Sunday, February 22, 2015

A Winter Wonderland in the Hocking Hills

Earlier this week Southeast Ohio finally received what felt like its first appreciable snow event of the season.  We've had countless dustings and a few passing systems that left an inch or two on the ground but in the end nothing that made you want to throw your snow boots on.  So when a fresh five inches fell overnight and draped the world in a picture perfect winter wonderland, I immediately felt the urge to get out and enjoy it.

Quiet, snow-covered trail along Queer Creek in the Hocking Hills

I decided the best bang for my hiking buck would be to brave the cold and make the short drive to the Hocking Hills for the day. The snow coincided perfectly with a rare day where I had little on the schedule and I was determined to take advantage of it.  The road conditions were poor and air temperatures only in the single digits during the drive out but the crisp blue sky and bright sun really made the landscape pop under all the snow.

Blackhand sandstone is a work of art carved by wind, rain and ice

I passed hardly any cars during the drive and encountered even fewer people on the trails.  In fact, just about everywhere I went my tire and/or foot tracks were the first to tarnish the previously pristine snow.  The Hocking Hills is easily one of the state's most popular and heavily visited attractions year-round but I had it more or less entirely to myself for the day and loved every minute of it.

A frozen solid Cedar Falls

The morning started off with a quick stop by famed Cedar Falls.  With subzero temperatures the night before and daily highs well below freezing for days on end, I knew its typically graceful flow would be locked up in a tremendous display of ice.  I was not disappointed.  The silence of the scene was only broken by a slow trickle of water behind the massive mask of ice.

Wide view of frozen Cedar Falls in the Hocking Hills

One of the reasons the Hocking Hills was an easy choice for a snow-laden hike was its year-round presence of color.  Most of Ohio over-winters in a variety of depressingly drab shades of brown and gray.  The Hocking Hills bucks that trend with a rich display of iron-orange Blackhand sandstone and evergreen hemlocks.  I'm especially partial to the color of the uniquely patterned sandstone. It's deserving of its own color in a Crayola crayon box coming soon.

Appalachian rockcap fern (Polypodium appalachianum) tightly curled in the subfreezing temperatures

Multiple layers of wool and fleece kept your narrator warm and toasty despite hours spent out in the subfreezing temperatures.  The same could not be said for the rest of the plant and animal life trying to survive the winter.  The Appalachian rockcap ferns (Polypodium appalachianum) that grace many slump rocks and boulders throughout the region looked especially cold.  Their evergreen fronds were all tightly curled inward, as if to shiver off the arctic chill.

Snow, sandstone and hemlocks

Leaving Cedar Falls behind, I made for my next stop in a lesser known part of Hocking state forest in Edison Hollow.  It's off the beaten path but contains much of the same beauty and features that make the region so popular.

Mature forest within Edison Hollow

Walking back into the bottleneck of the hollow takes you through an impressive forest with a lofty canopy and mature timber. Hemlock, black and yellow birch, beech, tuliptree, red and white oak, sugar maple, black cherry and basswood were all present and combine to make a locally significant forest community.  The Hocking Hills rugged and rough topography creates a cool, moist micro climate in its deep hollows which allows for the typically more northern assemblage of trees and plants to persist.

80'+ waterfall at the back of Edison Hollow
Once I reached the back of the gorge my eyes were met with an impressive straight plunge waterfall over 80 feet tall.  Much like Cedar Falls, Edison's was nearly frozen solid and only had a small drip of life to it.  The ice pyramid at its base was especially impressive.  It dwarfed me when standing next to it at nearly 20 feet in height and emitted a soft greenish-blue glow through its complex layers of ice crystals.

Snow, wind and light combine for a stunning scene

My visit to Edison Hollow happened to coincide with the sun positioned behind the falls and illuminating the stand of hemlocks at its precipice.  For a few brief moments the wind would pick up and send the hemlock's accumulated snow into the air, creating a heavenly glow of light above the falls.  The sunbeams would stream through the haze of ice and dance in waves and ripples.

Abruptly ending squirrel tracks
Greenshield Lichen (Flavoparmelia caperata)

The winter woods has a silence and beauty all its own, even more so after a fresh snowfall.  Animal activity was sparse with only a few lines of tracks meandering through the trees.  My favorites were the squirrel prints.  Their tracks would abruptly end a few feet from a tree as if it was suddenly snatched up in an alien spaceship's tractor beam...instead of just jumping onto and scurrying up the tree.

Overlooking the Queer Creek valley from atop a sandstone rock outcropping

After experiencing some impressive upward views in the sandstone gorges and hollows, it was high time to gain some elevation.  I chose another secluded and hardly-traveled area in the south-facing ridge line of the Queer Creek valley.  The valley contains a number of nice rock outcroppings that show off their views across the rough terrain.  Once again the dominant presence of the evergreen hemlocks and their snow-covered branches really magnified the charm of the scene.

Virginia Pine (Pinus virginiana)
Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia)

The hemlocks weren't the only source of seasonal greenery.  Stunted Virginia pines and tangles of mountain laurel grew all along the rocky cliff's edges and perimeter.  They were right at home with the other dry, acidic condition-loving plants of the ridge tops like chestnut, black and scarlet oaks, downy serviceberry, hillside blueberry, black huckleberry and sourwood.

Sandstone rock outcrop above Rooty Hollow along the Queer Creek Valley

This past summer was the first time I'd ever experienced this particular part of the Hocking Hills.  These same rocky outcrops and cliff edges above Queer Creek are home to the state endangered cow-wheat (Melampryum lineare) and were the subject of a day's monitoring and surveying back on a hot and humid day in June.  The views and off-trail seclusion of it all made an instant impression back then and I knew it had to be equally good come winter.

Walking back into the bottleneck of Conkle's Hollow

No trip to the Hocking Hills for me is ever complete without a stop by Conkle's Hollow.  I'm fortunate to have seen and experienced as much of our fine state as I have and even after the years and new places, Conkle's still makes me swoon.  Walking back into its deep gorge or walking the rim trails, I never tire of the feel or atmosphere of the preserve.

Sheer sandstone goodness

Conkle's hollow is one of the deepest in the entire state with depths of over 200 feet.  Many people consider Ohio to be flat and featureless.  It depends on where you're standing when you say that I suppose, but they'd best not be in the Hocking Hills!  Where else in the state do you get sheer walls of rock hundreds of feet tall right in your face?

Yellow birch roots exposed and growing down rock
Hefty hemlock

The predominate bedrock material of the Hocking Hills was laid down some 340 million years ago during the Mississippian Period. During that time the region was under a warm, shallow sea where several prehistoric waterways deposited their sediment loads over a series of deltaic complexes.  Over the eons the sediment layers cemented together to form the Blackhand sandstone we know today. Subsequent geological unrest in the region uplifted and exposed this strata of bedrock to the elements, where millions of years of wind, water and ice has carved out the incredible features we see today.

Frozen ice pillars at the back of Conkle's Hollow

Conkle's Hollow is supremely one of Father time and Mother nature's best works of erosion and patience in the state.  It's fun to think about what the preserve and hollow will look like hundreds of thousands of years into the future.  We live in such a brief flash of geologic time it's hard to comprehend the changes that have happened and will continue happening over the millions and billions of years.

Looking back into the bottleneck of Conkle's Hollow from the east rim trail

As the Blackhand sandstone was laid down, the sediments conglomerated into layers of varying erosion resistance.  The bottom and topmost layers are course-grained and firmly cemented, thus being very resistant to weathering.  These layers make up the basements of the region's hollows and their respective rims and tops of waterfalls.  The middle strata is comprised of a much finer grained sand that was crossbedded and weakly cemented, leaving it vulnerable to erosion.  This layer is where you see your recesses, caves and rock shelters.  Conkle's Hollow and the countless others in the Hocking Hills came to exist when a massive crack or fault in the previously more or less solid block of bedrock occurred and was gradually eaten away until it met more resilient rock.  Over millions of years it's gotten as far as what you see in the photo above.  It all comes back to time and the Earth has had a lot of it to work with.

Looking south out of Conkle's Hollow

This view just never gets old or boring, no matter how many times you've seen it

The afternoon skies had clouded up and a brisk wind was beginning to stir by the time I got to the eastern rim trail.  Temperatures had warmed into the low 20's but that new wind cut like a knife.  Still, it wasn't enough to dull the experience of the rim.  I've soaked in this view dozens of times and taken the same photo dozens more but it never, ever gets even one iota old.

The state-rare resurrection fern (Pleopeltis polypodioides)

I capped off my all-day Hocking Hills hiking extravaganza with a quick stop by a particular hunk of rock to see how one of our hardiest ferns was dealing with the harsh winter conditions.  Just as I expected, the state-rare resurrection fern (Pleopeltis polypodioides) looked just about dead.  But not to fear, it's just playing possum and will be back good as new with time.  This species gets its common name from its ability to dry and shrivel to a near-crisp during times of cold and/or arid conditions and snap right back to a lush, green state after getting a drink.  A fern that can come back from the "dead".  Resurrection, indeed.

I certainly got my wish for a good snowfall at some point this winter but it could be noted that you should always be careful what you wish for.  Another six-seven inches has fallen today to leave a solid foot of the white stuff on the ground.  That can only mean it's time to get out and do some more winter wonderland exploration, right?

~ ALG ~

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Top Ten Life Plants of 2014

Ah.  It's good to hear the clack of the keyboard again.  I'd like to apologize for the lack of activity on here the past few months. Lately too many things have come together to steal my attention and free time but rest assured your blogger is alive and well.  I'm still as busy as ever but hope to manage and keep a presence on here until the less burdened summer months return.  Regardless, it's nice to get something fresh out there for those who have anxiously awaited a new post.  In a perfect world I would have had this post written and published around the turn of the new year but better late than never, right?

The 2014 field season was one to remember for your narrator.  There's never enough time to see and do everything on your list during a calendar year but then that's what makes each and every new experience you do have all the more enduring.  For a botanist, or at least this botanist, one of the most rewarding tasks at the conclusion of a growing season is updating the life list.  As time goes on and I become more and more acquainted with my local and regional flora, the frequencies of making new floral friends decreases.  This makes each additional life species marked off the list feel just a bit more gratifying than the last.

With that being said, I'd like to reminisce on my personal top ten favorite "lifers" from 2014's botanical forays. It was not an easy task to achieve, believe me.  Many worthy contenders just couldn't make the last cut.  All ten plants were species I'd never had the pleasure of seeing in the flesh before; many only dreamily through a computer monitor.  Some I specifically set out to see, others I came across by complete chance.  If you're a regular reader of my blog, you might recognize a number of the forthcoming plants; some just deserve their own separate 15 minutes of fame at the time.

#10  -  Long Beech Fern (Phegopteris connectilis)

Number ten takes me back to the Hocking Hills this past June.  As a field botanist for the Ohio Division of Natural Areas and Preserves, my job sees me work with hundreds of our state's rare plant species.  Surveying, monitoring and managing their occurrences is a large component of that work and is what had me finally face to face with the state-rare long beech fern (Phegopteris connectilis).  Typically found further to the north, it manages to persist in a rather disjunct fashion in the Hocking Hill's more secluded cool, moist hollows.  It looks strikingly similar to its close relative (and much more common) broad beech fern (P. hexagonoptera).  Looking at the bottom pair of pinnae helps separate the two: long beech's rachis between the bottom two pairs of pinnae lacks any wings; while broad beech's rachis is winged between every pair of pinnae.  

#9  -  Catesby's Trillium (Trillium catesbaei)

The mountains of northern Georgia produced dozens of new lifers during my visit in mid May, and I don't think much of anything impressed more than the trillium.  If I had to play favorites of the four-five new species I encountered, Catesby's trillium (T. catesbaei) will do nicely.  To see and read more on the other lifers from this trip you can check out this link right here.  There's still more to come on this list from Georgia though.

#8  -  Limestone Adder's Tongue Fern (Ophioglossum engelmannii)

If you didn't already know what you were looking at, number eight might have you thinking little green ogres had been buried up to their ears.  This alien-looking organism is actually a species of fern known as limestone adder's tongue (Ophioglossum engelmannii) and is quite rare in our state.  In fact, it's only known to occur in a handful of limestone barrens and glades in Adams county and that's it.  The spore-containing fertile frond was thought to resemble a snake's tongue, hence the common name of adder's tongue fern for this genus.

#7  -  Rough Boneset (Eupatorium pilosum)

Lifer number seven has the distinction of being a very, very new lifer for any Ohio botanist, well their state list anyway.  Rough boneset (Eupatorium pilosum) was never known from our state until late summer 2013, when exceptional field botanist and good friend, Brian Riley discovered it growing (apparently) wild in Athens county. Come August 2014, Brian led your blogger and a few other distinguished Ohio botanists to the sites to discuss its native status.  After weighing and debating the topic we concluded it was very likely a natural occurrence and not an intentional (or accidental) introduction.  Just another excellent find by Brian!  For a more detailed account on our day with the rough boneset, you can check out Jim McCormac's post here.

#6  -  Bradley's Spleenwort (Asplenium bradleyi)

Here we are halfway through the countdown and we're on fern species number three.  Needless to say, they've recently become a bit of a hot topic for me and one I put more focus into studying during the 2014 field season. Bradley's spleenwort (Asplenium bradleyi) is one I'm quite pleased to finally have a check mark next to as it's arguably one of Ohio's rarest pteridophytes.  Listed as endangered, it's only known to occur in a handful of sites in southeastern Ohio, often on sheer, inaccessible sandstone rock faces.  That type of habitat niche made getting a photo of even a single fertile frond or two difficult and involved a bit of free hand rock climbing.

#5  -  Swamp Valerian (Valeriana uliginosa)

As I  alluded to earlier, some great plant finds come out of nowhere and catch you by complete surprise.  Those are the ones that are even harder to forget.  Enter life plant number five in the absolutely stunning swamp valerian (Valeriana uliginosa).  While wading through a sprawling fen meadow in southeast Michigan last June, my botanical cohorts and I came across a scattering of these snow white-capped flowers and despite never seeing them before it clicked almost instantly what they were.  Swamp valerian was a plant I'd only ever dreamed of seeing and wasn't sure where, if or when I'd ever get to mark it off the list.  It was only known from a single site in northeast Ohio and hasn't been seen since the end of the 19th century.  For more on this species and the other botanical goodies within its remarkable fen, you can check out this link here.

#4  -  Venus Flytrap (Dionaea muscipula)

In terms of new species added to the life list in 2014, nothing came close to my time on the Florida panhandle. I could have just as easily made this entire list out of Florida flora but I did my best to refrain from such a biased approach.  Of the hundreds of lifers I encountered in the swamps and pine lands of the panhandle, the fabled Venus fly trap (Dionaea muscipula) was the most anticipated. The plants were admittedly planted at the site I knew about decades ago and have persisted in the boggy habitat but that did little to take away from the experience.  For more photos of the fly traps and their other bog associate denizens you can check out this link here.

#3  -  Sweet Pinesape (Monotropsis odorata)

Most wildflowers people remember with their sense of vision.  The same could be said for lifer number three but I personally will always recall them most fondly with my olfactories.  Sweet pinesap (Monotropsis odorata) was the target of a late April excursion to the Red River Gorge of Kentucky, with the motto being, "follow your nose!".  Sweet pinesap gets its name from the intoxicating aroma emitted from its perfectly purple flowers.  I've never smelled anything more enchanting than these oddities and in fact smelled their presence before visually locating them.  For more photos and info on this trip and these odorous wonders you can follow this link.

#2  -  Pine Lily (Lilium catesbaei)

We're down to the two biggest plant finds of my 2014 and it's back to the hot and steamy confines of the Florida panhandle.  After my time with the Venus fly traps, I decided to explore the nearby depths of Apalachicola National Forest's longleaf pine savannas. Gazing out across their open expanses of graminoids and pitcher plants invoked feelings of nirvana and utter tranquility.  The cherry on top of the savanna sundae was stumbling across lifer number two dotting the seas of green with their fire orange-red tepals.  I adore lilies but had no idea just how much until the pine lily (Lilium catesbaei).  Much like the aforementioned swamp valerian, I hadn't even considered encountering such a remarkable wildflower but am overjoyed that I did.  There wasn't much else to compare the feeling of their discovery to except for the last species left.

#1  -  Small Whorled Pogonia (Isotria medeoloides)

If you know me and you read this blog, it probably isn't hard to surmise that my number one life plant from 2014 was hands down, no contest, how-could-it-not-be the federally threatened small whorled pogonia (Isotria medeoloides).  I made the 500+ mile trek to Chattahoochee National Forest in the mountains of northern Georgia last May to specifically see this most elusive orchid.  Many might wonder why a small, bland and green "if you can even call it a flower" would illicit such a strong reaction from me, and honestly I might ask myself the same.  Its genuine distribution-wide rarity, sporadic and poorly understood life cycle, and mythic nature all combine to make it an arduous chase.  I could go on and on about this particular experience and plant but I'll leave that up to you. An entire post dedicated to this little green blob can be found here.

I hope you enjoyed this retrospective look at my favorite field finds of 2014.  Perhaps one of these made your life list last year? Maybe one of these will be a target for your 2015?  I look forward to bringing you more botanical forays and treatments in 2015 and know I have a lot of catching up to do from years past.  So stay warm and dream of spring!  The snow trillium and hepaticas will be out before we know it.


Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Buckeye Botanist: New Name, Same Blog

For the last four plus years I've had the pleasure of keeping this nature blog to journal my travels, thoughts and passions.  I may not publish as often as I'd like or intend but each and every post has been worth the time and effort.  I thoroughly enjoy bringing my readers along for each ride but I'd be lying if I said I didn't keep this blog up and going for anyone more than myself.  Each one's experiences and/or information has led to me being the botanist and naturalist I am today and a fun barometer of how my views, knowledge and outlook on our natural world has evolved and matured.  I find myself going back and rereading old posts often and reliving the details and places within.   Having said all that, I think it's time for a change...

Not to worry, I have no plans to stop or ween myself off this blog and have every intention of seeing it go forward into the near and distant future.  The interest and drive is still there and while it certainly waxes and wanes, I find it refreshes itself more readily as time goes on.  The change I speak of is the name of this blog. Ever since the conception of The Natural Treasures of Ohio in the autumn of 2010, I've never fully settled and been overly content with the name.  It was honestly the hardest part about starting a blog.  I've frequently found myself struggling with the battle of changing it more and more.  

Each red dot represents an area and/or site a post on this blog has focused on over the last four years

I have built up a good following (a special and hearty thank you to all my readers and fans, you're the best!) and don't want to throw a wrench into the gears.  But I've found myself traveling more and more outside Ohio's borders and taking this blog along for the ride.  Not to mention being a botanist it was naturally heavily favored to take a botanical bias as it was.  The map above represents all the states (green) and areas/sites (red dots) I have blogged about.  Far from being the natural treasures of Ohio only, eh?  I plan to fill in this map with more of my previous travels in due time but for now I think it's not too shabby looking.

At the end of things I didn't think the old name was an accurate representation of myself or this blog anymore and the change was made to: The Buckeye Botanist.  It has a nice ring to it, I think.  I'm proud to have called the Buckeye state home my whole life and will continue to focus on its treasures and diversity but give a nod as well to my botanical forays all over our amazing continent.  I'd really appreciate any feedback, comments or opinions on the matter.  Perhaps I should adhere to the old name for recognition and brand purposes?  Or in the long run it won't matter and people will catch on pretty quickly?  I'd love to hear from you! I won't change the name officially on Blogger for a bit but baring any setbacks or overwhelmingly poor reviews, I think the future of The Buckeye Botanist is bright and filled with even more rare plants, fascinating ecosystems and of course wild orchids.  Thanks again to all who help make this possible and keep stoking the fire of interest inside my brain and fingers.  I may have fibbed earlier on after wouldn't be as much fun or rewarding if I didn't have a viewership and faithful readers to please and keep updated!

- Andrew

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Autumn Color at Conkle's Hollow State Nature Preserve

Fall coming to southeast Ohio is a moment I look forward to all year long.  It's a bittersweet moment at its core as another growing season has come to its inevitable end but the brief flux of color across the region's rolling, contiguously forested landscape makes winter's impending return seem not so rough.  Since moving down to the Athens area over five years ago, I've made sure to make the most out of living in such a spectacular part of the state.  In order to accomplish that there is one pilgrimage that must be made each and every October to a particular sandstone gorge in the renowned Hocking Hills region.

Looking into the bottleneck of Conkle's Hollow from the eastern gorge rim trail

If I've visited Conkle's Hollow state nature preserve once, I've visited it a dozen and a half times at just about every time of the year.  Its sheer sandstone cliff faces and bluffs rise precipitously from the cool, lush hemlock hollow below and is rimmed by an acidic mixed oak and pine forest community.  The views from the gorge rim trail are breathtaking no matter the season but let's not kid ourselves, nothing can best autumn's scene.

Incredible autumn color from all direcitons

The exposed layer of bedrock at Conkle's Hollow and the rest of the region is known as Black Hand sandstone and was laid down over 350 million years ago when an immense, warm shallow sea covered what is current-day Ohio.  The fine sand grains and rock particles that settled at the ocean's river deltas compacted under an ever-increasing amount of pressure and weight from the younger layers of sediment on top.  As the tectonic plates continued to shift and move over the Earth's surface, the eastern edge of the North American continent was forced up as the Appalachians formed, leaving Ohio high and dry and exposed to the elements.  Over the following hundreds of millions of years the softer surrounding bedrock material has been weathered away by the forces of water, ice and wind to reveal the resistant Black Hand sandstone.  Despite its heightened resiliency even it is not immune to the forces of time and erosion and has slowly but surely been carved out into the unique and fascinating gorges, promontories and rock houses we see today.

Stunted and gnarled Virginia pine along the very edges of the sandstone cliff edges and rock faces

When delving into the botanical aspect of any habitat or ecosystem it's important to know the geologic history and background for the corresponding area.  Geology and botany are intimately tied together and produce predictable results depending on the conditions present.  Conkle's Hollow's gorge rim is a harsh and acidic environment with very shallow, fast-draining soils and exposed bedrock with plant associations pretty similar to the Dolly Sods heath barrens I blogged about in the post prior to this.  Tree species such as chestnut/white/scarlet/post oaks, hemlock, Virginia pine, sourwood and serviceberry dominate with a shrub/herbaceous layer comprised of xeric acidophiles like mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata), hillside blueberry (Vaccinium pallidum), teaberry (Gaultheria procumbens), trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens), striped wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata), partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) and sawbrier (Smilax rotundifolia).

Unbeatable fall colors at Conkle's Hollow

As the story goes, Conkle's Hollow got its name from an inscription once visible on the western wall of the gorge that read -W.J. Conkle 1797-.  I can't imagine trying to rappel my way down the rock faces of the hollow with the technology and advancements of today, let alone over 200 years ago.  Whomever Conkle was, they certainly had more guts and adventure than I do; no way would I have been able to do such a task.  One wrong move and you're leaving your bones behind at the bottom of the hollow instead of your name!

Sheer sandstone cliffs rising nearly 200 feet above the valley floor

The sandstone cliffs look as imposing as they are impressive and boast vertical heights of nearly 200 feet, making it arguably the deepest hollow in the entire state.  The small creek that gently flows on the valley floor will continue to deepen the hollow millimeter by millimeter as time marches on and only add to its impressive physical relief statistics.  The mixture of evergreen hemlocks and bright yellow birch and tulip poplar at the bottom contrast nicely against the scarlet and orange of the oaks above the pale sandstone during the fall season.

Looking south out of the mouth of Conkle's Hollow and across the Hocking Hills

The fall foliage show has been exceptionally good this year with cool temperatures and wet weather sticking around for most of the month.  The leaves were nearing the end of their peak earlier this week during my visit but there's still time to get out there and see the views and scenery for yourself before it's done and gone for another year.  The view above is one I've admired and soaked in on numerous occasions and one that seems to get better upon each renewed visit.  No roads, no buildings, no powerlines, just ridge after ridge of contiguous forest ensconced in autumn's perfection.

Close up of one of Conkle's most prolific sandstone promontories 

I often tend to favor posts that take the reader places they've rarely, if ever been or perhaps never even heard of but sometimes it's hard to resist sharing a location that just about everyone is familiar with.  Conkle's Hollow is well-known, well-loved and certainly well-visited, as I can't recall a time when the parking lot hasn't had a majority of its spaces filled.  I'm thankful such a timeless and quintessential landscape for the region is preserved and protected as a state nature preserve and open for the public's enjoyment.  I highly encourage anyone reading to get out and visit for yourselves before winter clinches its cold and icy grip over Ohio; whether it's just one of a long string of visits or your first time!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

A Foggy and Soggy Dolly Sods Wilderness

For a number of years the Dolly Sods Wilderness in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia has resided near the top of your blogger's list of must visit places come autumn.  Life always seems to find a way of getting notably busy this time of year and a free weekend to escape can be a very rare thing.  Thankfully, this year finally provided the opportunity to shoulder my gear and head off deep into its wilderness with good friend and fellow nature blogger Michael Whittemore.  No one's words of encouragement to visit Dolly Sods have been louder than Mike's, as he's made this annual trip to the region for several years now and knows much of the area very well. We've managed to get together for some botanical outings a couple times a year for a while now and they never fail to disappoint, especially this past weekend.

This is quite the long and photogenic post so I'll do my best to keep the words short and let the photos do the talking.

Foggy heath barrens and boulder field near Bear Rocks, Dolly Sods Wilderness

Dolly Sods Wilderness is located within the immense Monongahela National Forest and is one of the state's most iconic and well-known natural treasures.  It sits atop a high plateau on an escarpment known as the Allegheny Front, which acts to separate the Appalachian Plateau and the Ridge and Valley physiographic regions.  The plateau rises some 2,700 to 4,000 feet above sea level in the Dolly Sods area and creates some of the most charismatic landscapes in the state.  Wind-swept boulder fields, heath barrens, stunted trees, ancient sphagnum bogs and an association of disjunct northern flora and fauna all merge together to make Dolly Sods as diverse as it is distinct.

Residing at a high elevation combined with sitting on an exposed escarpment, Dolly Sods gets more than its fair share of intense and inclement weather.  Rain, sunshine, snow and fog can all happen at a moment's notice and often in fast-shifting combinations.  The wind adds another layer of atmospheric complexity to the landscape and never, ever seems to stop blowing.  In fact, the Allegheny Front is said to be one of the most consistently windy places east of the Mississippi.

Fantastic fall foliage

Mike and I's four and a half hour drive from the Athens area to Dolly Sods was filled with some of the best fall foliage I can ever recall witnessing.  Near constant fog from the daylong drizzle added a shroud of mystery to much of the scenery and really caused the colors to pop.

Foggy drive up onto the subalpine plateau of Dolly Sods

We arrived late in the afternoon and geared up to make the several mile trek to our campsite for the night.  A fine mist fell as dusk descended into darkness and the foreign landscape closed in around us.  I've packed into camp in the black of night before and always appreciate the uniqueness of the next morning's experience of finally seeing where you are and what you walked through the night before.  

Mike and I established camp under a large red spruce and settled down to a nice dinner with lively conservation and the hopes that the forecast rain never materialized.  It wasn't long after we called it a night and retired to our tents that the sky opened and refused to close.  The rain steadily fell until daybreak and thoroughly saturated everything outside ourselves and gear.  A hearty and hot breakfast did just the trick to get us going and ready for a long day of trekking through the muck and fog.

Open meadow among a scattering of red spruce and northern hardwoods forest

Northern Long Sedge (Carex folliculata)
Flat-topped Aster (Doellingeria umbellata)

Walking through the interior of Dolly Sods on the Blackbird Knob trail takes you through a series of open grassy meadows dominated by scatterings of red spruce (Picea rubens) and an assortment of shrubs, forbs and grasses such as huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata), mountain oatgrass (Danthonia compressa), northern long sedge (Carex folliculata), flat-topped aster (Doellingeria umbellata) and wrinkle-leaved goldenrod (Solidago rugosa).

Open rocky landscape of the Dolly Sods plateau

Dolly Sod's plateau was formally an extensive old-growth red spruce forest dotted with cranberry sphagnum bogs, heath barrens and rhododendron/laurel thickets rather than the more open landscape it is today.  Intense logging through the 19th and into the early 20th century removed just about all of the spruce forest and burning practices kept the newly-opened areas as grassy meadows used for grazing.  Over the decades much of the northern hardwoods forest has returned with species like red oak, beech, sugar maple, red maple, basswood, black cherry, cucumber magnolia, yellow birch, black birch, and hemlock prevalent throughout. Red spruce has come back in scattered spots but not even close to its former grandeur.  I can only imagine what that magnificent spruce forest must have been like with specimens five plus feet in diameter and nearing 100 feet tall.  It's been said the primeval red spruce forest of the upper Red Creek valley (modern-day Dolly Sods) was the finest of its kind in the world.   

Bear Oak (Quercus ilicifolia)
Bear Oak (Quercus ilicifolia)

Our timing couldn't have been better for a lot of the fall color changes going on and none, in my opinion at least were as memorable as the scrub or bear oaks (Quercus ilicifolia).  This shrubby oak species doesn't occur in Ohio and is one I'd only seen once before in the Adirondacks of upstate New York.  Its shades of green, orange, yellow and red seemed to blend together and create a kaleidoscope of color on their gnarled and bonsai-like forms.

Fog rolling back onto the scene

Cranberries and mosses
Teaberry and lichens

Dolly Sods is the kind of place where it can take you an hour to walk 100 yards, there's just too much to take in with every step.  You can get lost on the distant horizon and its rolling mountains as easily as you can staring at the lilliputian world on the rock strewn ground below.  Ground cover plants like teaberry (Gaultheria procumbens), large cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon), trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens), bristly dewberry (Rubus hispidus) and an assortment of mosses and lichens were never in short supply.

Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)
Minnie-bush (Menziesia pilosa)

The odd fall-flowering witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) in full bloom

One of the most diverse aspects to the flora of the region is its plethora of shrub life, some of which are northern disjuncts typically found hundreds of miles to the north.  Species like the odd fall-flowering witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), winterberry (Ilex verticillata), mountain holly (I. montana), mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), possumhaw viburnum (Viburnum nudum) and speckled alder (Alnus incana) were all frequently encountered in the open, rocky meadows and barrens.  One of the best finds was the Appalachian endemic minnie-bush (Menziesia pilosa), a rhododendron-like shrub of the heath family and a lifer I could finally mark off the list.

Scarlet huckleberry, green spruce and gold aspen
Mike walking through a scattering of autumn color

Your narrator is of the opinion that no other plant in the entirety of Dolly Sods has the same output and intensity of seasonal color quite like the huckleberries and blueberries.  You'll definitely be seeing more of their scarlet perfection further below.

Fantastic texture of an assortment of reindeer lichen (Cladonia spp.

One of the best hallmarks of Dolly Sod's intact biodiversity and overall health is the assortment of lichen life present. Lichens are excellent barometers of an area's overall air quality, as they quickly disappear as pollution levels increase.  The reindeer lichens (Cladonia spp.) were some of the most common and in favorable, undisturbed sites spread across the ground like coral reefs in a tropical shallow sea.

Ferns under the pines

One of my favorite parts of our jaunt through the shifting landscape of the sub-alpine plateau was an area of red pine forest near our trail head's parking area.  Its under story was comprised of a thick duff of pine needles and a network of hay-scented fern (Dennstaedita punctilobula) colonies.  It had the feel of a miniaturized temperate rain forest of the Pacific Northwest with the addition of the never-ending fog.

Stiff Clubmoss (Spinulum annotinum)
Running Clubmoss (Lycopodium clavatum)

Dolly Sods was definitely a favorable habitat for an ancient lineage of vascular plants in the clubmosses or lycopods.  These evergreen fern allies are one of most fascinating groups to study and I greatly admire them for essentially being living fossils.  Numerous species from a scattering of genera such as Dendrolycopodium, Diphasiastrum, Huperzia, Lycopodium and Spinulum were all present and frequent throughout the forests and heath barrens.

Fog and fall foliage across the landscape of the Dolly Sods Wilderness

Foggy drive up to Bear Rocks

The blog title for this particular post is "foggy and soggy" for a reason.  Except for maybe an hour or two in the morning and then for very brief moments in the afternoon, the fog and mist never broke and kept the world enveloped in its soup.  I'd loved to have seen this incredible place under a blue sky and sunny conditions but there's always next time and I'll certainly never forget the unique atmospheric conditions of my first visit.

Foggy heath barrens and boulder fields of the Bear Rocks area

The majestic wind-swept heath barrens and boulder fields of the Bear Rocks area was easily the most mesmerizing experience of the whole weekend.  This sub-alpine, tundra-like landscape is one of the most harsh and acidic habitats to be found in the country. You wouldn't think much could survive in such an unforgiving place but the plant life proves otherwise.

Narrator standing on Bear Rocks, with a stunning view shrouded in the dense fog

Standing at the very eastern edge of the escarpment's plateau, Bear Rocks has some of the finest vista and valley views in the eastern United States.  Unfortunately, my turn to see those views will have to wait but a quick search of the region on Google images lets me know what lies beyond the clouds.

Rocks, tress and the fog
Huckleberries galore

The uppermost layer of bedrock on the Allegheny Front is a conglomerate known as Pottsville sandstone, a very weather-resistant stratum.  The softer surrounding rock layers of the escarpment have slowly been worn away by wind, water and ice and left the resilient Pottsville formation rocks in the patterns and forms we see today.

Rock puddle and surrounding mist
Mike among the huckleberries and fog

Wind-swept spruce with branches all to one side

Gazing out across the boulder meadows of Bear Rocks, it's not hard to surmise which way the prevailing winds blow.  Even in the fog, one can at least get a grasp for what direction they're facing by the red spruce all having their limbs swept to the east side from the westerlies that gust over the plateau.

The supremely scarlet huckleberry and blueberry shrubs contrasted sensationally against the pearl quartz studded conglomerate rocks.  It almost seemed like someone had landscaped the area and carefully placed each rock and heath shrub with purpose and vision.  The white gravel comprised of loose quartz pebbles added an extra aesthetic touch.  I can only imagine what this same site must look like in early summer when the mountain laurel, azaleas and rhododendron are in full, glorious bloom.

Foggy forested road leading down into the Red Creek valley

After leaving Bear Rocks behind, we decided to head down into the Red Creek valley to check out the views from below and see how the stream was doing after the previous night's rain.  The trail we hiked out on required you to ford both the upper branches of Red Creek and an additional smaller stream and both were a bit tricky as the water level had risen overnight.  The autumn color was really starting to turn on on the upper slopes of the northern hardwoods forest.

Looking upstream (east) on Red Creek in the Dolly Sods Wilderness

Looking downstream (west) on Red Creek in the Dolly Sods Wilderness

The fog managed to break a little bit on the valley floor and gave us a short window of opportunity to get some good views of the nearest adjacent hills and the creek's raucous riffles.  Once again the autumn foliage show was impossible to ignore and made the realization sink in even more of what our eyes were missing beyond the mist.

All in all my first experience in this boreal north-like wonderland was unforgettable.  It's not too often your expectations of a place are shattered and left in the dust by the real thing.  I'm not even a week returned and I can hear Dolly Sods already calling my name.  I think a visit next spring, summer and fall is in store and I'll happily bring you, my readers vicariously along as usual.  If you've never been before or perhaps haven't been back in a long time, let this post be the spark that ignites your fire for West Virginia!