by Jess Riddle : Forest Ecologist
This article is part of a recurring series on Georgia’s Mountain Treasures. Mountain treasures are some of the last large wild places in Georgia. But they don’t have permanent protection from road building, logging, and other extractive resource use. We’ve surveyed them to learn more about their special plants, animals, history, and scenic features. We’re using that information to update the book Georgia’s Mountain Treasures, and lobby for more protection during the next Forest Plan revision. We hope these articles will inspire people to enjoy and get to know these areas.
South of Villanow, the high point of Johns Mountain stands at 1,883 feet elevation, the same elevation as downtown Blairsville and Clayton. The precipitous western slopes, however, make the drop to the valley below seem like more than the 1,000 feet it is. During the Civil War, the confederate army erected a signaling flagpole on this site. In 1940, the CCC built a fire tower, which was later removed.
Today, the Johns Mountain overlook provides a great opportunity to see how northwest Georgia fits together. In the foreground, linear, wooded ridges and broad, agrarian valleys form the pastoral landscape of the Ridge and Valley physiographic province. Johns Mountain lies in the center of the Georgia Ridge and Valley, which is known as the Armuchee Ridges. Farther west, Pigeon Mountain juts out from the Cumberland Plateau physiographic province. Behind the viewer, trees and the eastern Armuchee Ridges mostly obscure the third section of the Appalachians in Georgia, the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The overlook is not only a destination, but also the trailhead for the Johns Mountain Loop. The 3.5-mile circuit follows the boulder-strewn crest of the ridge before dipping down to take in Keown Falls sliding off a sandstone ledge, easily visible from a viewing platform. A second loop connects at the platform, allowing figure-eight routes. The lower loop wraps under the ledge, behind the falls, and by a second, smaller waterfall. Waterfalls are rare in the Armuchee Ridges; these two are the only ones on public land. In 1962 the Forest Service designated 218 acres surrounding the falls as a scenic area, the first in the Armuchee Ridges. They noted the area provided one of the best chances in the region to see native hardwood forests. At the lower trailhead, the clear stream from the falls flows through a charming picnic area with rock-lined paths and a profusion of wild azaleas, geraniums, and other wildflowers.
On the opposite side of Johns Mountain, the Dry Creek Trail System, 26 miles of hiking, biking, and horseback trails, traverses some of the only valley bottom habitat the Forest Service owns in the Armuchee Ridges. Unlike many trails which were adapted from old logging roads or laid out before sustainability was a consideration, the Dry Creek trails were designed with erosion, maintenance, and user experience in mind. The Pinhoti Trail ties together this regionally unique combination of recreation opportunities – streams, views, waterfalls, and trails of all sorts – by running through the Dry Creek system before wrapping around the north end of Johns Mountain and forming one leg of the Johns Mountain Loop.
What keeps me coming back to this area, though, is the prime example of a forest growing on limestone. Rare on the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest, limestone soils with high pH, calcium and often magnesium support plants not found in north Georgia’s typical acidic soil. The calcium helps snails build their shells and the birds that feed on them build their eggshells.
Found at the mountain’s north end, the slope keeps the limestone soils moist, and the many trees over 150 years old show the full expression of the forest. Similar to coves in the higher mountains, tall basswoods and tuliptrees shade a thick, green forest floor of bloodroots, black cohosh, and little sweet Betsy trilliums – the last seemingly on steroids here and not so little. Mixed in with those familiar species are slippery elm, chinquapin oak, smallflower baby blue eyes. Other common species seem unfamiliar because they are out of context. Boxelder, sugarberry (hackberry), and trumpet creeper typically grow along streams and in floodplains, but here they flourish high on a mountain slope.
On either side of the limestone slope, fine examples of chestnut oak and hickory forest grow out of dry, acidic soils and provide a sharp contrast. These slopes of extensive, natural forest also contrast with most of the Armuchee Ridges because they lack artificial pine plantations. The main Armuchee Ridges have smaller “finger” ridges that jut off perpendicular to the main ridgeline. Low diversity loblolly pine plantations cap many finger ridges, fragmenting the native hardwood and hardwood-pine forests. At the north end of Johns Mountain, plantations are restricted to the valleys, and a large, continuous native forest occupies the higher elevations.
Johns Mountain, like many of the finest areas in the Armuchee Ridges, often goes underappreciated. The high density of roads compared to the Blue Ridge is obvious while the shifts in species and other unique features are often subtle. In general, the Armuchee Ridges lose out in comparison to the taller and wetter mountains of the Blue Ridge. The plants and animals that live in the Armuchee Ridges, though, aren’t comparing themselves to those that live anywhere else. The region has its own unique climate, soils, and history. The best of it deserves to be protected.
Fearrington, Tom. 1986. History of the Armuchee Ranger District. USDA Forest Service. 204 pp.