Last Wednesday, I was fortunate to get to join a private tour of Bluff Mountain Nature Preserve. The Nature Conservancy owns this site and they host tours in spring and fall but they fill up quickly. A friend of mine attended one of these hikes the previous weekend and learned that he could arrange a private tour for 10 people for $150. Fortunately, he included me on his email invitation and I was able to join the group for a tour of this amazing place.
The Nature Conservancy’s website says that Bluff Mountain is located in the heart of the New River headwaters and is one of the most ecologically significant natural areas in the Southeast. The natural communities here are diverse, everything from Carolina hemlock forests to dwarf red oak-white oak forest to a rare southern Appalachian fen and a unique flat-rock community. The website further states that Bluff Mountain is home for over 400 species of plants.
I drove my Jeep up the steep road to where the hiking trails began, and as soon as we got parked we were greeted by pink lady slippers just off the trail. We would see about a hundred more on our hike, some of which were growing right in the path, so we had to watch our step. Our hike began and we quickly came to an open area full of bright orange Indian paintbrush. There was also the rare yellow version in bloom here too. After stopping for some pictures we continued on.
All along the side of the trail were other plants in bloom, including trillium grandiflorum with its light pink to white bloom, lily of the valley with its cream-colored bell-shaped flowers, black cohosh and blue cohosh (the latter not in bloom though), Clinton’s lily, and many others. This mountain is also home to Gray’s lily, a rare plant that blooms later in the summer. It is also the only place in the world where Bluff Mountain reindeer moss grows.
Our guide asked us if we wanted to go see the yellow lady slipper, which would add about 20 minutes to our hike, and we all eagerly agreed that we did. We found one a little past bloom, but shortly up the trail there was a huge grouping of them. Needless to say we all took a lot of pictures before continuing on. Yellow and pink lady slipper are probably my favorite wildflowers, so the trip had already been made for me.
We climbed up to a rocky outcrop, and though it was a foggy day, which obstructed the view, it didn’t matter to me – I came to see the flowers. From there it was downhill the rest of the way. We came to an old cabin with a pond in front of it. The family that sold the tract to the Nature Conservancy has lifetime rights to use that cabin. I could imagine spending an evening in that botanical paradise sitting around the fire ring taking in the splendor of my surroundings.
The hike was not over yet though. We hiked to another viewspot, with an even steeper cliff on the side of the mountain, and could hear but not see a waterfall from that vantage point. There was a bit of a break in the clouds at that point and you could see the surrounding forested landscape.
We came to a hemlock forest with some large, old hemlock trees. Some of them had died from the hemlock wooly adelgid, but others were still healthy. From there we went to a very unique glade community, where the reindeer moss grows. This area is very rocky with thin soil and a variety of unique plants grow here. The trees here were all small and stunted from growing in the difficult conditions.
Shortly after that we found ourselves at the natural fen, a unique wetland area. Our guide said this is the southernmost fen in the United States. There was more Indian paintbrush and also sundews – a carnivorous plant with sticky drops of liquid on it to attract and trap insects. Someone had laid out a small pathway of rocks that allowed us to walk around in the fen community without damaging it.
Not long after that we found ourselves back at our cars. Our guide asked if we wanted to hike just a short ways away to see a bunch of cinnamon fern, which we did. They were a vibrant green with their bright brown cinnamon stalk-like parts in the middle. Behind them was the back side of the fen we had just walked through. From there we went back to our cars and made it back down the mountain to West Jefferson in time to eat at my favorite bakery there, which just capped off a wonderful trip. If you get an opportunity to hike at Bluff Mountain don’t pass it up. I promise you’ll have a one-of-a-kind experience to see so much diversity in one place. I can’t wait for my next trip to see what else blooms at this natural wonderland.