Monday, February 05, 2007

Bagging some peaks in Hickory Nut Gorge.

Hickory Nut Gorge, located in North Carolina just south of the city of Asheville, is a classis southern Appalachian gorge. It’s relatively deep, ranging from just a few hundred to well over one thousand feet in depth, and moderately narrow. It is cut by one major tributary, the Broad River.

The lower section of the gorge was dammed many years ago to form Lake Lure, widely considered to be one of the prettiest man-made lakes in North America. Since the lake is almost cupped by the escarpment walls of solid granite that form the tail of the gorge, it is undeniably a strikingly scenic location. The real estate around the lake is some of the most expensive in the state, and hardly a square foot of it remains undeveloped. Houses stand in close proximity to one another, and there is almost no public access to the lake itself. And no slope, no matter how steep, seems to be free of a house of some type as long as that land is waterfront. It is both a horrifying and humorous sight.

The gorge itself is also heavily developed, with two communities lying deep within it: Lake Lure, and Bat Cave. All along the gorge are inns, shops, two post offices, restaurants, private campgrounds, one amusement park (Chimney Rock Park), and uncounted thousands of vacation homes with accompanying driveways and roads being endlessly cut through the forests and gouged into the slopes of the gorge and onto the ridgelines.

However…all is not lost.

There is something like a wilderness aspect of the land still to be found in a couple of places within Hickory Nut Gorge. With the help of the Nature Conservancy, the State of North Carolina has managed to procure the ownership and/or conservation easements of just under 3,000 acres of land on either side of the gorge just above Lake Lure. Chimney Rock Park has been purchased by the state, and a good portion of both Rumbling Bald Mountain and Shumont Mountain are now in the hands of the state and will all be a part of the new park, due to be open to the public in 2008.

Currently, there are no facilities at all within the lands to be incorporated into the park boundaries, but one is allowed to hike there, and Rumbling Bald has become the single most popular rock climbing location in the entire state (if not the entire Southeast). On any given day of nice weather, be prepared to share the climbing routes on Rumbling Bald with dozens of other rock climbers.

The forests of Hickory Nut Gorge are typical of the southern Appalachians. Mainly cove hardwoods, there are some patches of hemlock groves here and there. None of the trees seem to be of exceptional size, since the forests are almost all second and third growth. I have encountered a few old trees, though.

The gorge is best known outside the area as the location of the last scenes in the popular film, Last of the Mohicans. Most of these scenes were shot within what is now Chimney Rock Park, and which contain the “Chimney Rock” itself, a vast number of high granite walls, and Hickory Nut Falls, one of the tallest in the Southeast (at 404 feet).

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