Hickory Nut Gorge and the communities encompassed by it are quite special. The serenity of living along a creek, a lake, or a mountainside is something that everyone dreams about. The peacefulness of the area draws people in as tourists who later decide to make it their home. The qualities that have drawn people to this area for over two centuries hang in the balance as more and more people settle in the mountains, not knowing that the very thing they seek may be in danger of disappearing because of their presence. It is a delicate balance that we face.
Where is the tipping point? That’s anyone’s guess, but the more we know about where we live the greater chance we have of sustaining those things that make Hickory Nut Gorge so special.
Hickory Nut Gorge - Its Natural History
Hickory Nut Gorge, as it has been called since the first settlers came to this region, is a steep low elevation gorge located on the edge of the Blue Ridge Escarpment which marks the separation of the Piedmont and the Blue Ridge Physiographic Province, better known as the Blue Ridge Mountains.
As Hickory Nut Gorge formed and deepened, natural erosive forces continued to shape the gorge walls and slopes. Numerous topographic features were created, resulting in a physically complex area. These variations in topography, enhanced by aspect, moisture, and elevation, create a complex range of habitats that range from extremely hot and dry, to unusually cool and moist. This range of habitats is one of the main reasons that Hickory Nut Gorge is ranked among the highest in North Carolina in biodiversity.
The geology of the area also contributes highly to the biodiversity found in Hickory Nut Gorge. The primary rock type occurring in the gorge is Henderson augen gneiss, pronounced “nice,” which dominates the gorge walls and forms the many outcroppings and granite domes that are characteristic of the area.
Hickory Nut Gorge provides a home to numerous species that occur in both the mountains and the Piedmont, and some that are unique to Hickory Nut Gorge and other low elevation gorges along the Blue Ridge Escarpment. The range of microclimates, resulting from elevational differences, topography, and aspect, provides habitat for a vast array of plant communities and rare species. Ridges and south-facing slopes are typically drier and have more acidic soils. They support plants such as mountain laurel, pines, oaks, blueberries and hickories. North-facing slopes are generally moist and support a mixed community dominated by hemlock, tulip poplar, oaks and maples. Cove hardwood forests tend to dominate the lower slopes and drainage areas. These forests are where the greatest species diversity occurs, supporting a broad range of flowering understory trees, showy wildflower species, and large canopy trees such as oaks, hickories, poplars and basswood.
Another significant event for the forests of Hickory Nut Gorge is playing out before our eyes today. This event is the loss of the hemlock. Hickory Nut Gorge is home to two species of hemlock: the eastern hemlock and the Carolina hemlock. Both species provide food and shelter to numerous plant and animal species, as well as provide necessary cooling of trout streams. The loss of these trees is attributed to the hemlock woolly adelgid or HWA. There are current efforts being made to control the pest chemically and biological, if nothing else to buy some time for the hemlocks and allow for seed harvesting and banking.
There are biologists that believe that the loss of the hemlock may be more significant than the loss of the American chestnut because we have a better understanding of what the impacts may be.
Other significant natural areas in Hickory Nut Gorge are the Bat Cave Preserve, Rumbling Bald Mountain, Cane Creek Mountain, World’s Edge/Sugarloaf Mountain. These areas are home to various plant communities and rare plant and animal species
Our thanks to Clint Calhoun, former Naturalist and Environmental Control Officer for the Town of Lake Lure (2003 – 2018) for this information. As of 2018, Clint enhanced his professional career by teaching environmental sciences at Lake Lure Classical Academy.