We started hiking in the spring. The air was warm and the forest was pale green with unfurling leaves. But as we climbed, the air turned cold and the leaves disappeared. By the time we reached the summit of Mount Sterling, 5,820 feet above sea level, it was winter. A dusting of snow lay on the ground and the temperature was below freezing. We set up our tents, ate our dinners in the cold, and then went to sleep. By the next morning, our tents were covered with fresh snow and our water bottles were filled with ice. We had planned to do a multi-day backpacking trip in the Smoky Mountains, but we weren’t prepared for such cold weather. We turned back and left the Smokies that afternoon, but the memory of that vast forested wilderness stayed with me and I promised myself I’d return.
That was several years ago. Now I was back in the Smoky Mountains in September with plans to hike and with a day of good weather forecasted — the perfect opportunity to return to Mount Sterling. A day hike promised a bottom-to-top tour of the the Smoky Mountain forests capped with great views from the summit.
Elizabeth and I started hiking at 10:15 under a sky of low, puffy clouds. The air was warm and humid and the forest floor was thick with grass and ferns. Insects buzzed and clicked.
We were at an elevation of 1,700 feet in the Big Creek valley. The hillside was covered with a cove forest of sycamores (Platanus occidentalis), tulip trees (Liriodendron tulipifera), eastern hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis), yellow birches (Betula alleghaniensis), and rhododendrons (Rhododendron maximum) — a cosmopolitan mixture of trees from all over the eastern United States. A little higher, we found yellow buckeye (Aesculus flava), sugar maples (Acer saccharum), beech (Fagus grandifolia), and striped maple (Acer pensylvanicum) — trees more typical of Michigan than North Carolina. They were very tall and had enormous trunks, and I was convinced we were walking through an old-growth forest that had been undisturbed for centuries.
Beneath these giant trees of the Baxter Creek valley we found four men standing off-trail, carrying an impressive amount of gear. They had overnight backpacks, which were no surprise, but also helmets, climbing equipment, and serious scientific instruments.
They couldn’t have been climbing rocks — there weren’t any around. So I asked them if they were climbing trees. Yes, they said, they were from the Eastern Native Tree Society and they were here to climb the tulip trees to study how their structure changes over time. Many of the trees in this valley were the tallest individuals of their species in the world, two, maybe three, times taller than what most people ever see east of the Rocky Mountains. One of the tulip trees, not far from where we were standing, was the tallest ever measured: 178.5 feet.
I told them that I was into big trees, too, but they looked at me dubiously. One glance at all their gear was all it took to see that I wasn’t into trees the way they were.
We talked some more, then parted ways. “It was pretty neat to find ENTS next to the trail”, I said.
“ENTS? Who are the ENTS? Oh! The Eastern Native Tree Society! Their abbreviation is E. N. T. S. That’s so cool!” Elizabeth responded.
“Yeah, ENTS. Why is that cool?” I said.
“Oh right! You’re not into the Lord of the Rings. The Ents are characters from the story. They were the protectors of the forest and the shepherds of the trees.”
“Really? Like tree people? The abbreviation makes so much more sense now.”
“Yeah. And in time the Ents actually began to resemble the trees they protected.”
I considered the ENTS’s beards, calloused hands, and sinewy muscles. “No kidding,” I said.
By 2,600 feet, we had left the valleys of Big and Baxter creeks and reached a drier hillside. Fraser magnolias (Magnolia fraseri), black tupelos (Nyssa sylvatica), and red oaks (Quercus rubra) appeared, as did bigleaf magnolias (Magnolia macrophylla), whose elephant-ear leaves were over two feet long.
At 2,900 feet, rhododendron thickets took over the hillside, crowding out trees with an alarming ferocity. The shrubs were over ten feet tall and so thick that the trail had to tunnel through them. Only a rare red maple (Acer rubrum) or black tupelo emerged from the thicket’s deep shade.
We entered a grove of eastern hemlocks. They were old and tall, with trunks that dwarfed us as we walked by. For centuries, their branches — packed with dark little needles — had spread cool shadows on the forest floor, depriving it of the sunlight needed for the growth of other plants. But now the forest floor was sunny and filled with saplings. The hemlocks were dead and their needles were gone. The hemlock woolly adelgid (Adelges tsugae) had killed them within the last couple of years, desiccating the trees and leaving them unable to produce new needles. The hemlocks stood patiently with their limbs outstretched, waiting to fall and return to the earth. The forest will remain — new trees are already starting to grow — but it will never be the same again, and no one alive today will see the saplings reach the size of the old hemlocks.
At 3,800 feet, we saw striped maple, sugar maple, yellow birch, beech, and the occasional red maple. This was the northern hardwood forest, an assortment of trees you’d have to travel 500 miles north to find near sea level.
By 4,600 feet, we had seen our first red spruce (Picea rubens). Soon after that, we saw our first Fraser fir (Abies fraseri) and our first Carolina hemlock (Tsuga caroliniana). Yellow birch was still around, but it was joined by paper birch (Betula papyrifera) and shrubs like hobblebush (Viburnum lantanoides) and mountain ash (Sorbus americana). This forest was the analog of the boreal forests found in Canada and the mountains of New England, but this far south, Fraser fir and Carolina hemlock, local endemics, replaced the more widespread balsam fir (Abies balsamea) and eastern hemlock.
We kept climbing. The forest became short and dense. The air turned cool and moist. The ferns, luxuriant grass, and buzzing insects of the of the lower elevations faded away, replaced by moss, fallen needles, and wind murmuring through conifers.
At 1:25 we reached the summit of Mount Sterling. We climbed the 80-foot fire tower on top and watched gray, billowy clouds swirl over the surrounding mountains. The mountains were heavily forested, their lower and middle elevations covered by green broad-leaf trees with rounded crowns and their summits and ridges covered by dark needle-leaf trees with serrated silhouettes.
We ate lunch, then hiked down. We descended through the spruce and fir, through the northern hardwoods, through the dead hemlocks, through the oaks, through the rhododendron thickets, and back to the cove forest. The ENTS were still there, having just completed their climbing for the day. We had been wondering how old the huge trees in the cove forest were, and thought they might know. Elizabeth asked them.
“Eighty, ninety”, one of them said.
“These trees? Here?” I asked, thinking they’d misheard Elizabeth’s question.
But the answer was the same. The tall, massive trees I had assumed were old growth had begun growing in the early 1900s when a field in this valley was abandoned; some of the spindly conifers near the summit, on the other hand, had begun growing hundreds of years ago. One of the ENTS had measured their ages himself. Tree size was not a good proxy for age.
Why were the young trees big, but the old trees small? It was an effect of the environment. I recalled my first visit to the Smoky Mountains, when it was spring in the valleys and winter on the summits. The rich soils, warm temperatures, and abundant rainfall in the cove made trees grow quickly. The rocky soil, cold temperatures, and frequent snows on the high ridges made trees grow slowly.
We said good-bye to the ENTS and kept hiking. I thought about the giant cove forest that hadn’t existed a century ago, and stunted summit trees that had hardly changed in that time. I thought about the dying hemlocks, and the saplings that were going to replace them. And I thought about my previous trip up Mount Sterling and the fact that you can never walk through the same forest twice.
We finished our hike at 4:35.
To do this hike yourself, park at the Big Creek trailhead in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, then take the Baxter Creek Trail out-and-back to the summit of Mount Sterling, a 12-mile hike with 4,200 feet of elevation gain.