Wild Connections: Explore the waterfalls, hemlocks and rich cove forests of Hickory Nut Gorge


By Sean Keuroghlian-Eaton, Evan Lamb, Oscar Thompsonand J.J. Apodaca

The mountains are lighting up. Days are long and warm, and the springtime green is knocking at our door. I’m sure you agree that there’s no better way to shake off the winter stupor with a stretch of the legs and a day outside. While Western North Carolina is not short on amazing places to explore, we would like to suggest one of the most overlooked and unique natural areas in the state, the Hickory Nut Gorge (HNG). Many people are familiar with Chimney Rock State Park and Lake Lure, but the HNG is far more diverse than just these two attractions and is just twenty to thirty minutes from of Asheville.

Over a dozen conservation organizations are involved with the HNG, such as The Nature Conservancy and Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy, due to its distinctive habitat features and the vast number of unique and threatened plants and animals that call the HNG home. Sometimes it can be easy to forget the beauty that lies in our own backyard, but there is no time like the present to get out and explore the HNG. So get out and discover the gorge by hiking through one of its many unique habitat types or searching for one of the numerous rare or endemic species such as the endemic sweet white trillium, peregrine falcons, or crevice salamanders.

While Hickory Nut Gorge is full of natural community types, here are some favorites to look out for:

Spray cliffs

Hickory Nut Falls is one of the highest waterfalls east of the Mississippi at 404 feet tall, it is conveniently located in Chimney Rock State Park, the fall is a wonderful place to enjoy the outdoors, especially now that the weather has warmed up, and the foliage is coming out, it is also an excellent spot to see spray cliffs, a unique natural community.

Spray cliffs are communities of plants that occur on perpetually moist rock faces, such as those found on rock near sheltered seeps, or more commonly in the spray and splash areas of waterfalls. These unique communities can be found scattered throughout the Blue Ridge Mountains, and beyond. The plants that grow in these areas are specially adapted to grow on bare rock faces, the main plant group found on spray cliffs are a diverse array of moss species are the main plants on spray cliffs, some vascular plants make their home on spray cliffs as well, these include small enchanter’s night-shade, mountain meadow-rue and several species of saxifrage.

Hickory Nut Falls can be seen by hiking the one and a half mile round trip Hickory Nut Falls trail through gently rolling deciduous forests, while hiking to the falls you may also enjoy sweeping views of the regions cliffs. As you hike be sure to look for native wildflowers that may be blooming.

Rich Cove Forests

Rich Cove forests, dense and thriving deciduous forest valleys, are a natural community type unique to Appalachia. They are characterized by an extreme diversity of plants and wildlife, and an abundance of flowering species. Not long from now Little Bearwallow, a rich cove forest nestled in Hickory Nut Gorge, will be a veritable menagerie of beautiful and diverse flowers.

Little Bearwallow is designated as a Significant Natural Area for its richness and diversity. The hike, Little Bearwallow Trail, is three miles, and takes visitors around waterfalls, across cliffs, and by gorgeous views. As spring rolls on, hikers can find violets, flame azaleas, trillium, bloodroot, and many more types of bloom all the way along Little Bearwallow Trail. Five more miles of trail are currently under construction to connect Little Bearwallow gorge to Chimney Rock. If you’re looking for somewhere beautiful and unique to have walk without exhausting yourself in the process, Little Bearwallow is a solid bet.

Hemlock Bluff

The Carolina hemlock is restricted to southern Virginia, western North Carolina, eastern Tennessee, northwest South Carolina, and northern Georgia. Yet it is rarely the dominant canopy species as it is in parts of Chimney Rock State Park. This exceptional species has the ability to grow on steep slopes, rocky cliffs, and even gorge walls, making them a natural fit for the rugged terrain of the HNG. Unfortunately, this unique species and habitat type is under attack by the hemlock woolly adelgid, a parasite that has wiped out nearly 50% of hemlock bluffs.

Editor’s note: This column is one in a series produced by Warren Wilson College Environmental Studies faculty member J.J. Apodaca and his students. The goal is give students writing experience while encouraging people to experience, and help preserve, Western North Carolina’s beautiful environment.