my job. These popular group hikes feature protected peaks that are namesakes of Highland Brewing Company’s seasonal beers. The “For Love of Beer and Mountains” partnership, including our guided hikes, helps raise public awareness of the places and species that make our mountains so special.


Twin Falls

The first hike I led was to Clawhammer Mountain in Pisgah National Forest, close to Brevard. Twenty-five people attended this hike in celebration of Highland’s Oktoberfest named after Clawhammer Mountain. The hike was a 12-mile loop that traversed along equestrian, biking and hiking trails. During our ascent up the mountain we stopped at Twin Falls for a beautiful view. With the top tucked into the tree line, the 150 ft falls appear as if they are flowing from the sky.

Group photo atop Clawhammer Mountain.

Group photo atop Clawhammer Mountain.

After enjoying a break at the falls, we continued along the trail. At the summit of Clawhammer Mountain we saw clear views of Looking Glass Mountain where the trees meet the large open-faced rocks. This made for a great lunch spot, and everyone relaxed before the long trek back down the mountain.

Hikers had to overcome some obstacles.

Overcoming obstacles on the hike.

On October 12th , we held our second autumn “For Love of Beer and Mountains” partnership hike across Blackrock Ridge to celebrate the release of Highland’s  Thunderstruck Coffee Porter. At the peak of Blackrock Mountain, you can see Thunderstruck Ridge zigzag like a thunderbolt on the horizon. We parked near Waterrock Knob Visitor Center and walked to the trailhead along the road. The Blackrock Ridge hike was a 5-½ mile out-and-back adventure crossing private, public and SAHC owned land.

Blue Ridge Parkway, visible from the hike.

Blue Ridge Parkway, visible from the trail.

During this time the government shutdown slightly affected our hike because parts of the Blue Ridge Parkway were closed, including the Waterrock Knob Visitor Center where we had planned to park and rendezvous for the hike. However, that didn’t stop us from enjoying the hike, and we were fortunate enough to still go through with our plans.

View pic from the Blue Ridge Parkway, courtesy of Perry Keys.

View from the Blue Ridge Parkway, courtesy of Perry Keys.

The day of the hike there were many tourists on the parkway enjoying breathtaking views of the autumn leaves. It was nice to see people out and about, but many disregarded the barricaded areas and continued to use closed facilities. This caused slight issues due to the fact that no one was managing these areas during the shutdown. A new member of SAHC, Perry Keys, organized a trash pick up along the parkway after our hike. This was a great effort on the group’s part to help mitigate the impact of visitors within the Blue Ridge Parkway boundaries.

These partnership hikes continue to be successful due to the unique makeup of our partnership with Highland Brewing Company and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. For those who love to celebrate local craft beer as well as the beautiful mountains of the Appalachian region, our “For Love of Beer and Mountains” partnership gives them a way to enjoy themselves and support land conservation at the same time.”

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No kidding – Goat herding rocks!

Hikers herd goats in the Roan Mountain mist.

Hikers herd goats in the Roan Mountain mist.

by Michelle Pugliese, SAHC Land Protection Director

The sounds of kids crying as they made their way along the Appalachian Trail caused ripples of giggling among our group of volunteers on Round Bald this morning.

“They’re so cute!” –  “I love it when they do that!” we exclaimed, with huge smiles.  You would have laughed at these kids too: they were baby goats among the herd grazing the grassy balds in the Highlands of Roan.

SAHC Farm Program intern Yael Girard herding.

SAHC Farm Program intern Yael Girard herding.

These goats, part of the Baa-tany Goat Project, are an integral part of SAHC’s and our partners’ long history of managing the grassy bald habitat in the Roan.  Thirty-four goats spent this summer grazing on Engine Gap.  By simply living and eating on the balds they are fighting back the invasive woody vegetation that threatens many rare species on the Roan’s grassy balds.  The Roan Mountain bluet, Roan Mountain goldenrod and Gray’s lily are a few of the rare flowers that depend on these open grassy habitats.

The group assembles for herding instructions before the hike.

The volunteer group assembles for herding instructions.

SAHC invites volunteers to help herd the goats up the mountain at the beginning of the summer and back down again near the end of summer.  As a first-time goat herder, I was delighted to be a part of the process.  About 30 volunteers gathered on the mountain not long after the sun rose over it.

The kids follow the adults down the trail.

The kids follow the adults down the trail.

After a short hike up the Appalachian Trail to the goat pen, we formed two lines on either side of the Trail.  Standing about 10 feet apart with our arms spread wide, we were ready for the gentle stampede of goats when the gate was opened.  Actually, it was more like releasing kids into a candy store…literally.  They ran for a few seconds and then stopped to graze the fresh blackberry bushes outside their paddock.  After some coaxing they moved along the Trail, some faster than others.  A few renegades tried to make a run for it, but our team of volunteers gently guided them back into line, across Engine Gap, over Round Bald, and down to Carvers Gap.  As the herd was loaded into the trailer to return to their home in Tennessee, my smile grew knowing I was part of an important step of SAHC’s habitat management.  It was one of many days when my work is as fun as it is meaningful.

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Clear Skies for ‘Shroom Hunters!

Before starting off, Charlotte explained mushroom basics and tips for collecting to the group.

Before starting off, Charlotte explained mushroom basics and tips for collecting to the group.

In the Southeast, we’ve been breaking all kinds of records for abundant rainfall through the summer – which you’d think would be great for growing mushrooms, right? Fun fact: There is such a thing as too much rain for ‘shrooms! Luckily, however, we were still able to collect a bountiful and varied assortment for our mushroom identification hike on August 14. And, we were fortunate enough to enjoy a beautiful sunny sky and clear views of the Black Mountains as a bonus.

Led by amateur mycologist Charlotte Caplan – who has spent the past 35 years learning about mushrooms – our group started out in a high mountain meadow with Mt. Mitchell and the stunning Black Mountains clearly visible in the background. Charlotte gave us a basic run-down on mushrooms and tips for collecting. Here’s some of her info:

  • Charlotte shares her knowledge about mushrooms.

    Charlotte shares her knowledge about mushrooms.

    Mushrooms are part of the Fungi kingdom – not the plant or animal kingdom; although they resemble plants, they share some behaviors more in common with animals. They are the recyclers of the natural world – responsible for breaking down & digesting natural materials.

  • You have to dig down below to get the whole thing. The mushroom growing up above is just the reproductive part of the mycelium — the actual fungus which lies underneath. Use a knife or spoon to carefully cut into the earth and slip under to collect the whole mycelium.
  • Bring baskets for mushroom collecting, and waxed or paper bags to separate specimens.
  • We learned about a few parts of a mushroom: gills, universal veil, partial veil, cap, stalk, spores, etc. As we later walked through the woods, Charlotte directed us to ask questions as we looked at our specimens.  “Look for the ‘veil’ that coats around the mushroom. What does the base look like? Look at the gills under the cap or lack thereof; some species don’t have true gills – they have folds.”

    Identifying the gills of a mushroom.

    Identifying the gills of a mushroom.

  • An important part of identifying mushrooms is to focus on recognizing  the families.  With some estimated 10,000 species visible to the naked eye, it is easier to start identification based on the mushroom family.
  • You can look for color, but many different varieties (edible & non-edible), may share similar hues.
  • There are some varieties that are edible and some that are poisonous, but a lot fall into an in-between zone that are simply inedible. They may really just taste bad or are too woody or tough to be good to eat.
Baskets are best for collecting mushrooms - keeping finds from getting squished. Another tip - bring along smaller wax or paper bags to keep your specimens separate.

Baskets are best for collecting mushrooms – keeping finds from getting squished. Bring along smaller wax or paper bags to keep specimens separate.

“There are old mushroom hunters, and there are bold mushroom hunters, but there are no old, bold mushroom hunters,” cautioned Charlotte as the group set off to begin.

We headed down a wooded gravel road and immediately began to spy a variety of mushrooms along the sides. Our jovial company brimmed with avid curiosity as laughter echoed in the woods  — adults and youngsters alike eager to learn. Charlotte was evidently excited about the world of mushrooms, and her exuberance proved engaging and contagious.

She directed us to fan out through a forested area. It looked a little dense from the outside, but following a little trail into the woods, we soon discovered that the understory was quite clear. Mushrooms abounded here in pockets – some growing at the base of trees, on rotting old wood, up from clumps of moss, and hidden in little clearings under the trees. The outing was more treasure hunt than hike – scouting for brilliant living gemstones on the emerald carpet under the trees. With flossy ferns, mossy carpets, and relatively little underbrush, it was a beautiful place to search. After rooting around in the woods for a while, we headed back to the top to enjoy lunch on picnic tables and beautiful views of the Black Mountains.

We spread out collected specimens after lunch to identify.

We spread out collected specimens after lunch to identify.

Following lunch, Charlotte broke out her mushroom books to assist with identification, and we spread the spoils of our baskets on the table to sort.

Here’s one example of how similar the edible & poisonous varieties of mushrooms can be: we found a little white puffball that was edible when we first started out. However, sitting around and identifying collections at the picnic table after lunch, Charlotte identified another puffball that was poisonous. It looked very similar on the outside, but was solid black inside and smelled raunchy. The best edible mushroom that we found that day was a black trumpet, which Charlotte described as “gregarious” because they like to grow together in clusters. In all, we saw representatives from just about every major mushroom family, over 30 different varieties.

"Find of the Day!" Bridger found this Morris Bolete - a rare and beautiful mushroom.

“Find of the Day!” Bridger found this rare and beautiful Morris Bolete.

The youngest member of our group, Bridger, brightened all our lives that day with his unabashed enthusiasm for learning about the natural world. He and his mother, Jodi, had joined the hike to spend quality time together while nurturing his passion for mushrooms. In fact, Bridger went home and put together a Prezi to share his knowledge, which you can view here.

It was a beautiful day to enjoy the outdoors and uncover a plethora of mushrooms. Thanks to everyone for participating, and to our landowners for graciously allowing SAHC to lead this hike on their property!

For a Flickr gallery of our photos from the day, click here.

More Info about Mushrooms:

If reading this has whet your appetite for mushroom investigations, you may want to check out the Annual Fungi Fest  coming up next month (Sept. 7 from 9 am to 4:30 pm) at the NC Arboretum. For more info, visit: http://www.ashevillemushroomclub.com/fungifest2013.html

Eager to traipse through the woods in search of spongy fungi? For more detailed information, get to know some folks at the Asheville Mushroom Club.

A beautiful day to enjoy the Black Mountains.

A beautiful day to enjoy the Black Mountains.

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June Jamboree 2013 – Loving the Roan!

A beautiful day to enjoy the Roan!

A beautiful day to enjoy the Roan!

Thank you to all who joined us on the Roan this past June for our annual June Jamboree! We enjoyed beautiful weather and spectacular views with a hundred hikers on the mountain in five different guided group hikes. Check out our photos and video collages from the event:

Animoto video for the five hikes of the June Jamboree, 2013:



Triple B Challenge hikers on Jane Bald

Triple B Challenge hikers on Jane Bald

Triple B Challenge:

View our images on Flickr at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/southernappalachian/sets/72157634968869255/

Video: http://animoto.com/play/mKkkHRcZZ0sYeswTn0ngOQ


Carvers Gap to Grassy Ridge hike

Carvers Gap to Grassy Ridge

Carvers Gap to Grassy Ridge:

View our images on Flickr at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/southernappalachian/sets/72157634307449363/

Video: http://animoto.com/play/M4MCe10AtI80W8vyQNGQ3Q


One Bird, Two Bird, Red Bird, Blue Bird: How Biologists Monitor Bird Populations in the Field

Birding hikers

One Bird, Two Bird – Red Bird, Blue BIrd; How Biologists monitor bird populations in the field:

View our images on Flickr at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/southernappalachian/sets/72157634982938611/


Exploring the creek!

Exploring the creek!

Kids in the Creek:

View our images on Flickr at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/southernappalachian/sets/72157634980069121/

Video: http://animoto.com/play/0s1JiBVVhjrqKuAMBAAVJQ


Roll and Stroll in the Rhododendron Gardens

Roll and Stroll in the Rhododendron Gardens

Roll and Stroll in the Rhododendron Gardens:

View our images on Flickr at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/southernappalachian/sets/72157634982730453/

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Swimming in a Sea of Wildflowers

group shot.jpg

Photo taken by Ted Haddock

The forecast showed rain for Saturday’s wildflower hike on April 27, but even with the incoming deluge, ten rain-impervious souls showed up to enjoy a few of Spring’s fleeting treasures. The big rains were coming at two so we put on our water repelling soul-suits and set-off on our adventure.

Heading into the Haddock's property.jpg

Heading into the Haddock’s property

Off we went into the light drizzle, pausing only to take a group photograph as evidence that we were in fact outside and not identifying flowers from laptops in warm, cozy beds. Ted Haddock and his family generously offered their beautiful property as a place to search for spring ephemerals. Glancing up the mountain, the whole group knew we were in for a real treat! The climb was steep but Josh Kelly, Western North Carolina Alliance’s Public Lands Biologist, always had the knack to point out another cool flower or the call of a bird mocking us from far above when the group began to lose its breath.



Just on the logging road alone, on the way up to the rich cove forest, (diverse mixutre of moisture-loving trees and lush species-rich herbacious layer) we saw too many flowers to count. There were Firepinks, a trillion trilliums, Bishop Caps, Acolyte Avens (just kidding about that one), Gallium,violets, and plenty of the not-so-great, proliferating garlic mustard. We tasted the delicious seed pods of Solomons Seal. We met a Jack in the Pulpit. We met a Jill in the Pulpit and we learned that this androgynous plant changes its sex depending on the living conditions leading up to the plants sprouting. If there is enough rain, and the soil is full of plentiful nutrients, the plant sprouts as a female, Jill in the Pulpit, and is able propagate. If conditions are not as accommodating, the plant sprouts as a Jack in the Pulpit, the male version of the plant.

Jill in the Pulpit.jpg

Jill in the pulpit

Max Patch.jpg

Max Patch in the distance

Towards the end of the climb, the group was rewarded with a nice view of Max Patch in the distance and still, the great rains had not moved in…yet.

But oh did they come! We took a wildflower break to eat some lunch. After no more than three bites of my savory Subway sandwich, the skies opened  up, causing us to scarf down our grub and head to the wildflower Promised Land. The rich cove that Josh led us to was truly spectacular. The flowers we saw on the logging road were only a small sample size compared to the smörgåsbord that littered the cove. By the time we made it back to road, even the best rain gear was taking in water. Back at the Trust General Store were piping mugs of hot chocolate waiting for us. Whaddaday!

A big thanks to the Haddock Family for letting us explore their beautiful property and to Josh Kelly for sharing his vast knowledge of wildflowers and plants with the group. And lastly, thanks to everyone that came out to frolic in the rain with SAHC. It was a special day!

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Devil’s Britches and Bark, Buds, Nuts – A pint, a party, a presentation and hike for Tree ID.


SAHC staff & volunteer manned our merchandise table at the Tasting Room. It was a good place to meet friends – new & old!

Music from the Log Cabin Band - put us all in the mood to learn more about our mountains.

Music from the Log Cabin Band – put us all in the mood to learn more about our mountains.

The end of February was a great time to practice winter tree identification, and to enjoy a new Highland Brewing Company seasonal pint with friends. As part of our “For Love of Beer & Mountains” partnership with Highlands Brewing Company and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, we hosted an informative & engaging presentation at the Tasting Room on Thursday, February 21, followed that weekend by an on-the-ground field opportunity with SAHC Field Ecologist Chris Coxen.

The Tasting Room was packed

The Tasting Room was packed

We enjoyed an incredible crowd at the Tasting Room; it was packed with people who came to learn more about winter tree identification, and to celebrate local music. Listening to the Log Cabin Band play before & after our tree ID tips presentation, we were reminded how deeply our rich Appalachian history and culture are tied to the trees and mountains surrounding us. It was an excellent place to learn – a lively setting, and a fun time!

The presentation was short & sweet – an informative beginner’s guide to success in knowing more about the trees you may see in our area, given in six steps.

Step #1 - Have a good field guide - and two or more is better than one!

Step #1 – Have a good field guide – and two or more is better than one!

Step 1: Have a “good” field guide with you such as the National Audubon Society or Peterson Field guide.

Step 2: Try to identify your forest community type by narrowing down the possibilities of which trees grow where. For example, learning which trees grow at a particular elevation, observing whether the slope is north or south facing, or notice what the trees are near such as water, a hollow, or cove. The location of the tree relative to its surroundings is good way to determine which type of tree might grow there.

Step 3: Observe the form of the tree–are the branches opposite or alternating? Is the tree super straight like a tulip poplar? Is it bent like a sourwood?

SAHC Field Ecologist Chris Coxen makes winter tree ID accessible, and fun.
SAHC Field Ecologist Chris Coxen makes winter tree ID accessible, and fun.

Step 4: Hark, the bark! Is the bark cobbled like sourwood or black gum? Are there grooves that look like ski trails (might be a red oak)?

Step 5: Checkout the leaves and fruit around the tree. Chris pointed out that this technique can back your initial inclination but is not always reliable because the leaves/fruit could fall far from the tree and because some leaves persist better than others.

Step 6: Examine the twig. When this technique is combined with step 2 and 4, the observer has the best chance of identifying the given tree.

The following Sunday, a full group headed out on a guided hike at Cataloochee Ranch, to try out newly learned techniques.

Sunny Day.jpg
Heading to the Devils Britches with Hemphill Bald in the Background

Woooooo-weeee! SAHC Field Ecologist, Chris Coxen, was on fire, “ID-ing” trees left and right on the Devils Britches Trail at Cataloochee Ranch. It was a clear & beautiful day, filled with learning, mountains, and the tasty Devils Britches Red IPA from Highland Brewing Company.

The hike started with a discussion about how conservation easements work and the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy’s long history with Cataloochee Ranch. This talk was especially fitting, since we placed our first ever conservation easement here at the Ranch –  on Hemphill Bald in 1993.

Once reaching the edge of the forest, our schooling started by looking at forest community types.

SAHC Field Ecologist, Chris Coxen, chatting about trees at the beginning of the hike

“One of the best ways to identify trees without their leaves is to look for common forest communities,” said Chris.

Northern Red Oak.jpg
“Ski trails on the Northern Red Oak”

For example, dominant canopy species in Northern Hardwood Forest might include yellow birch, sugar maple, American beech, red maple, sweet birch, and yellow buckeye. Another common forest community type in western North Carolina is the Chestnut Oak Forest which includes trees like the northern red oak, chestnut oak, and scarlet oak. The question is how do you discern a chestnut oak from an American beech when the trees have no leaves?

Cobbled bark on a Sourwood tree

Cobbled bark on a Sourwood tree

Chris reviewed his Six Step tips for success with Tree ID, and for the next two hours, hikers had the opportunity to try out all six of the steps. The group quickly discovered that identifying the naked tree in the middle of winter can be a difficult task. After a pop-quiz from the Field Ecologist at the end of the hike, it was clear that the group had improved a lot. By lunchtime the weather had warmed up nicely and everyone enjoyed a refreshing Devils Britches Red IPA courtesy of Highland Brewing Company.

Thanks to everyone that came out, and we’ll look forward to seeing folks for the next partnership hike to Little Hump on Saturday, May 18th.

About our “For Love of Beer & Mountains” Partnership:


Hikers enjoy a Devils Britches Red IPA over lunch

Highland Brewing Company has partnered with the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to help raise awareness of the beauty and uniqueness of these high peaks and bring attention to efforts to protect them. These events are presented as part of this partnership, and each is free and open to the public.

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Hiking in the Rough Creek Watershed: A respite from winter’s cabin fever.

Margot Wallston, SAHC Americorps Stewardship Associate, gives a sumac smile on the trail in the Rough Creek Watershed

Margot Wallston, SAHC Americorps Stewardship Associate, gives a sumac smile on the trail in the Rough Creek Watershed

“After several weeks of desk time at the office, followed by several days experiencing the worst that this year’s flu season had to offer, cabin fever prompted this SAHC AmeriCorps steward to take advantage of a free Sunday to pay a visit to one of our protected properties in Haywood County, only 30 minutes west of Asheville: the Rough Creek Watershed.

Rough Creek Watershed is an 870-acre conservation easement held by the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, co-managed with  the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, and owned by the Town of Canton. SAHC was instrumental in the protection of this Smoky Mountain jewel. The watershed, which drains into Beaverdam Creek, and then into the Pigeon River, used to serve as the primary water source for Canton, but now it primarily functions as a nature preserve and public pie slice of undisturbed open space.  One of the cool things about this particular conservation easement is that it is accessible to the public. The watershed contains approximately 10 miles of well-maintained trails open for conservation-conscious hikers and bikers to explore.

On the day I visited Rough Creek, the temperature was supposed to get no higher than 33 degrees, the wind had to be at least 30 miles per hour, and I had barely moved my body since getting trounced by the flu. However, I was determined to make the climb up to the ridge on the western boundary of the property, where I knew I would be rewarded with panoramic views of the Newfound Mountains. I was hoping this hike would serve as a warm-up for our ambitious spring monitoring season, which includes visiting 63 conservation easements in about three months.

Winter is a fun time to go hiking. It may seem like a cold and dead time of year, but signs of life are everywhere.  I think you can observe more because there is less green growth to obscure everything.  I can see landforms better and distinguish between tree species by looking at bark and twigs.  Animal tracks persist in the snow and remnants of last year’s herbaceous plants linger like forensic evidence at the scene of a crime.

Margot mimicking a stately old oak on the trail.

Margot mimics a stately old oak on the trail.

After hiking steadily upwards for approximately 2 miles, I did reach the ridgeline; and I was almost blown away and blinded by the piercing wind, the bright sun reflecting off a thin layer of snow at my feet, and the stunning views before me!  After pausing a moment to mimic a big lone oak tree, I continued along the ridgeline and was delighted to spy yet another sign of seasons past: brilliant red clusters of sumac berries.

Wild sumac (Rhus typhina or Rhus glabra, not to be confused with poison sumac, Toxicodendron vernix) is always a fun plant to encounter when hiking not only because its appearance is so striking, but also because it’s like stumbling into an outdoor pharmacy with a soda fountain and a candy section!

Enjoying a wild sumac lollipop.

Enjoying a wild sumac lollipop.

Sumac on the ridge, with spectacular views and a thin blanket of snow.

Sumac on the ridge, with spectacular views and a thin blanket of snow.

If the berries aren’t too old and it hasn’t rained recently, you can lick the red cluster cone like a lollipop.  The berries are covered with a sweet and tangy fuzzy coating reminiscent of a SweeTART.  The taste is due to a concentration of malic and ascorbic acids (Vitamin C).  Sumac was used by the Cherokee and continues to be used by herbal medicine aficionados for treating everything from cold sores to diarrhea to diabetes, fever, and arrow wounds.  My favorite thing to do with sumac is to soak the berries in a glass of cold water, which quickly transforms into a refreshing tea similar to pink lemonade. The berries are normally best after they ripen in late summer, but the ones I encountered on the ridge persisted through February and still held their flavor.

A refreshing sumac beverage.

A refreshing sumac beverage.

My hike continued for another 5.5 miles through a quiet forest laden with hidden richness and treasures.  Days later, I am so delighted that places like the Rough Creek Watershed exist close to my home; I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to come to know them and appreciate them; and I am so thankful that organizations like SAHC work with passionate  community members to protect these place for everyone to benefit from.”

Categories: Hikes | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Tri-County Traverse

Merschat hike group at the summit.

The Merschat hike group enjoyed clear views from the corner where Buncombe, Madison, and Yancey counties meet.

Trekking up Maney Fields.

Trekking up Maney Fields.

You would think that crossing three counties in one day would be an impossible task. Nay, with this grizzled group of veteran hikers, Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy (SAHC) and land owners Carl and Holley Merschat were able to summit the top of Maney Fields where Buncombe, Madison, and Yancey Counties converge. Despite only having to hike 1.5 miles to the top, the group gained over 1,200 feet of elevation, climbed through cattle gates, and avoided high voltage fences. Truly, a successful day!

The family still grows Shitake mushrooms on the property.

The family grows Shitake mushrooms on the property.

For over thirty years, Carl and Holley Merschat have lived in their home tucked away in Barnardsville, NC. There, they raised two kids, and gradually buffered their home with additional land to explore and enjoy. They bought their house in 1974 and the next year bought 58 more acres. Over the next 30 years, the Mershats were able to tack on an additional 60 acres. They heat their home every winter from the wood on their property, grow Shiitake mushrooms, and continue to cultivate a strong relationship with their land.

So earlier this fall, when they were able to put their land under conservation easement it, “It just felt right,” says Carl Mershat. “We are pleased and proud to protect this property and help maintain the integrity and spectacular beauty of the mountains of Western North Carolina for perpetuity.”

Carl points out peaks.jpg

Carl pointing out peaks towards Tennessee.

Carl, a retired geologist, knows these mountains like the back of his hand and can easily identify several of the prominent peaks of the Blue Ridge landscape, such as Mount Mitchell, Mount Pisgah, Roan, or Grandfather mountain. When the group made it to the top of Maney Fields, everyone was impressed when Carl pointed and named every mountain top on the horizon, including some recently protected SAHC projects such as Snowball Mountain and Spear Tops. Carol hiked 100s of peaks in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee as a geologist, giving him a unique opportunity to memorize the landscape.

The group enjoyed lunch on a beautiful December day.

The group enjoyed lunch on a beautiful December day.

After the group’s mountain peak identification skills increased tenfold, everyone enjoyed a picnic lunch on top of the meadows and a visit from a local four-legged friend named “Little Dog.” It was a beautiful December day for a hike! The Merschats were wonderful hosts and the hikers were keen and excited to learn. Thanks to everyone who came out. Stay warm and keep an eye for a hike or two in January or February.

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