Monday, November 20, 2017

Pinnacle Mountain, 1 year after the fire

The Pinnacle Mountain fire started on November 9th last year, and in less than a month had blackened over 10,000 acres in and around Table Rock State Park. Although most trails in the area were closed and much of the Upstate smoked out, the fire was finally contained with no structures lost. Historically the Southern Appalachians burn during drought years, so fire on Pinnacle Mountain is nothing new... it had just been a few years since such a high-intensity burn had occurred within State Park borders, and I was curious as to state of things now that a year had passed.

We jumped on the Blue Ridge Electric Co-op Passage of the Palmetto Trail, passing through an enormous field of boulders to reach the section of Foothills Trail that heads up to Pinnacle Mountain. Most foot traffic comes via the Table Rock Mountain State Park Nature Center – following Carrick Creek Nature Trail up Pinnacle Mountain Trail, or on Ridge Trail from Table Rock. From the Nature Center to the summit of Pinnacle is more than 7 miles round-trip, coming in from Sassafras Mountain might be around 10.

From the Foothills Trail you actually have to take a left on Pinnacle Mountain to reach the summit (adding about ½ mile to your hike), but the 3,425 ft peak does not have any views. Taking a right on Pinnacle Mountain Trail would take you to Bald Knob (also about ½ mile detour) and fantastic views, but either route will add a significant climb in elevation. What’s so special to go through all the trouble? Pinnacle Mountain is the tallest mountain contained entirely within the state of South Carolina (Sassafras Mountain at 3,563 feet is partially in NC), and the views near the top overlook both the Jocassee Gorges and the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area, which remain relatively untouched by development.

Coming up on Pinnacle Mountain along the ridge from the south, the first signs of the fire were scorch marks on trees, easily visible because the trail had been used as a fire break for a short distance. The proximity to the line indicated this had been a back-burn, meaning firefighters had intentionally used a controlled fire to create black that acted as a fire break for the advancing flames. The low intensity fire didn’t leave much evidence other than some partially-burned branches and the occasional charred stump of a tree that had died long before the fire.

It was once we had ascended the ridge and hiked a distance from the firelines that we saw evidence of a higher-intensity fire. The granitic balds had white char marks where layers of organic matter had been scorched off, and the jack pine, although standing, were mostly dead. However, I wasn’t surprised to see the brightly colored autumn foliage of deciduous tree seedlings – an indication that the soil had not been sterilized. The fire simply opened up the canopy and cleared the way for new growth.

In addition to tree seedlings, the grasses and herbaceous plants had really taken off. Nourished by an enriched soil and provided unimpeded access to sunlight, a year’s worth of growth was highly encouraging, serving as a reminder that fire is the natural order for our mountains.

Although in some places the granitic balds had been burned clear of vegetation, in most the moss and lichen communities were left intact, the fire naturally stopped by the expanse of bare rock and the lower intensity back-burns not having much an effect on the moist seep areas. We found prickly pear cactus, grasses and even an occasional wildflower still blooming in November, and marveled at the spectacular views which stretched from the Pinnacle Mountain summit all the way to Lake Jocassee.

It was on one of these granitic balds that more than 600 prehistoric petroglyphs were discovered in the late 1990s. The petroglyphs are believed to be created by the Hopewell culture (pre-dating the Cherokees) and are believed to be between 1,500 and 3,500 years old. What is now the Foothills Trail that follows the spine of the escarpment from Jones Gap to Oconee State Park was once a highway that primitive men and early European settlers used to cross the into the rich valleys of North Carolina. I don’t find it surprising that the granite still holds evidence of these early travelers; instead, I am astounded that the petroglyphs were not identified sooner, as close as they are to such a well-traveled path.

These scars on Pinnacle Mountain – left by fire and man – remained in my thoughts on the hike down. The fire breaks and raw earth as discordant with their surroundings as the white char marks on the granite balds, the circular petroglyphs as symmetrical as the dimples left on the granite by decades of water eroding rock. We descended through the hardwoods lit ablaze, but by sunlight and season, not flames, and I wondered at the wonder of it all. A thick carpet of leaves crunching underfoot accompanied us as Vilis loudly sang “everything is awesome”…  and for once, I felt like joining in. There, on Pinnacle Mountain, just 45 minutes from home – you can experience the millennia.

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