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Tucked away in the northwestern corner of the state near Boone and the Tennessee line is a mountain range with an unusual name and a stunning landscape that attracts birders, hikers, and mountain lovers. A mineral-rich rock type called amphibolite gneiss underpins the peaks in the Amphibolite Mountains, yielding a more neutral soil than typically found in the mountains and feeding a rich diversity of plant life. The Amphibolites, which include Three Top Mountain, Elk Knob, Mount Jefferson, and Bluff Mountain, average about 5,000 feet, with 5,566-foot Snake Mountain reaching the highest elevation. The mountain range is oriented in a generally northeast to southwest direction and separates the north and south forks of the New River (another IBA, and one of the oldest rivers in the world). This 90,557-acre IBA is located in Ashe and Watauga Counties.
Just driving in the area is a treat, as windy two-lane roads wander through scenic valleys with Christmas tree farms and rounded forested peaks. Over 90 percent of this IBA is privately owned. The site includes Mt. Jefferson State Natural Area, Elk Knob State Park, and tracts on Paddy and Bluff Mountains protected by The Nature Conservancy. The North Carolina Plant Conservation Network also has significant holdings in the range. The landscape is a mosaic of farmland and hardwood forest interspersed with creeks, bogs, spruce forest, and grassy balds at higher elevations. These diverse habitats are home to mammals such as black bear and bobcat and rare creatures such as the bog turtle and northern flying squirrel. Land use in the area is devoted to conservation, recreation, hunting, fishing, residential development, grazing, and Christmas tree production.
This site supports significant populations of neotropical migrant songbirds, species of conservation concern, and watchlist species, including the largest concentration of Vesper Sparrows in North Carolina. A remnant stand of spruce forest is home to Northern Saw-whet Owl, Magnolia Warbler, Red-breasted Nuthatch, and Golden-crowned Kinglet and is an excellent example of this habitat type. Golden-winged Warblers and their hybrids (and a recent second breeding season record of Blue-winged Warbler) occur here in the western drainages of Watauga and Ashe Counties. This site was recently recognized as a Globally Significant Important Bird Area for Golden-winged Warblers.
Portions of this Important Bird Area fall in three Christmas Bird Count circles (Mt. Jefferson, New River, Grandfather Mountain). Audubon North Carolina established point counts in 2005 and continues to expand the number of these permanent points, now including locations on Rich Mountain, Elk Knob, Snake Mountain, Long Hope Valley, and lowland portions of the Important Bird Area. A long-term research project on the Golden-winged Warbler is also continuing.
The main threats to the Amphibolites are water quality, logging, residential and commercial development on private lands, and loss of early-successional habitats. Loss of important habitats to residential or commercial development is a key issue. Reforestation of agricultural areas will result in declines of some high-priority species, such as Golden-winged Warbler.
Places to visit
Elk Knob State Park, Watauga County
The elk that inspired this peak’s name have not inhabited this area since the late 1700s, but hiking on Elk Knob still provides a sense of wandering into the past. Elk Knob is one of the dozen mountains that ring the stunning Long Hope Valley – a high elevation valley that houses cranberry bogs, northern flying squirrels, and many rare plants. Springs bubbling from the peak form the source waters of the North Fork of the New River. At present the only path to Elk Knob’s 5,520-foot summit is a steep and rocky 1.3-mile former logging road, but park staff and volunteers are busily constructing a new trail (built with stone in some places) that will switchback to the summit.
Hiking through Elk Knob’s forests offers variety through the seasons: in wintertime you may find a rim-ice fairyland, while in summer grasses and trilliums carpet the understory. Trees become increasingly stunted as the elevation increases until you find a dwarf beech forest with 12-foot-tall trees carved by powerful ridgetop winds at the peak. On clear days, the summit offers an unobstructed view of Long Hope Valley, Bluff Mountain, the Peak, and Mount Jefferson, as well as Mount Rogers in Virginia.
During breeding season a variety of neotropical migrants nest in the park, including Chestnut-sided Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, and Black-throated Blue and Canada warblers. The drumming of Ruffed Grouse often resonates in the woods in the nesting season, as does the rich, organ-like call of the Veery.
For more information visit the State Parks' website.
Mount Jefferson State Natural Area, Ashe County
Thanks to a WPA-constructed two-mile paved road that climbs to just below the summit and features two overlooks, Mount Jefferson is a perfect destination for people of all ages and abilities. Rising 1,600 feet above the surrounding landscape, the peak towers over the towns of West Jefferson and Jefferson. Ambitious hikers and bikers can walk or bike to the summit, but most folks choose to drive. The forest on the ridges and north-facing slopes has never been logged and the relatively easy walk through these stunted gnarled oaks, shaped by strong northerly winds and winter ice storms, is a treat throughout the year.
The park’s trails include the .3-mile Summit Trail, which leads to the mountain’s highest point at 4,683-feet, and the 2-mile Rhododendron Trail. Mount Jefferson is renowned for its plant life so if you hike there in the spring and summer you will enjoy trilliums, pink lady’s slipper, white bee-balm, and jack-in-the pulpit. Migratory songbirds that nest here include Canada Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, and Chestnut-sided Warbler. The summit area offers picnic tables and a rock picnic shelter with a fireplace.
For more information visit State Parks' website.
Nearby natural areas
Bluff Mountain Preserve
This Nature Conservancy preserve in West Jefferson is one of the most ecologically significant natural areas in the Southeast and home to more than 400 species of plants, including 25 rarities. This Nature Conservancy preserve is accessible through a locally based eco-tourist guide, Kim Hadley. Email Kim at BluffMountainPreserve@gmail.com to schedule a trip to this incredible site.
For more information visit TNC's website.
Three Top Mountain Game Land
The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission manages this 2,808-acre site for hunting and hiking. It’s a great place to hike outside of hunting season, offering a steep, challenging trail to the summit. Along the way you hike through lovely hardwood forests full of birdsong and at the top you are rewarded with a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside. For more information: www.ncwildlife.org
State Park descriptions excerpted from North Carolina State Parks: A Niche Guide, by Ida Phillips and Bill Pendergraft, 2007
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