Well, it’s definitely that time of year again. The summer heat held on into late September, and the blasted drought continues unabated, but this weekend finally offered some truly fall-weather hiking. Lows in the 40’s and highs in the 70’s with crystal-clear high pressure overhead signify that the great change is coming. There are even a few leaves changing color above 4000′ in elevation, and above 5000′ there’s even been a first frost of the season.
Today I had the opportunity to re-hike the Walton trail in the Nantahala National Forest. Forgot the camera, although the picture-taking would have been awful today anyway. Let me tell you this – the yellowjackets are in rare form this fall. They’re always bad in the fall, but I counted no fewer than 4 underground nests along the trail today. This after an incident on September 2 where I ended up with a wedge compression fracture in my spine after trying to run from a swarm of those suckers and falling flat. I was a nervous wreck, but it did let me slow down and enjoy the surroundings. This is a cool place – unfortunately the trail doesn’t get much use, though, and it’s terribly overgrown.
Honestly, I’d recommend the trail only AFTER a couple of nights in the 20’s have happened later this fall to beat back the stinging insects. But the trail is neat, and loops around the west slope above the upper end of the Big Laurel valley (or Alarka Laurel, depending on which map you consult). At just over 4000′, the valley is relatively flat and surrounded by mountains. I seem to be enamored with these types of valleys – like Pink Beds and Graveyard Fields over in Pisgah. This one sports a rare spruce bog environment. The Red Spruce normally doesn’t grow until about 4500′ in elevation but seems to thrive here just fine.
The trail doesn’t actually enter the bog except for at the very end, where a short boardwalk takes you out into the rhododendron thicket a few feet. Don’t look for blazes, but there are interpretive sign posts every few feet that give some insight into the things you see growing beside the trail. Two large sign boards provide an overview and map of the area – one just past the parking area, and one at the point where the trail splits into a loop. You’ll get the rare opportunity to see the Pink Lady Slipper plant growing beside the trail, fenced-off and identified for you. If you’re really lucky, you’ll come in spring when it’s blooming.
Unfortunately, even the boardwalk was overgrown with briars and some of the spruces in the bog aren’t looking too healthy. I counted about 5 that were alive (and looked just great, actually) but 5 that were completely dead from the boardwalk. Plenty of young, vigorous spruces grow in the area, though a bunch of them have some sort of disease or insect infestation that has killed the terminal growth of a large number of branches. I’ve seen these outbreaks before, and from my lay observations, they don’t seem to cause permanent or severe damage – but it’s just another thing attacking our forest trees. And speaking of bugs attacking trees – the hemlock wooly adelgid is doing a number up here too, and along Connelly Creek Road they are all completely dead.
At any rate, if you get a chance, give the trail a chance – it’s unique and easy. It’s a neat drive, though a bit of caution or a 4-wheel drive vehicle is recommended on the last leg.
Getting There: Head West on the Great Smoky Mountains Expressway (US 74) to Whittier, exit 72. Go about a block and turn left on Depot Street. Cross the river and railroad tracks, and bear left. Go back under the expressway and immediately turn right on Old Bryson City Road. Then immediately turn left on Conleys Creek Road. It’s about 8.8 miles to the parking area on this road. You’ll pass the country club, some campgrounds, and house. The raod will begin climbing steeply through switchbacks, then turn to gravel, then turn to a narrow forest service road and literally cross the creek (no bridge or pipe here). After several miles of steep climbs and switchbacks, the road passes through Wesser Gap and descends gently to another small, wet, creek crossing. The parking area is just past the second creek crossing on the right and the trail starts at the back of the parking area.
I recently stumbled on the Alarka Laurel Spruce Bog while exploring the Cowee Mountains. I am also fascinated with the high mountain valleys featuring plant species more typical of regions farther to the north. I just returned today from the Wolf Laurel Basin on the south slopes of Stratton Meadows (just west of the Cherohala Skyway). The high mountain basin is similar to the Alarka Laurel area, but the dark and majestic trees are not Red Spruce – the trees are either Fraser Fir or Carolina Hemlock? Have you visited this area?
I’ve heard of the Wolf Laurel basin but I’ve never been there. I definitely have to go now! Not sure what kinds of trees those are – do you have a photo of them? I might be able to identify them with a picture. I’d guess Hemlock, which means enjoy them while they last because the Adelgids are probably already eating them alive. I guess they could also be Fraser fir, but I don’t think the firs grow that far south. Could it also be white pine?