Sunday, November 21, 2010

Crowders Mountain State Park (Kings Mountain, NC)

The forest floor was littered with fallen leaves; some were big and brown like the finely-lobed leaves of chestnut oaks, others were bright red like the cheery leaves of red maples. We hiked up and up, past car-sized boulders encrusted with bright green lichens. Soon, the forest was only densely populated with trees, the Virginia pines became short and scraggly, the chestnut oaks were half their normal size. Finally, a view of the Piedmont in all its autumn splendor greeted us. The shadows of Charlotte teased the edge of the horizon. Other mountains, King's and Spencer's, welcomed us stoically. We had arrived at the summit Crowders Mountain.

Hiking to the Summit of Crowders Mountain (Photo by N. Cagle; 21 Nov 2010)

View from the Summit of Crowders Mountain (Photo by N. Cagle; 21 Nov 2010)

Near the North Carolina-South Carolina border in Gaston County, Crowders Mountain State Park preserves two stunning examples of Piedmont monadnocks: Crowders Mountain (elevation 1,625 feet) and The Pinnacle (1,705 feet). At one time these peaks, which stand 800 feet above the surrounding Piedmont plateau, demarcated the boundary between the hunting lands of the Catawba and Cherokee. Today, they stand as the main attraction of a State Park established by the efforts of the Gaston County Conservation Society, eager to protect the mineral-rich peaks from strip mining, in 1973.

Roughly 450 million years ago two supercontinents collided, Laurentia (now North America) and a broken off piece of Gondwana (an amalgamation of parts of Africa and South America). The intense heat and pressure resulting from the collision transformed the African silica and aluminum into the distinctive metamorphic rocks that define Crowders Mountain today. Over time, the surrounding areas of softer mica-rich schist rock eroded, leaving the pronounced kyanite-quartzite peaks. Kyanite, an elongated blue-gray crystal given the descriptive moniker “blue daggers” by miners, infuses the rough quartzite rocks of the monadnock. This tough mineral was mined from nearby mountains in South Carolina for use in ceramics and electronics.

Kyanite crystals at Crowders Mountain (Photo by N. Cagle; 21 Nov 2010)

The unusual geologic history of Crowders Mountain translates into unusual ecology. In 1901, botanist and taxonomist John K. Small (1869 – 1938) recorded stunted trees at the summit, including three to six foot tall chestnuts (Castanea dentata) laden with fruit (only a few examples of which remain today), Virginia pines (Pinus virginiana) and persimmon (Diospyros virginiana). Small noted that other plants appeared in their normal form, such as Catawba rhododendron (Rhododendron catawbiense) with its big, round purple blooms and dangleberry (Gaylussacia frondosa) a blue berry bearing shrub with green leaves dotted with tiny golden resin glands on the underside. The dwarfed trees provide cover for Fowler’s toads, slimy salamanders and a number of snake species, including scarlet kingsnakes, ringnecked snakes and copperheads, while the rocky outcrops house roosting black and turkey vultures.

NC Division of Parks and Recreation. “Crowder’s Mountain State Park - History”

Stewart, K. G. and Roberson, M. 2007. Exploring the Geology of the Carolinas. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press.

Small, J. K. 1901. The Summit Flora of King’s Mountain and Crowder’s Mountain, North Carolina. Torreya 1: 7-8.

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