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Sugar Hill: A Microcosm of Central Appalachian Ecology

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From the damp limestone outcrops along the Cliff Trail to the dry-loving plants on Pete's Rock, Sugar Hill's cliffs house a fascinating diversity of plant and animal life.

Richard Low Gap trails

Cliff along the trail from Low GapLow Gap

Low Gap is an area at the top of Hidden Valley Road where the road transitions from pavement to gravel with a small parking area on the left. Two trails can be accessed from the parking area: a trail that leads to the base of some cliffs referred to here as the Cliff Trail and the western terminus of the Clinch Mountain Trail.

Cliff Trail

Facing north, access to the cliff trail is just to the left of the mound and a small patch of weeds. The trail meanders westerly a few hundred yards through a heavily shaded deciduous forest where Indian Cucumber, Large-Flowered Trillium, Southern Harebell and the like can be found. As a few sandstone rocks are ascended the trail trends northwesterly then northerly along the base of tall sandstone cliffs. The trail is approximately 3⁄4 of a mile in total length, flat, and makes for   nice walk. Above is a photo of the Cliffs.

Clinch Mountain Trail at Low Gap
Clinch Mountain Trail
Clinch Mountain Trail, accessed from the northern side of the parking area, averages 3,800 feet in elevation as it follows the ridge of Clinch Mountain approximately nine and a half miles along the Washington and Russell County lines east to US Route 80 in Hayter’s Gap. Four land owning parties are involved: Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) that maintains the Hidden Valley Wildlife Management Area, Virginia Department of Forestry (DOF) and Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) Natural Heritage Division who jointly manage the Channels State Forest, and Brumley Cove Baptist Camp.

Open only to foot traffic, hikers transit southern Appalachian and northern hardwood forests, high elevation cove forest, and calcareous cliff plant communities, and are afforded high elevation vistas into Russell Co. Near its eastern extremity the trail provides access to the Channels. A spur trail descends to Brumley Cove Baptist Camp that allows users access to the camp and trout fee fishing.

Vista from near Low Gap showing four states
Vista west from the cliff above Hansonville known as Buzzard Rock near the Clinch Mountain Trail. Approx. 4,000 ft in elevation, four states are seen from here: North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia. Little Moccasin Gap, one of only two true gaps through the mountain, is seen on the left as the backbone of Clinch Mountain trends southwest to northeast. Many pioneers passed through this gap enroute to the Cumberlands and westward.

Richard Kretz

is a photographer and naturalist who chronicles his adventures in southwest Virginia at  Stay tuned to read more of his writeup on Hidden Valley Wildlife Management Area, or click on the tag for "hidden_valley" to read previous posts in this series.

Posted Thu Nov 11 07:00:04 2010 Tags: cliff

The Pinnacle: rare plants and landscapeNearest towns: Lebanon, Cleveland

The Pinnacle is worth visiting just for the scenic swinging bridge, the raging waterfall, and the craggy rock feature after which the area was named.  But you will also want to spend some time hunting down the preserve's rare and unusual species.  Steep limestone cliffs provide habitat for Canby's Mountain-­Lover, Carolina Saxifrage, Northern White­-Cedar, and American Harebell, while Glade Spurge is found along the
side of Big Cedar Creek.  Unusually deep purple hepatica flowers pop up along the trails in early spring, along with a host of the usual early spring ephemerals.  The Pinnacle also abuts the Clinch River, giving you another chance to explore the river's diversity.

<--Back to High Knob                  On to Bibliography-->
Posted Tue Mar 16 11:26:09 2010 Tags: cliff

Pete's Rock at Sugar HillA short distance past the turnoff for Marlene Path, the side of Sugar Hill turns rocky and precipitous.  As you round a small bend, Pete's Rock rises up beside you, tall and dry on the sunny side of Sugar Hill.  The cliff is a perfect spot to explore the plants that can survive dessication --- ferns like Purple-stemmed Cliff-Brake and Wall-Rue are two good examples.

On one of my first visits to Sugar Hill, I was thrilled to see a bird nest glued to the side of Pete's Rock.  Despite being passed by several hikers a day, the nest was full of tiny birds --- probably swallows that make a living skimming insects off the surface of the nearby river.  Who knows what you'll find sheltered under the craggy overhang? 

Posted Mon Feb 1 15:48:35 2010 Tags: cliff

Red Columbine, Scientific Name: Aquilegia canadensis, Family: Ranunculaceae (Buttercup Family), Habitat: Dry to mesic woods, cliffs, and ledges, Blooms: April to JuneIf you plan to only walk one trail on Sugar Hill, the Cliff Trail should be the one, and not just because of the maturity of the forest.  Rock outcrops along the trail drip with mosses, ferns, and flowers in a perfect example of the wet limestone cliff community, while dense jumbles of boulders beneath the cliffs showcase the boulderfield forest community.  Both of these plant communities are all about rocks that began as living beings --- limestone.

Limestone is not a typical rock.  Instead of forming from sand, silt, or molten lava, limestone can be traced back to tiny critters living in an ancient ocean.  Many of these ocean animals extract a mineral called calcium carbonate out of the water and use it to form hard shells like the ones you see washed up on ocean beaches.  When the shell-encased animals die, a few of their shells do end up on beaches but most instead drift down to the ocean floor where they are ground up by wave action and eventually compacted into layers of rock called limestone.  Over millions of years, the limestone on the ocean floor may be lifted up into mountains, leaving behind the remains of ocean critters in places like Sugar Hill.

Eventually, all rocks begin to weather into dirt, but the soil produced on top of limestone is very different from the soil produced by other rocks.  Sandstone, for example, breaks down into sandy soil that tends to be acidic, while limestone breaks down into alkaline soil.  Acidity and alkalinity are measures of pH --- even if you have not heard of pH, you have certainly experienced the sour acidity of lemons and the slippery alkalinity of bleach.

Just as we can taste or feel the difference between acidic and alkaline foods, plants can tell the difference between acidic and alkaline soil, and most plants prefer one over the other.  Many of the flowers you will find growing along the cliffs on Sugar Hill would not be caught dead growing on acidic sandstone.  These limestone-lovers include several of the ferns discussed in an earlier chapter as well as plants like Red Columbine and Smooth Sicklepod.

Other plants are found on the limestone cliffs because they are able to thrive in desert-like conditions.  Although the shaded hillside along the Cliff Trail stays moist for much of the year, the lack of soil on the cliff face means that plants go for long periods without being able to soak up water through their roots.  Three-leaved Stonecrop is perfectly adapted to surviving droughts --- the plant’s thick, succulent leaves fill up with water during rainy spells, storing moisture for the stonecrop to use during dry, sunny days between storms.  Wild Hydrangeas also seem to do well in rocky areas with only pockets of soil, and I often see them clinging to the side of cliff faces.  Pete’s Rock --- on the sunnier side of Sugar Hill --- is home to even more of these desert-adapted cliff plants.

One more niche is worth looking for along the Cliff Trail --- the boulderfield community.  Talus heaps of boulders are often found at the bases of cliffs, where winter’s freezing and thawing cracks blocks of stone loose to roll down and collect in a pile beneath the cliff.  For plants, boulderfields are even more difficult to colonize than cliffs are --- as the saying goes, a rolling stone gathers no moss, and stones in the talus heap do slowly move and roll as boulders knock into them from above.  Trees can seldom find a safe foothold in the boulderfield, but mosses and lichens manage to cling onto the more stable rocks.  Without even the tiny pockets of soil that collect in crannies in the cliff-face, lichens on boulders have to create their own dirt.  The lichens secrete acids that hasten the breakdown of the rock surface, forming little clumps of dirt into which mosses and eventually larger plants can grow.  Here in the boulderfields along the Cliff Trail, you can see the true beginnings of forest succession as bare rock slowly dissolves into soil and provides a home to lichens, mosses, and finally flowers and ferns.

Posted Mon Jan 25 12:48:42 2010 Tags: cliff

Bladdernut, Scientific Name: Staphylea trifolia, Family: Staphyleaceae (Bladdernut Family), Habitat: Mesic woodlands, Blooms: April to MayThe Bladdernut is not really all that far from its proper habitat --- in fact, you can find stands of the shrub along the River Trail that are rooted in just the right place.  The ones on the Cliff Trail would not be so odd if they were not 300 feet higher in elevation than the floodplain plant community.  You see, Bladdernuts like floodplains.  Actually, what they like the most is floods.

The shrub received its name because of the balloon-like bladder of air surrounding each seed, an adaptation to water dispersal.  If you pluck one of the odd, bulgy seed pods off the Bladdernut bush and toss it in the river, you will be able to watch as the pod bobs along on the surface until it rounds the next bend and drifts out of sight.  The plant is extremely well adapted to habitats that flood frequently, because the high waters naturally pick up the seed pods and carry them many miles downstream to a new floodplain just waiting to be colonized.  When the flood waters recede, the Bladdernut pod drops to the ground and slowly rots to reveal the seed inside, which will, in turn, sprout and grow into a new Bladdernut bush.

So how did Bladdernut shrubs end up near the top of Sugar Hill?  They seem to be doing fine in their new, cliff-side habitat, perhaps because Bladdernuts thrive on limestone as well as floods.  I cannot help wondering whether one of the settlers who used the Cliff Trail to reach the Frenchman’s Settlement might have planted a Bladdernut along the trail, or even just dropped a seed that he was fiddling with as he climbed.  The other possibility seems far-fetched --- that the Clinch River flooded so high that Sugar Hill was nearly completely underwater, allowing a Bladdernut pod to drift up and land on the edge of the Cliff Trail.

<--Misplaced Plants                  On to Multiflora Rose-->
Posted Mon Jan 25 10:31:34 2010 Tags: cliff

Rattlesnake Fern, Scientific Name: Botrychium virginianum, Family: Ophioglossaceae (Adder's Tongue Family), Habitat: Well-drained soil in rich woodsThe remnants of the Arcto-Tertiary forest, both here and in China, have made for two of the most diverse temperate regions of the world.  Within our local remnant, the Clinch River watershed stands out as a “biodiversity hotspot”, meaning that the watershed contains more types of plants and animals than can be found anywhere else in the continental U.S.  These waters flowing past Sugar Hill contain more mussel species than can be found in all of Europe and China combined.  Scientists also marvel over the varying colors and species of millipedes, the diversity of snail life, and the stunning variety of plants in our area.  On Sugar Hill itself, a survey of just the herbaceous understory plants (the small plants on the forest floor) turned up 155 species. 

Where does one start when exploring this astonishing diversity?  As a youngster beginning to learn about the Appalachian forest, I was lucky enough to spend a few days following in the footsteps of the noted local naturalist Arthur Smith.  Only years later did I discover how well known Arthur was in the region --- at the time, I was tempted out in the field by the extra chocolate bar he liked to bring along to share as part of our lunch.  In addition to feeding my sweet tooth, he simplified the world in a way that made sense, showing me how to gauge an area’s overall diversity by keeping an eye on the ferns.  Arthur explained that places with a large number of different fern species tend to have a higher diversity of other kinds of life --- more wildflowers, more salamanders, more trees.
Christmas Fern, Scientific Name: Polystichum acrostichoides, Family: Dryopteridaceae (Wood Fern Family), Habitat: Woods
First he taught me to watch out for our most common ferns --- Christmas Fern with its simple leaflets shaped like stockings and Ebony Spleenwort with its shiny black stem.  On moist, shady hillsides, the divided fronds of Maidenhair Ferns are likely to arch delicately over the leaf litter.  Rattlesnake Fern is considered an indicator species for Ginseng and can be found in the moist coves where that species once grew before overcollection nearly wiped it off the map.  Drier, more open woods are often home to Hay-scented Ferns, so named for the grassy odor that wafts up from their lacy fronds when brushed by a passing pant leg.

Other ferns are less widespread, each with its own microhabitat.  On Sugar Hill, the limestone cliffs house Walking Fern, named for its habit of rooting a new fern at the end of its attenuated, arrowhead-shaped frond.  Bulblet Bladder Fern also thrives on limestone where it reproduces by dropping little bulblets from the underside of its fronds.  Each bulblet will sprout tiny new leaves and grow into a daughter fern.  Meanwhile, drier limestone cliffs on the western side of the hill are home to Purple-stemmed Cliff-Brake, an unusual fern with asymmetrical fronds, and Wall-Rue.  Finally, Goldie’s Wood Fern and Narrow-leaved Glade Fern thrive in habitats similar to those enjoyed by Maidenhair and Rattlesnake Ferns.
Wall-Rue, Scientific name: Asplenium ruta-muraria, Family: Aspleniaceae (Spleenwort Family), Habitat: limestone cliffs and boulders
Eleven fern species have been found so far at Sugar Hill, a large number for a preserve so small.  Just as you can measure an area’s overall diversity by counting its fern species, you can also get an idea for what drives that diversity.  Varying habitats abound on Sugar Hill, each with its own array of plants and animals.  Ancient heritage and a varied terrain are two of the factors that make Sugar Hill a treasure trove of Appalachian nature.

Ferns Not Pictured

Maidenhair Fern
Scientific Name: Adiantum pedatum
Family: Pteridaceae (Maidenhair Fern Family)
Habitat: Moist, shady places

Purple-stemmed Cliff-Brake
Scientific Name: Pellaea atropurpurea
Family: Pteridaceae (Maidenhair Fern Family)
Habitat: Dry limestone rocks

Ebony Spleenwort
Scientific Name: Asplenium platyneuron
Family: Aspleniaceae (Spleenwort Family)
Habitat: Woods and rocks

Walking Fern
Scientific Name: Asplenium rhizophyllum
Family: Aspleniaceae (Spleenwort Family)
Habitat: Shaded rocks, usually on limestone

Bulblet Bladder Fern
Scientific Name: Cystopteris bulbifera
Family: Dryopteridaceae (Wood Fern Family)
Habitat: Shaded limestone rocks

Narrow-leaved Glade Fern
Scientific Name: Diplazium pycnocarpon
Family: Dryopteridaceae (Wood Fern Family)
Habitat: Moist, shady places

Goldie’s Wood Fern
Scientific Name: Dryopteris goldiana
Family: Dryopteridaceae (Wood Fern Family)
Habitat: Rich woods, most often on acidic soil

Hay-scented Fern
Scientific name: Dennstaedtia punctilobula
Family: Dennstaedtiaceae (Bracken Family)
Habitat: Open fields and woodland edges

<--Back to Canada Violet                  On to Uncommon Beauty-->
Posted Tue Jan 12 10:15:28 2010 Tags: cliff

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