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Brasstown Bald


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    Musings: Authors do it Write!

    Published 3-26-2021

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    This is a trip for a pandemic, one that minimizes crowds and is mostly out-of-doors. The highest point in any state offers a destination with a view. A day trip from my location offered three choices in North Carolina (highest in eastern United States), South Carolina, and Georgia. Georgia won, as it includes a museum and a view of the Atlanta skyline from 80 miles (on a very clear day, not the day I was there). On regular clear day, four states should be visible. The name of the top attraction is Brasstown Bald.

    The state historical marker gives the derivation of the name from the Cherokee language, meaning green place, and notes an early White settlement of Brasstown nearby. North Georgia is the southern end of the Appalachian Mountains and this is part of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Matter of a fact, the Appalachian Trail begins about 25 miles to the southwest. You can drive nearly to the top of Brasstown Bald and a shuttle will take you the last half mile or so to the very top. Be careful, the shuttle sometimes does not run on weekdays. On those days you can walk the 0.6 miles to the top on a paved trail. Warning: most people would not enjoy the walk up to the top; it is very steep. The walk down is great, with lots to see.

    What exactly is a bald? Balds occur mainly in the southern Appalachian Mountains on mountain summits below the treeline (usually at elevations from about 4,000 to 6,000 feet) and would be expected to be forested. Instead, they are treeless (bald) grassy meadows. Balds in the northern Appalachian Mountains occur above the alpine zone where trees do not grow due to the short growing season. In the southern Appalachians, even the highest elevations are too warm for an alpine zone, so balds are unexpected.

    The cause of balds is actually a mystery. One theory is that Cherokee Indians cleared land and burned vegetation to provide lookouts, camps, and hunting areas. Another explanation is that European settlers cleared these flat areas for farming and pasture. Still another theory points to natural causes. Elevation, severe climate, and fire may combine to produce and maintain the balds. For a discussion of theories on their origins see the National Park Service publication on grassy balds in the Great Smoky National Park in the additional information.

    Heath shrub species like rhododendron and mountain laurel are the main plants growing on these balds. These plants thrive on high rainfall and humidity, low soil and air temperatures, and soils that are acidic and nutrient-poor. Prevailing winds and low temperatures create extreme conditions in the winter. Harsh weather stunts and deforms the trees as the altitude increases. Certain plant species disappear as you proceed up the mountainside to the bald. Even on the short walk from the parking lot to the tower, you can observe this change in plant species. 

    Helen, Georgia is a Logical Starting Place

    A top tourist attraction in Georgia is Helen, a tourist town modelled on a Bavarian alpine village. It is a destination village, but not the topic of this article. I mention it as it is a logical starting point to see the top attraction in elevation, 3,000 feet higher than Helen. October is one of the best times to visit Helen for Octoberfest, and also a wonderful time to visit North Georgia for the leaves. Brasstown Bald is on the Russell-Brasstown Scenic Byway that winds through the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest in a 40-mile loop. The loop begins just north of town, go north on Main Street, and includes scenic overlooks, waterfalls, interpretative signs, and Brasstown Bald.    

    Helen, Georgia is a destination tourist attraction, an "alpine Bavarian" village, and one of many places to access the Russell-Brasstown Byway

    While Helen is not the topic, to point out potential locations to eat or drink near the Byway, this is a beer garden and restaurant
    on the Chattahoochee River, in the center of town. 

    The Russell-Brasstown National Scenic Byway winds through the mountain gaps of North Georgia offering scenic overlooks and vistas. At Hog Pen Gap is a picnic area where the Appalachian Trail crosses the Byway. It is an opportunity to hike a few yards on the Appalachians Trail, just to say you've been on it. Waterfalls, at least to me, are the most interesting stops on the Byway.  There are lots of waterfall options, some with paved trails and others with a couple of miles of hiking and some slopes. Close to Brasstown Bald is High Shoals Falls, 1.2 miles in and 1.2 miles back. It is an easy hike in and not so easy back, as back is mostly uphill.

    The trek to the falls is through a lush old growth forest, with many exceptionally large trees. The trail is a little rough, but easy to follow, with plenty of mountain laurel in the understory and thickets of rhododendron. About halfway to the falls, a bridge crosses High Shoals Creek and the trail follows the creek from there on. Generally, you can hear the roar of rushing water for the next half mile (reminding me of the background soundtrack of Deliverance). Near the destination a side trail heads to the creek, leading to Blue Hole Falls. A little farther on the main trail is High Shoals Falls. Towards the end of the trail the vegetation turns lush and green, deep in the valley it looks a bit like a temperate rain forest. It's a wonderful hike, with a twofer in the middle.

    High Shoals Falls, one of many waterfall options along the Byway.

     Not all trails are paved on the National Forest. Some are rough. But all have fascinating nature right at their sides.

    Brasstown Bald

    The road up to Brasstown Bald is steep, with enough elevation change to produce easily noticeable changes in vegetation. At the parking lot is a well-stocked gift shop, including drinks and snacks. At the top is a large observation tower allowing for a 360-degree view. The tower contains a fascinating museum with background on local history, natural features, and a few things for the kids.  

    The observation tower at the top, with museum and a 360-degree view.

    The bald is surrounded by the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest, so very little of the view from the observation tower shows civilization. You will have no problem seeing four states, at least on a clear day, and there are telescopes available if you need help. On some days you will peer down on cloud tops, or even better, fog-filled valleys. There is usually a haze, bluish, as you are in the Blue Ridge Mountains. On some days (in late September and October) Atlanta is visible, 80 miles away and 3,700 feet lower. 

    Expect weather conditions that differ from the rest of Georgia. Fog, mist, and storms can suddenly move in, obscuring the view. However, those same weather conditions contribute to the great variety of plants and wildlife on the slopes of the bald. Temperatures on Brasstown Bald are usually 5-10% F cooler than the surrounding areas, making summer a great time to visit. The seasons, of course, affect the experience. Springtime offers beautiful displays of blossoming mountain laurel, rosebay, purple rhododendron, and flame azaleas, which typically bloom between late May and late June. As you'd expect, the busy season is fall, when autumn colors spread across the Blue Ridge Mountains. Peak fall colors occur in mid-October.

    Mountains spreading to the Georgia horizon.

    Some views have a little more details on the surrounding civilization; if you look hard you can make out a city or lake.

    The Visitor Center or museum covers the rich history of the North Georgia Mountains, both human and natural history. The impact of the Cherokee Indians and the early settlers on the land is covered. One display presents one of the first forest rangers in the Blue Ridge Mountains who discusses the role of the Forest Service in the reforestation of the mountains in the early 1900s. There is also a good bit of logging history and quite a few exhibits of locally-produced craft objects.  

    The cultural history starts out with the earliest inhabitants.

    A life-like robot of forest ranger Arthur Woody, one of the first rangers in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
    He discusses the role of the Forest Service in reforesting the Appalachian Mountains and how wildlife populations were reestablished.

    Local wildlife is on display. While this is a mounted bear, there are plenty of signs warning what to do if you run into a live one on the trail.

    The logging history of the area is part of the museum.

     The Climax logging steam engine, weighing 52 tons, was slow, noisy, and strong. It was well-suited to the demands of mountain logging.

    There is a wide range of mountain plants as you descend to the parking lot on a paved trail. Signage points out interesting forestry and natural background, like how a watershed works, what happened to the American Chestnut, and the type of showy shrubs to look for in the forest. If you look beyond the signs, you can see other interesting natural things; for example, a tree growing out of a rock. There is even an old historic wagon train trail.   

    The entire trail from the parking lot to the observation tower is paved. However, that only makes the trip up only slightly easier.

     Interesting nature right on the trail; can a tree grow out of a rock?

    An old historic wagon trail bisects the paved trail. At one time this was the "main highway." Now it is only open to hikers.

    Brasstown Bald can easily be a whole day adventure. The National Scenic Byway offers many side trips, especially the waterfalls. If you plan it right, Helen can be a midway stop with bratwurst for lunch, and then quickly back on the byway. The only real planning necessary is the weather, as you definitely will be outdoors.
    Author: Thomas J. Straka is a forestry professor emeritus at Clemson University. He has a keen interest in political and natural history.
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