Mountain Flora & Blue Ridge Fauna



The Blue Ridge mountains are an ideal habitat for both vegetation and animal life due to several factors including rainfall, climate, and soil types. In just Blue Ridge alone, 40% of our county’s land is located in and protected by the Chattahoochee National Forest which creates a safe environment for abundant flora and fauna to thrive.

Our mountain ranges are covered in over 140 species of trees and is notably one of the most extensive broad-leaved deciduous forests still flourishing in the world. The combination of southern plant growth known as the Appalachian Forests put on quite the dramatic show throughout the year making fall one of the most popular times to visit and experience all the changing colors of fall. Let’s take a look at some of the more popular plants and animals that inhabit this special region.

Mountain Laurel

Photo Courtesy of bbg.org

The evergreen Mountain Laurel is a staple plant in the hills of the Appalachian Mountains. Tolerant to shade, these North American shrubs produce gorgeous flowers in the late spring and early summer. The spectacular blooms range in color from white to pink to deep rose and have distinctive and symmetrical purple dots or streaks. Mountain Laurel is slow growing, but average 6-15 feet in height. You will often see mountain furniture and home accents made out of the bark of the Mountain Laurel. Of Note: These plants are poisonous if ingested.

Rhododendron

Photo Courtesy of Gardening Know How

The evergreen Rhododendron come in many shapes and sizes, but they are most known for their spectacular blossoms that appear in the early spring to mid-summer in a variety of colors. The blossoms can be pure white, soft pink, yellow, red, purple and blue! Of Note: These plants are poisonous if ingested.

Azaleas

Photo Courtesy of Old Farmer’s Almanac

Azaleas were designated, in Georgia, as the official state wildflower in 1979. A relative to the Rhododendron, and in fact a part of the Rhododendron genus, but as all azaleas are rhododendrons, not all rhododendrons are azaleas. Similarly, azaleas bloom in brilliant colors like scarlet, crimson, orange and more. The main difference between the rhodies and the azaleas is the leaf size, quantity of stamen, and azaleas are deciduous as opposed to its evergreen cousins. Of Note: These plants are poisonous if ingested.

Fun Fact

Photo Courtesy of Hamilton Gardens at Lake Chatuge

Close by in Hiawassee, there are rhododendron gardens filled with azaleas, mountain laurels, and many other native Georgia plants. Plan to visit The Hamilton Gardens at Lake Chatuge and learn more about area flora. Admission is a suggested $5 donation.

Cherokee Rose

Photo Courtesy of petals from the past

The official state flower of Georgia is also found thriving in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The Cherokee Rose is both beautiful and interesting. Rooted in Cherokee legend, the Cherokee Rose is said to have been created from the tears of Native American mothers crying for their children journeying on the Trail of Tears. The fragrant rose is white for their tears, a gold center represents the gold taken from Cherokee lands, and 7 leaves for the 7 Cherokee clans. The evergreen Cherokee Rose plant is a climbing shrub that has antibacterial properties.

Whitetail Deer

Photo Courtesy of My Canyon Lake

Probably the most common and most exciting animal to see grazing in the woods. These beautiful animals are the smallest of the North American deer population and graze on leaves, corn, fruits, and acorns. Male deer are called bucks and are easily recognizable by their antlers which grow each year and fall off in the winter! The female deer are called does and they give birth to 1-3 fawns a year. The best time to spot deer are at dawn and at dusk since deer are primarily nocturnal animals.

Wild Turkey

Photo Courtesy of CTpost

You might see wild turkeys on the side of the road on your drive up to the mountains or out in a field foraging with their flock. Turkey are a large game bird with a long neck and long legs. Male turkeys are distinguished by their unfeathered heads and large red throat known as a “gobble”. Turkeys can fly short distances and often roost in trees or under shrubs.

Black Bear

Photo Courtesy of Scott Michael Anna

The Black Bear is the smallest of the North American bears. These bears are ominivores which means they eat both plants and meat. Bears are also nocturnal which means they sleep during the day and come out to hunt at night. While we are intrigued by them, it is best for black bears to meander through the woods without human interaction.

Bird is the Word

Male Rose Breasted Grosbeak Photo Courtesy of Scott M Anna

Birding is a popular pastime for nature lovers and there are more than 80 species of migratory birds and 200 species of  native x to spot in the mountains! The Georgia State bird, the Brown Thrasher, can be seen here along with the Ruffed Grouse, Owls, Ravens, Wrens, Woodpeckers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and many varieties of Warblers and Hawks including Bald Eagles.

Coyote

Photo Courtesy of WFAE

Resembling a small dog, coyotes are indeed canines, but they are not of domesticated variety. They have keen eyesight, an acute sense of smell, and the ability to quickly adapt to a variety of habitats. In the evenings you may hear distant high pitched cries, shrieks, barking or howling as these animals communicate with each other. Contrary to popular believe, coyotes do not hunt in packs, but are primarily solo hunters and are effective in maintaining a balance in Georgia’s rodent population.

How Did the Blue Ridge Mountains Form?



When we say the old Blue Ridge mountains, we mean it! As part of the Appalachian mountain range, the Blue Ridge mountains are the second oldest range in the whole world. Over 1 BILLION years ago, shifts in our Earth’s tectonic plates caused the Blue Ridge mountains to form in a system of peaks and valleys that span eight states!

Sometimes it’s a little confusing that you can see the Blue Ridge mountains in other states besides Georgia but these mountains are vast. There is a Northern section that includes Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia. The Southern section includes West Virginia, Tennessee, North & South Carolina, and of course right here in Blue Ridge, Georgia! Our particular section of the range is known as the Appalachian Mountain Range and we are a part of the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest.

They Really are Blue!

View from “Adventure Us” cabin

Have you ever wondered why these mountains are called Blue Ridge? If you catch any section of the range at the right time of day, you’ll see that the mountains have a distinctive blue color. The forests that cover these rocky protrusions are predominately made up of spruce and fir trees and they emit isoprene into the atmosphere creating the blue hue!

The Blue Ridge Mountains can span across 60 miles in some locations. While the tallest mountain in this system is Mount Mitchell in North Carolina rising at 6,684 feet high, just 30 minutes from downtown Blue Ridge is the tallest peak in Georgia, Brasstown Bald rising at 4,784 feet above sea level! Here you can see 4 states!

Photo Courtesy of Brasstown Bald

Early Inhabitants

The Native Americans, and specifically the Cherokee, lived in the Blue Ridge area more than 12,000 years ago! The moderate climate and the character of the mountains themselves, made a perfect region for inhabitants to settle. They farmed and hunted in the valleys and mountains that they called “the Enchanted Land” until they were forced to leave on the Trail of Tears.

Two Features

Photo Courtesy of @ancole78

One popular trail system that follow the Blue Ridge mountains all the way through Virginia is the Appalachian Trail. Hikers along the trail get the advantage of seeing the stunning untouched beauty of the mountains.

At the extreme Southern tip of the Appalachian Trail and the entire Blue Ridge mountain system is the spectacular Amicalola Falls, the tallest waterfall east of the Mississippi!

Trail Trees and Fairy Crosses



For most American kids, our first introduction to the concept of trail markers is Hansel and Gretel’s attempt at leaving crumbs on their venture into the woods. The birds thwarted their efforts and that’s where their fictional journey begins. First published in 1812, their story was read to children in Germany at the same time the Cherokee Indians were creating their own trail markers here in the North Georgia Mountains. Or are Trail trees just folklore?

Trail Marker Trees

Trail trees, trail marker trees, crooked trees, prayer trees, thong trees, or culturally modified trees are hardwood trees throughout North America. One unique characteristic of the trail marker tree is a horizontal bend several feet off the ground, which makes it visible at greater distances, even in snow. These distinctive characteristics convey that the tree was shaped by human activity rather than deformed by nature or disease. The legend is that Native Americans intentionally shaped these trees for navigational purposes or to mark important places, such as sacred burial grounds.

Photo Courtesy of Donna O’Neal

Throughout the North Georgia Mountains, a day of hiking can find you encountering one or more of these gentle bent giants in our forests. As you hike through one of the twenty four top forests in our area you’ll stumble upon some of the most incredible shaped trees and wonder if they are the work of Mother Nature or did an American Indians walk these same trails 200 years ago. It is both highly possible and very likely that the tree was there marking a specific direction or possibly an area where a plant grew at its base that was used for healing.

Fairy Crosses

For many, a hike in the woods is an adventure you remember from your childhood days. It is a child’s foray into uncharted territory, a field or a wooded area close to home where they might discover an old unidentifiable bone, a creek filled with crayfish, or a cluster of butterflies on a floral bush they’ve never seen the likes of before. They come back from these walking expeditions with pockets filled with pretty leaves, unusual shaped stones and always a bird feather or two. As adults we reawaken that lust for exploration and here on these mountain trails, there seems to be one treasure that many are hunting: Fairy Crosses

The Legend of the Fairy Cross derives from the Cherokee Indians and thought to be over 2000 years old! It is said that long, long, ago fairies inhabited a certain quiet and remote region in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The fairies roamed freely, enjoying the beauty and serenity of that enchanted place. One day, the fairies were playing in a sunny dell when an elfin courier arrived from a far-away city bearing the sad news of Christ’s death. When they heard the terrible details of the crucifixion, the fairies wept. As their tears fell to the earth, they crystallized into little stone crosses. Though the fairies have long since disappeared, the little stone crosses, known as “fairy stones,” still remain as vestiges in that enchanted spot. There was a belief among the Cherokee that the crosses had the power to reduce the owner invisible at will. In some instances, the tiny crosses were supposed to give the owner the power of diving into the ground and coming up again among the enemy to scalp and kill with unexpected terror.

The Scientific Side

Fairy crosses (aka fairy stones) are small bricks originally formed seven miles underground of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Staurolite crystals form into little tiny “bricks” that, under pressure, twist in 60 degree or 90 degree angles, forming crosses. As they push their way up to the earth’s surface, the action of wind and rain dissolve the softer surrounding stone called schist to reveal the precious cross-shaped minerals within. 

The good fortune of finding fairy stones is best after a heavy rain. Dig with your hands along the soft dirt at the base of the trees. The cross stones are the same color as the dirt, so use your hands to sift the stones from the soil until you find a cross shaped stone about the size of a small marble, usually less than an inch in length. They are wonderful keepsakes when found, and can be polished and used as a lucky pocket token, or designed into a necklace, bracelet, or earrings.

Pezrok

If you haven’t had the good fortune to find a fairy stone on your hiking trip, you can still find a wonderful collection of fairy crosses at Pezrok in downtown Blue Ridge, a gallery full of artistic creations of exquisite minerals, fossils, gems and carved driftwood.

Photo Courtesy of Jim Korzep

There are countless numbers of adventures to be had on your visit to these mountains. You’ll want to capture many of your explorations in pictures to take home and share with us, your family, and your friends. Oh, and while you are taking a cell phone selfie at one of the bent trees you are likely to encounter, remember your phone is also equipped with GPS, which will assure your chances of getting back to your car in the parking lot. As we already know from 19th century literature, leaving a trail of breadcrumbs will not suffice.

Fall in Love with Blue Ridge



Fall took a little longer than usual to arrive this year, but as soon as we had our first frost, BAM, the colors started popping! Now everywhere you look you can find brilliant reds, oranges, and yellows. So, grab your favorite boots and cozy sweater and Escape to Blue Ridge for leaf peeping at its best!

3 Falls and a Car

The Russell-Brasstown Scenic Byway is a nationally designated Scenic Byway that is 40.64 miles in length and makes a loop through the heart of the Chattahoochee National Forest.  Beginning in Blairsville take Hwy 129 South towards Blood Mountain. Turn left on Hwy 180 then right onto Hwy 348 – The Russell-Brasstown Scenic Byway. Along the way, you will pass Hatchet Creek Road that leads to Helton Creek Falls. Stop and enjoy both the Upper and Lower falls. The hike is short and easy, less than a mile long and super rewarding!

Continue up the mountain passing Tesnatee Gap, home to the original Old Logan Turnpike Trail. Just around the bend you’ll find Hogpen Gap which has an amazing overlook and picture-perfect opportunities. If you are up for a more challenging waterfall hike, Hwy 348 passes right by the trail-head for Raven Cliff Falls. While Raven Cliff is one of Georgia’s most popular waterfalls, be prepared to take a 2.5-mile journey through the woods.

The last waterfall opportunity on your travels down the Russell-Brasstown Byway is at Dukes Creek Falls. A happy medium between Helton Creek and Raven Cliff, Dukes Creek Falls is a two mile round-trip hike. Passing several small falls along the way, you’ll be rewarded at the end of the trail with a 150 foot, multi-tiered waterfall.  The Russell-Brasstown byway dead ends into Hwy 75 which will take you into the Alpine Village of Helen, Georgia.

See 4 States

The Southern Highroads Trail can be traveled in its entirety or in sections.  This very scenic route travels through four national forests (Chattahoochee, Nantahala, Cherokee, and Sumter) and four states (North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia).  Enjoy shopping, dining, entertainment and outdoor activities in all 13 counties the route passes through.

Another way to see four states without all the mileage is to visit the top of Brasstown Bald. The approach to the Bald is worth the car ride alone. Turning onto Hwy 180 from Hwy 129 South in Blairsville, travel approx. 9 miles to Spur 180. Wind yourself up the mountain and be cautious of the hairpin turns, they’re liable to take your breath. Once you get to the top parking area, you still have another mile to go to reach the highest peak in Georgia at 4,784 feet above sea level! You can choose to hike the steep summit trail or take a shuttle bus up to the top. Either way, you will enjoy a breathtaking 360 degree view of four states (North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia) from the observation deck. Inside you’ll find a museum featuring Georgia and Native American History. It is even said that you can see the Atlanta skyline on a clear day from the top of the Bald!

An Adventure

Just on the other side of downtown Blue Ridge, you’ll find the outdoor adventure area of the Aska Trail Systems. Here you can hike, fish, bike, and leaf peep. Being that Blue Ridge is the Trout Capital of Georgia, access to the Toccoa River is just off Aska Road. If you get hungry the Toccoa Riverside Restaurant is ready to serve you fresh trout, a top sirloin or a plethora of sandwich and salad options. They even have a full Pooch Porch Goodies menu featuring canine cuisines for Fido!

Whether you are biking or hiking, you can choose from strenuous to moderate trails. Our favorite is the hike down to Fall Branch Falls. This is a short half mile, family friendly hike that follows the Benton MacKaye Trail and ends at one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Georgia. The trail is mildly challenging, and the path is mostly uphill, but it is definitely worth the effort! As you approach you will hear the roar of the falls get louder as you near the multi-tiered falls. Notice a short side trail and take this down to the observation deck.

Pinnacle of Beauty

If you really want a mountain experience, you need to take the back roads and experience the simple life we enjoy here in the mountains. Take Highway 60 towards Dahlonega. Start your trip off right with a wine tasting at the picturesque Serenberry Vineyards. When you’ve built up your nerves of steel you can test your balance on the Swinging Bridge. This 270-foot-long suspension bridge is the longest swinging bridge east of the Mississippi River!

Continue down highway 60 to Georgia’s best secret, Suches, or the Valley Above the Clouds. At 3k feet above sea level, the Suches area provides a stunning view of picture perfect landscapes and glorious mountain views. Here you’ll also find the smallest public school in Georgia educating children from Kindergarten through 12th grade all in one building.

Take Hwy 180 to Lake Winfield Scott. This secret hideaway is a recreation area in the Chattahoochee National Forest. With a beautiful lake as the centerpiece, Winfield Scott beckons you to get out of the car, stretch your legs and take in the untouched beauty of this special part of Georgia. Continue down Hwy 180 with its hairpin turns and lush forest to Vogel State Park, Gerogia’s most beloved State Park. Here you can enjoy the beauty of Lake Trahlyta and take a short walk down to Trahlyta Falls.

Legend Has It

So interesting fact, Lake Trahlyta was named after a Cherokee Indian Princess.  Vogel State Park is located at the base of Blood Mountain where the Native Americans fought many years ago. They say that Slaughter Creek, which runs adjacent to Blood Mountain ran red for 3 days with all the blood that was shed. Lake Winfield Scott, just above, Vogel and Lake Trahlyta, was named after the General that led the Indians out on the Trail of Tears. You can take the full Suches loop around and pass by Trahlyta’s grave which is the rock pile at Stonepile Gap. Legend has it that if you stop and place a rock on Trahlyta’s grave, you too can be as young and happy as she once was.

Photo of Lake Winfield Scott courtesy of Gene Crawford.