Thursday, October 23, 2014

Autumn Color at Conkle's Hollow State Nature Preserve

Fall coming to southeast Ohio is a moment I look forward to all year long.  It's a bittersweet moment at its core as another growing season has come to its inevitable end but the brief flux of color across the region's rolling, contiguously forested landscape makes winter's impending return seem not so rough.  Since moving down to the Athens area over five years ago, I've made sure to make the most out of living in such a spectacular part of the state.  In order to accomplish that there is one pilgrimage that must be made each and every October to a particular sandstone gorge in the renowned Hocking Hills region.

Looking into the bottleneck of Conkle's Hollow from the eastern gorge rim trail

If I've visited Conkle's Hollow state nature preserve once, I've visited it a dozen and a half times at just about every time of the year.  Its sheer sandstone cliff faces and bluffs rise precipitously from the cool, lush hemlock hollow below and is rimmed by an acidic mixed oak and pine forest community.  The views from the gorge rim trail are breathtaking no matter the season but let's not kid ourselves, nothing can best autumn's scene.

Incredible autumn color from all direcitons

The exposed layer of bedrock at Conkle's Hollow and the rest of the region is known as Black Hand sandstone and was laid down over 350 million years ago when an immense, warm shallow sea covered what is current-day Ohio.  The fine sand grains and rock particles that settled at the ocean's river deltas compacted under an ever-increasing amount of pressure and weight from the younger layers of sediment on top.  As the tectonic plates continued to shift and move over the Earth's surface, the eastern edge of the North American continent was forced up as the Appalachians formed, leaving Ohio high and dry and exposed to the elements.  Over the following hundreds of millions of years the softer surrounding bedrock material has been weathered away by the forces of water, ice and wind to reveal the resistant Black Hand sandstone.  Despite its heightened resiliency even it is not immune to the forces of time and erosion and has slowly but surely been carved out into the unique and fascinating gorges, promontories and rock houses we see today.

Stunted and gnarled Virginia pine along the very edges of the sandstone cliff edges and rock faces

When delving into the botanical aspect of any habitat or ecosystem it's important to know the geologic history and background for the corresponding area.  Geology and botany are intimately tied together and produce predictable results depending on the conditions present.  Conkle's Hollow's gorge rim is a harsh and acidic environment with very shallow, fast-draining soils and exposed bedrock with plant associations pretty similar to the Dolly Sods heath barrens I blogged about in the post prior to this.  Tree species such as chestnut/white/scarlet/post oaks, hemlock, Virginia pine, sourwood and serviceberry dominate with a shrub/herbaceous layer comprised of xeric acidophiles like mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata), hillside blueberry (Vaccinium pallidum), teaberry (Gaultheria procumbens), trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens), striped wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata), partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) and sawbrier (Smilax rotundifolia).

Unbeatable fall colors at Conkle's Hollow

As the story goes, Conkle's Hollow got its name from an inscription once visible on the western wall of the gorge that read -W.J. Conkle 1797-.  I can't imagine trying to repel my way down the rock faces of the hollow with the technology and advancements of today, let alone over 200 years ago.  Whomever Conkle was, they certainly had more guts and adventure than I do; no way would I have been able to do such a task.  One wrong move and you're leaving your bones behind at the bottom of the hollow instead of your name!

Sheer sandstone cliffs rising nearly 200 feet above the valley floor

The sandstone cliffs look as imposing as they are impressive and boast vertical heights of nearly 200 feet, making it arguably the deepest hollow in the entire state.  The small creek that gently flows on the valley floor will continue to deepen the hollow millimeter by millimeter as time marches on and only add to its impressive physical relief statistics.  The mixture of evergreen hemlocks and bright yellow birch and tulip poplar at the bottom contrast nicely against the scarlet and orange of the oaks above the pale sandstone during the fall season.

Looking south out of the mouth of Conkle's Hollow and across the Hocking Hills

The fall foliage show has been exceptionally good this year with cool temperatures and wet weather sticking around for most of the month.  The leaves were nearing the end of their peak earlier this week during my visit but there's still time to get out there and see the views and scenery for yourself before it's done and gone for another year.  The view above is one I've admired and soaked in on numerous occasions and one that seems to get better upon each renewed visit.  No roads, no buildings, no powerlines, just ridge after ridge of contiguous forest ensconced in autumn's perfection.

Close up of one of Conkle's most prolific sandstone promontories 

I often tend to favor posts that take the reader places they've rarely, if ever been or perhaps never even heard of but sometimes it's hard to resist sharing a location that just about everyone is familiar with.  Conkle's Hollow is well-known, well-loved and certainly well-visited, as I can't recall a time when the parking lot hasn't had a majority of its spaces filled.  I'm thankful such a timeless and quintessential landscape for the region is preserved and protected as a state nature preserve and open for the public's enjoyment.  I highly encourage anyone reading to get out and visit for yourselves before winter clinches its cold and icy grip over Ohio; whether it's just one of a long string of visits or your first time!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

A Foggy and Soggy Dolly Sods Wilderness

For a number of years the Dolly Sods Wilderness in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia has resided near the top of your blogger's list of must visit places come autumn.  Life always seems to find a way of getting notably busy this time of year and a free weekend to escape can be a very rare thing.  Thankfully, this year finally provided the opportunity to shoulder my gear and head off deep into its wilderness with good friend and fellow nature blogger Michael Whittemore.  No one's words of encouragement to visit Dolly Sods have been louder than Mike's, as he's made this annual trip to the region for several years now and knows much of the area very well. We've managed to get together for some botanical outings a couple times a year for a while now and they never fail to disappoint, especially this past weekend.

This is quite the long and photogenic post so I'll do my best to keep the words short and let the photos do the talking.

Foggy heath barrens and boulder field near Bear Rocks, Dolly Sods Wilderness

Dolly Sods Wilderness is located within the immense Monongahela National Forest and is one of the state's most iconic and well-known natural treasures.  It sits atop a high plateau on an escarpment known as the Allegheny Front, which acts to separate the Appalachian Plateau and the Ridge and Valley physiographic regions.  The plateau rises some 2,700 to 4,000 feet above sea level in the Dolly Sods area and creates some of the most charismatic landscapes in the state.  Wind-swept boulder fields, heath barrens, stunted trees, ancient sphagnum bogs and an association of disjunct northern flora and fauna all merge together to make Dolly Sods as diverse as it is distinct.

Residing at a high elevation combined with sitting on an exposed escarpment, Dolly Sods gets more than its fair share of intense and inclement weather.  Rain, sunshine, snow and fog can all happen at a moment's notice and often in fast-shifting combinations.  The wind adds another layer of atmospheric complexity to the landscape and never, ever seems to stop blowing.  In fact, the Allegheny Front is said to be one of the most consistently windy places east of the Mississippi.

Fantastic fall foliage

Mike and I's four and a half hour drive from the Athens area to Dolly Sods was filled with some of the best fall foliage I can ever recall witnessing.  Near constant fog from the daylong drizzle added a shroud of mystery to much of the scenery and really caused the colors to pop.

Foggy drive up onto the subalpine plateau of Dolly Sods

We arrived late in the afternoon and geared up to make the several mile trek to our campsite for the night.  A fine mist fell as dusk descended into darkness and the foreign landscape closed in around us.  I've packed into camp in the black of night before and always appreciate the uniqueness of the next morning's experience of finally seeing where you are and what you walked through the night before.  

Mike and I established camp under a large red spruce and settled down to a nice dinner with lively conservation and the hopes that the forecast rain never materialized.  It wasn't long after we called it a night and retired to our tents that the sky opened and refused to close.  The rain steadily fell until daybreak and thoroughly saturated everything outside ourselves and gear.  A hearty and hot breakfast did just the trick to get us going and ready for a long day of trekking through the muck and fog.

Open meadow among a scattering of red spruce and northern hardwoods forest

Northern Long Sedge (Carex folliculata)
Flat-topped Aster (Doellingeria umbellata)






















Walking through the interior of Dolly Sods on the Blackbird Knob trail takes you through a series of open grassy meadows dominated by scatterings of red spruce (Picea rubens) and an assortment of shrubs, forbs and grasses such as huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata), mountain oatgrass (Danthonia compressa), northern long sedge (Carex folliculata), flat-topped aster (Doellingeria umbellata) and wrinkle-leaved goldenrod (Solidago rugosa).

Open rocky landscape of the Dolly Sods plateau

Dolly Sod's plateau was formally an extensive old-growth red spruce forest dotted with cranberry sphagnum bogs, heath barrens and rhododendron/laurel thickets rather than the more open landscape it is today.  Intense logging through the 19th and into the early 20th century removed just about all of the spruce forest and burning practices kept the newly-opened areas as grassy meadows used for grazing.  Over the decades much of the northern hardwoods forest has returned with species like red oak, beech, sugar maple, red maple, basswood, black cherry, cucumber magnolia, yellow birch, black birch, and hemlock prevalent throughout. Red spruce has come back in scattered spots but not even close to its former grandeur.  I can only imagine what that magnificent spruce forest must have been like with specimens five plus feet in diameter and nearing 100 feet tall.  It's been said the primeval red spruce forest of the upper Red Creek valley (modern-day Dolly Sods) was the finest of its kind in the world.   

Bear Oak (Quercus ilicifolia)
Bear Oak (Quercus ilicifolia)


Our timing couldn't have been better for a lot of the fall color changes going on and none, in my opinion at least were as memorable as the scrub or bear oaks (Quercus ilicifolia).  This shrubby oak species doesn't occur in Ohio and is one I'd only seen once before in the Adirondacks of upstate New York.  Its shades of green, orange, yellow and red seemed to blend together and create a kaleidoscope of color on their gnarled and bonsai-like forms.

Fog rolling back onto the scene

Cranberries and mosses
Teaberry and lichens


Dolly Sods is the kind of place where it can take you an hour to walk 100 yards, there's just too much to take in with every step.  You can get lost on the distant horizon and its rolling mountains as easily as you can staring at the lilliputian world on the rock strewn ground below.  Ground cover plants like teaberry (Gaultheria procumbens), large cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon), trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens), bristly dewberry (Rubus hispidus) and an assortment of mosses and lichens were never in short supply.


Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)
Minnie-bush (Menziesia pilosa)


The odd fall-flowering witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) in full bloom

One of the most diverse aspects to the flora of the region is its plethora of shrub life, some of which are northern disjuncts typically found hundreds of miles to the north.  Species like the odd fall-flowering witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), winterberry (Ilex verticillata), mountain holly (I. montana), mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), possumhaw viburnum (Viburnum nudum) and speckled alder (Alnus incana) were all frequently encountered in the open, rocky meadows and barrens.  One of the best finds was the Appalachian endemic minnie-bush (Menziesia pilosa), a rhododendron-like shrub of the heath family and a lifer I could finally mark off the list.

Scarlet huckleberry, green spruce and gold aspen
Mike walking through a scattering of autumn color






















Your narrator is of the opinion that no other plant in the entirety of Dolly Sods has the same output and intensity of seasonal color quite like the huckleberries and blueberries.  You'll definitely be seeing more of their scarlet perfection further below.

Fantastic texture of an assortment of reindeer lichen (Cladonia spp.

One of the best hallmarks of Dolly Sod's intact biodiversity and overall health is the assortment of lichen life present. Lichens are excellent barometers of an area's overall air quality, as they quickly disappear as pollution levels increase.  The reindeer lichens (Cladonia spp.) were some of the most common and in favorable, undisturbed sites spread across the ground like coral reefs in a tropical shallow sea.

Ferns under the pines

One of my favorite parts of our jaunt through the shifting landscape of the sub-alpine plateau was an area of red pine forest near our trail head's parking area.  Its under story was comprised of a thick duff of pine needles and a network of hay-scented fern (Dennstaedita punctilobula) colonies.  It had the feel of a miniaturized temperate rain forest of the Pacific Northwest with the addition of the never-ending fog.

Stiff Clubmoss (Spinulum annotinum)
Running Clubmoss (Lycopodium clavatum)






















Dolly Sods was definitely a favorable habitat for an ancient lineage of vascular plants in the clubmosses or lycopods.  These evergreen fern allies are one of most fascinating groups to study and I greatly admire them for essentially being living fossils.  Numerous species from a scattering of genera such as Dendrolycopodium, Diphasiastrum, Huperzia, Lycopodium and Spinulum were all present and frequent throughout the forests and heath barrens.

Fog and fall foliage across the landscape of the Dolly Sods Wilderness

Foggy drive up to Bear Rocks

The blog title for this particular post is "foggy and soggy" for a reason.  Except for maybe an hour or two in the morning and then for very brief moments in the afternoon, the fog and mist never broke and kept the world enveloped in its soup.  I'd loved to have seen this incredible place under a blue sky and sunny conditions but there's always next time and I'll certainly never forget the unique atmospheric conditions of my first visit.

Foggy heath barrens and boulder fields of the Bear Rocks area

The majestic wind-swept heath barrens and boulder fields of the Bear Rocks area was easily the most mesmerizing experience of the whole weekend.  This sub-alpine, tundra-like landscape is one of the most harsh and acidic habitats to be found in the country. You wouldn't think much could survive in such an unforgiving place but the plant life proves otherwise.

Narrator standing on Bear Rocks, with a stunning view shrouded in the dense fog

Standing at the very eastern edge of the escarpment's plateau, Bear Rocks has some of the finest vista and valley views in the eastern United States.  Unfortunately, my turn to see those views will have to wait but a quick search of the region on Google images lets me know what lies beyond the clouds.

Rocks, tress and the fog
Huckleberries galore






















The uppermost layer of bedrock on the Allegheny Front is a conglomerate known as Pottsville sandstone, a very weather-resistant stratum.  The softer surrounding rock layers of the escarpment have slowly been worn away by wind, water and ice and left the resilient Pottsville formation rocks in the patterns and forms we see today.

Rock puddle and surrounding mist
Mike among the huckleberries and fog






















Wind-swept spruce with branches all to one side

Gazing out across the boulder meadows of Bear Rocks, it's not hard to surmise which way the prevailing winds blow.  Even in the fog, one can at least get a grasp for what direction they're facing by the red spruce all having their limbs swept to the east side from the westerlies that gust over the plateau.

The supremely scarlet huckleberry and blueberry shrubs contrasted sensationally against the pearl quartz studded conglomerate rocks.  It almost seemed like someone had landscaped the area and carefully placed each rock and heath shrub with purpose and vision.  The white gravel comprised of loose quartz pebbles added an extra aesthetic touch.  I can only imagine what this same site must look like in early summer when the mountain laurel, azaleas and rhododendron are in full, glorious bloom.

Foggy forested road leading down into the Red Creek valley

After leaving Bear Rocks behind, we decided to head down into the Red Creek valley to check out the views from below and see how the stream was doing after the previous night's rain.  The trail we hiked out on required you to ford both the upper branches of Red Creek and an additional smaller stream and both were a bit tricky as the water level had risen overnight.  The autumn color was really starting to turn on on the upper slopes of the northern hardwoods forest.

Looking upstream (east) on Red Creek in the Dolly Sods Wilderness

Looking downstream (west) on Red Creek in the Dolly Sods Wilderness

The fog managed to break a little bit on the valley floor and gave us a short window of opportunity to get some good views of the nearest adjacent hills and the creek's raucous riffles.  Once again the autumn foliage show was impossible to ignore and made the realization sink in even more of what our eyes were missing beyond the mist.

All in all my first experience in this boreal north-like wonderland was unforgettable.  It's not too often your expectations of a place are shattered and left in the dust by the real thing.  I'm not even a week returned and I can hear Dolly Sods already calling my name.  I think a visit next spring, summer and fall is in store and I'll happily bring you, my readers vicariously along as usual.  If you've never been before or perhaps haven't been back in a long time, let this post be the spark that ignites your fire for West Virginia!

Monday, October 13, 2014

West Virginia's Seneca and Champe Rocks

West Virginia.  Easily one of the most wild and untamed states in the eastern half of the country and definitively one of the most beautiful.  Each and every time your narrator has found himself within its borders, the Mountain State has never failed to impress and this weekend was nothing short of spectacular.  A long-awaited backpacking trip with a good friend of mine to the famed Dolly Sods Wilderness for an unbeatable display of autumn color and mountain views was the plan and despite some less than cooperative weather a better time could not have been had.  A full post is forthcoming on our experiences but I couldn't help but serve up a bit of an appetizer prior to that.

The four and a half hour drive to Dolly Sods from Athens, especially the last hour or so after Elkins was a constant barrage of phenomenal foliage across the rolling mountains along with some unbelievable physical landscapes.  Two geologic formations in particular were the most awe inspiring and have earned their own time and attention and I think you will quickly understand why.

Seneca Rocks in the Spruce Knob-Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area, West Virginia

Driving through a near constant state of rain, mist and/or fog did an efficient job of blurring out a good deal of the surrounding countryside but not even the saturated atmosphere could hide the sheer immensity and unexpectedness of one of West Virginia's most iconic scenic attractions in Seneca Rocks.

Seneca Rocks in the Spruce Knob-Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area, West Virginia

This towering fortress of rock rises nearly 900 feet above the North Fork South Branch Potomac River and Seneca Creek valleys and overlooks the small village of Seneca Rocks.  It's comprised of Tuscarora quartzite, an extremely weather-resistant bedrock laid down nearly half a billion years ago during the Silurian age.

Mouth of the Seneca Creek valley with Seneca Rocks to the left

The oaks, hickories and maples were putting on quite the show on the adjacent slopes and mountains around Seneca Rocks and only seemed to intensify in the foggy conditions.  I'd certainly like to see these rocky crags under a brilliant blue sky someday but there was something equally gratifying about the subtle mysteriousness of the landscape during this visit as well.

Sheer rock faces of Seneca Rocks

For myself, seeing them with my own two eyes from a distance was entirely good enough but that's apparently not the case for everyone else at Seneca Rocks.  The sheer rock faces and exhilarating views have attracted experienced rock climbers to the region for decades with a route or two being arguably some of the most difficult in the eastern part of the country.  While many adventurers have been successful, not all have made it back down with a reported 16 deaths since 1971.  

Panoramic view of Seneca Rocks; both the north and south summits with the notch in-between

Seneca Rocks sits on a ridge of the Allegheny Mountains known as the River Knobs, which has a few other notable crags and gaps, one of which you'll see here in a bit.  In an immeasurable display of pressure and force, this ridge and its resistant quartzite bedrock (which was laid flat) was long ago turned 90 degrees and verticalized during the formation of the Appalachians.  The softer, less durable surrounding bedrock material slowly but surely eroded away over the eons giving this landmark its distinct appearance.

Champe Rocks along the River Knobs of the Allegheny Mountains

Further to the north of the river valley along the same verticalized ridge is another astonishing geological wonder in Champe Rocks.  This formation is not nearly as physically impressive as the aforementioned Seneca Rocks but I found it more aesthetically pleasing and impressive in its own right.

Pair of large crags on the River Knobs rigeline known as Champe Rocks

Gazing through the mist and into the gap the pair of quartzite crags create made me feel like I'd found the entrance into Middle-earth, with untold wonders laying beyond.  Formations like these are a silent testament to the patience of nature and the constant forces of erosion driven by the geologic cycle.  Champe Rocks existed long before our species' ancestors had even been realized and will undoubtedly be there long after our extinction.

South crag of Champe Rocks

As a human who's lifespan is nothing more than a blink of an eye to a rock, it's humbling to think about how long other aspects of this world take to reach completion and what all happens in their shadows.  Time is only relative to the time keeper and I'd say places like West Virginia's Seneca and Champe Rocks aren't too worried about their next millennia or hundred.  It's comforting knowing that baring a cataclysmic event of epic proportions these spectacular sites will be around to see, more or less unchanged until well after my bones have become dust.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A Sampling of Autumn's Beauty

There's no three-four week stretch I look forward to more than autumn coming to the eastern deciduous forest. Summer's monopoly of green gives way to a cascade of scarlet, orange and gold across the landscape.  The most perfectly crisp shade of sapphire blue fills the cloudless skies above the last gasp of late-season wildflowers. Mornings start dewy and chilled with your breath faintly hanging in the air.  Simply put: I absolutely love this time of the year.  It's as beautiful as it is fleeting.

To celebrate the season's return to Ohio, I've decided to share a number of my personal favorite photographs that I think do well to capture the atmosphere and texture of autumn in our incredible state.  Nature's beauty can speak for itself and there's little hope I could do much to give it the credit it deserves, so I will let the rest of this post go more or less wordless and hope you enjoy the sampling of scenes.  I hope it inspires you to lace up your hiking boots and get out and soak in the colors and beauty for yourselves this autumn season!

*Don't forget you can click each photo to see it larger and in higher resolution.*

Waterloo Wildlife Area, Athens County.  October 2013.


Foggy sunrise behind a mighty white oak.  Adams County.  October 2009.


Ripened pawpaws (Asimina triloba).  Hamilton County.  September 2012.


Narrator and the rolling forests of the Hocking Hills landscape (Conkles Hollow).  Hocking County.  October 2012


Fire orange sugar maple (Acer saccharum).  Hocking County.  October 2009.


American bittersweet (Celastrus scandens).  Union County.  September 2013.


Reflections on Dow Lake, Strouds Run State Park, Athens County.  October 2009.


Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus).  Jackson County.  September 2014.


Celebrated Ohio nature photographer, Ian Adams in Irwin Prairie SNP.  Lucas County.  September 2013.


Common persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) fruits.  Athens County.  September 2014.


Reflections on Lake Ramona, Clear Creek Metro Park, Fairfield County.  October 2014.

Thanks for taking a look and feel free to comment on your favorite photo(s)!  Always fun to see what others find most appealing compared to my tastes.