Around 20 miles north of Asheville the Blue Ridge Parkway travels through what is locally known as Craggy Gardens, a Natural Heritage Area in the Pisgah National Forest. The summits of these forested mountains are covered in a heath bald. A bald, you say? Does the mountain need a toupee?
Actually, these are unique shrub communities of rhododendrons, azaleas and other plants. Viewed at a distance they appear bare so that inspired the peculiar name for these habitats. Balds may have developed partly from grazing livestock, but some also result from natural causes like fire or even climate change. Growing here are some plant relics of the alpine tundra that covered much of the southern Appalachian Mountains in the last ice age. As the glaciers retreated most of these plants moved north, but some remain on these higher, colder peaks, and over time have developed into species found only here. As it grew dark and a cold wind blew, I felt as if I had moved north.
This view of the summit, at 5892 feet, shows the heath bald bathed in the orange glow of sunset. On this first day of fall, there are already some colors showing. With this fiery light, it appears that the mountain isn’t actually bald, but a redhead!