Dan Pittillo

Have you seen the “Yosemite of the East”?

Panthertown Valley is our favorite No. 1 natural area. Situated on the crest of the East Fork Tuckaseigee River, it is bordered by a ring of mid-elevation peaks at the edge of the Eastern Continental Divide. What is unique about Panthertown? I think it might be described as a high-elevation hung valley.

Usually, hung valleys are features of glaciation. But no glaciation has been found south of the Ohio River in the Appalachians. So how might this valley have been formed? This takes us back to the early development of this mountain region when Africa collided with North America and pushed our land over another part of itself. There was folding and faulting of this land mass as it was shoved northwestward. And, likely, the headwaters of the East Fork were tilted backward toward the south and east. The East Fork now travels down the main fault, turning from a northeastern to a northwestern direction past Bonas Defeat and through Tuckaseigee Gorge.

Most of the folded and twisted rocks are gneiss, which looks like granite to many people, and schists, layered rocks with a preponderance of micas. But pushed up through these rocks are plutons or granite intrusions. These massive rocks are exposed with plutons, making up the masses of Little Green and Big Green mountains. Features of these massive plutons are spalling masses peeling off like shells are peeled from boiled eggs.

Flanking the north edge of the valley is Blackrock Mountain with extensively exposed gneiss cliffs. Cliffs are often creviced, forming suitable habitats for the green salamander, a federally protected species, and considered endangered in North Carolina. On tops of the rock outcrops, weathering and precipitation results in small pool and sand pockets scattered along etched grooves.

Over time, these sand pockets fill in to support small pioneer plants, such as pale corydalis or rock harlequin. These pioneer plants are replaced in following years by mats of twisted-hair spikemoss (Bryodesma tortipilum), a specially adapted plant of rock outcrops found only in the Southern Appalachians. Subsequently these are replaced in the showy heaths, including sand myrtle or purple rhododendron. Where soil accumulation is adequate, table mountain pine moves in. So here the granite plutons become a veritable wildflower garden hanging above the valley of the East Fork.

Continuing to the east around this “bowl-rim” of Panthertown Valley are Shelton Pisgah, Board Camp Ridge and Little Green Mountain with Cold Mountain backing them up. Moving on south are Toxaway, Big Green, Hogback, and Bald Rock, and to the west is Laurel Knob.

The valley floor is more level as it drains East Fork headwaters. To the west, Panthertown Creek flows nearly half a mile before it drops 40 feet. Around Big Green Mountain and eastward is another extensive flat, extending between Big and Little Green mountains. In this area is a large bog or fen as it is known by naturalists. This fen has accumulations of decaying vegetation, silt and sands. Scientists have dated logs buried in this muck back some 12,000 years. Among the characteristic plants in this bog or fen are Sundew, Button Sedge and the usual covering of spongy Sphagnum moss.

Waters gathered in these mucky flats are infused with brown humic acids and tannins. These give a brown tinge to the water and following a dry spell, rain washes these brown waters into the streams, suggesting a characteristic of our eastern North Carolina coastal plain streams. It is this infusion of organic materials to the waters that provide food for small aquatic insects. Then these insects are eaten by the brook trout that inhabit the streams. Biologists found brook trout in these streams to be as much as 300 pounds per mile, more than in a mile of Great Smoky Mountains streams.

Next week we’ll take a look how humans impact Panthertown Valley.

Dan Pittillo is a botanical consultant and retired Western Carolina University professor of biology.