through a spruce-fir forest

10.10.23 ~ start of Balsam Nature Trail
Mount Mitchell State Park

Another trail! After visiting Mount Mitchell’s peak we found the Balsam Nature Trail, a 3/4 mile loop off of the Summit Tower Trail. The terrain here was very uneven, much to Tim’s relief after the flat pavement going up to the summit. Lots of up and down, even steps in some places and narrow passages between outcrops.

We didn’t encounter any wildlife or hear any birds calling. I’m guessing because this is a well-traveled trail and the creatures are hiding from people, if they are there at all. Every few minutes a couple or a family or small group of friends would overtake us and pass us. And just as often we’d pass folks hiking in the opposite direction. It was the most traffic we’ve ever experienced on a trail.

huge outcrop
ferns everywhere
a hemlock sapling – good luck precious little being

The best part of this walk could not be photographed — it was the amazing scent of balsam and Fraser fir. What an unforgettable olfactory delight!

Sadly, though, there wasn’t much left of healthy evergreen foliage. Most of the green we saw was mosses and ferns.

I am very familiar with the hemlock woolly adelgid insect pest that destroyed the hemlock grove surrounding my childhood home. It originated in East Asia and arrived here in 1951. According to Wikipedia, by 2015 90% of the geographic range of eastern hemlock in North America had been affected.

But I had never heard of the balsam woolly adelgid until I saw it mentioned on a trailside sign, explaining why there were so many dead and dying trees in this forest. This insect pest arrived here from Europe in 1900 and was discovered in this forest in 1957. The devastation is obvious in many of these pictures.

Mosses and mushrooms seem to be thriving with such an abundance of dead wood. I tried to identify the moss in the above picture — it seems to be some kind of feather moss. It looked different than the mosses I usually see. According to Britannica there are approximately 12,000 species of moss distributed throughout the world.

The spruce-fir forest is a forest type dominated by needle-leaved, evergreen red spruce and Fraser fir trees. It exists only at elevations above 5,500 feet, and contains plants and animals that are adapted to cool, moist conditions. Some of the plants and animals living in Mt. Mitchell’s spruce fir forest are found over much of the state. Others, however, are the same as (or are close relatives of) those found in the spruce-fir forests of New England or southern Canada.
~ trailside sign

The climate of a spruce-fir forest can be harsh. Wind and ice storms are facts of life here: trees with their tops missing are common sights. And, as with any high-elevation ecosystem, rain, fog, sleet or snow can occur unpredictably — in any month, at any time of day.
~ trailside sign

uneven uphill terrain
halfway point

Though spruce-fir forests are found in a broad region of northern North America, they occur south of New England only in a thin zone along the Appalachian Mountain chain.
~ trailside sign

red spruce roots

All that being said, I was still enchanted with this forest and will cherish my memories of this little taste of New England here in North Carolina.

17 thoughts on “through a spruce-fir forest”

  1. The photo of the balsam woolly adelgid – many spiritual people believe that these orbs of light that one sees in some of these photos are signs of spiritual beings 🙂 Lovely thought I think, Barbara ♥

    1. It is a lovely, thought, Leelah, and one I’ve embraced many times. We can’t know for sure but I do know that I am filled with wonder and feel something magical whenever the mysterious orbs appear in my camera lens. 🙏 💕

  2. Looks like a great trail for clambering! Those red spruce roots are wonderful. I wonder how this area will fare with the rising temps of climate change? Sadly, many alpine regions are facing similar challenges.

    1. Clambering is a great word to describe what we were doing along that trail! Tim even stumbled once and if it hadn’t been for his walking stick would have fallen. It was a day of mixed emotions, the thrill of beautiful sights and smells tinged with sadness over what will soon happen to this alpine forest.

  3. What a nice walk for you here as well Barbara. I agree with your comment that it’s just like a taste of Connecticut and resembling there as well. Instead of glacial rocks, now you have outcrops. I liked the abundance of ferns and mushrooms. One by one you’re exploring new places to go and things to see.

    1. Walking along we were wondering if there could be glacial erratics down here. Probably not. Later I found this online: “All glacially-transported rocks and erratics tend to show evidence of that glacial transport, with scratches (striations), rounded edges and polished faces.” These outcrops definitely didn’t have rounded edges. I miss all those glacial boulders we had in our Connecticut woods, but these woods have other features we will learn to love.

      1. That is interesting and the outcrop looked like a big shelf in your photo. There tons of things to see in due time and next Spring, the botanical gardens you were telling me or us about when you decided to move to NC.

        1. Yes, we’ve been to the botanical gardens four times already since moving here and no doubt will keep going there a lot. Kind of like the arboretum we used to frequent back in Connecticut.

          1. I know you were following them before you moved there – four times already! Our Botanical Garden had a post that they took in all their cacti and tropical plants last Sunday, the same day I was there and thought “I can’t believe these plants are still out here unprotected in the cold.” It was 42 degrees when I left.

          2. I’m curious to see what will be outside in our botanical garden in the middle of the winter. It sounds like the staff at your botanical garden knows just when to pull the tropical and desert plants inside. 🙂

          3. When I was there a couple of weeks ago, it was decorated for harvest and they tucked in mums and gourds wherever they an opening – flowers and plants were still blooming though. For Christmas they have small pine boughs they put in the cement planters and put shiny Christmas bulbs and tucked in between so it looks tasteful and in the middle they have a huge artificial Christmas tree decorated and lit up.

    1. The scents of those fir trees was so relaxing and yet invigorating at the same time. And the ferns, mosses and lichens made it feel like an enchanted forest…

  4. Thanks for taking on this hike with you, Barbara. I enjoyed reading and seeing your observations on this new trail and the reminder of how very different forests can be. Loved hearing about the spruce fir forest, the unfortunate insect pest, the fascination with the moss. Beautiful rocky outcroppings and mushrooms, and the luscious scent was a treat to hear about too.

    1. Thanks for coming along on this wonderful hike, Jet, and for sharing in my excitement over it. 🙂 In all your bird-watching world travels I imagine you’ve seen many different kinds of mosses in the various kinds of forests you’ve found yourselves in. It’s such an amazingly diverse planet we live on that we will never run out of things to discover.

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