by Jess Riddle : Forest Ecologist
Each spring, wildflowers erupt in profusion from the spongy floor of Ramp Cove – trilliums, violets, Dutchman’s breeches. And each spring, groups of a half dozen or more hikers trek up into the cove. They follow a path maintained by nothing more than the footsteps of those that came before them. Where the trail becomes fainter, hikers slow down to experience a quintessential Southern Appalachian cove. Some hikers will stop to photograph the wildflowers. Others will point at the massive buckeye trees that were passed over by early 20th century loggers who eschewed their soft, warp-prone wood. A few will feel an irresistible urge to try the cove’s namesake plant. Some of their companions will wish they hadn’t. Ramps, also known as wild leeks, are so pungent that Appalachian schoolchildren used to eat a mess of them so that they would reek so badly they would be excused from school.
For those enchanted by the lushness of Ramp Cove, the Kelly Ridge Roadless Area offers many opportunities for further exploration. Ramp Cove is not an isolated exceptional pocket, but rather exemplifies a swath of mountains rich in nutrients, diversity, and beauty. The rich soils have nursed trees to state-champion sizes in coves on either side of Ramp Cove, and elsewhere in this roadless area, tulip poplars tower more than 160 feet tall. In each north-facing cove, spring pollinators hone in on expansive floral displays of purple, white, or yellow. Over the summer, the floral displays move up to sun-drenched rock outcrops that offer sweeping views of green mountains piled on top of each other. Then in fall, the show shifts to warmer hues and back down to the main streams where sugar maples, scarce in north Georgia, provide a hint of a New England autumn. After leaf fall when most of the forest turns gray, the green of the moss-covered boulderfields in Dismal Cove becomes startlingly vibrant.
Those boulderfields extend high up on Double Spring Knob, where cool, moist conditions provide a haven for many northern species rarely found in Georgia. Here, shrubby mountain maples perch precariously atop the boulders, and the pleated corn-husk like leaves of green false hellebores spring up where water seeps out of the mountainside.
Most visitors, though, see neither the lush coves nor the rare high elevation species. Instead, they wind along high ridges for 5.3 miles on the Appalachian Trail. For some of these hikers, Kelly Ridge is one link connecting Georgia’s Springer Mountain to Maine’s Mount Katahdin. For the plant and animal species they see, the forests along the trail may provide a vital connection. The Kelly Ridge Roadless Area, along with the Buzzard Knob Roadless Area that lies just to the north, bridges the gap between a cluster of protected wilderness areas in Georgia and the Nantahala Mountains of North Carolina. Such connections are critical for wildlife migration and maintaining healthy populations, especially in the face of climate change.
This part of the Appalachian Trail also links hikers to the past. The trail weaves in and out of old-growth oak forests that dot the ridge lines. These stands are not the cathedral groves of forest giants. Rather centuries of ice and wind have sculpted serpentine branches and crooked trunks that early loggers could not see as lumber. Unusually low rates of logging also have contributed to high water quality in streams along the trail. The trail weaves in and out of the watersheds of two excellent trout streams, Moccasin Creek and Swallow Creek. Moccasin Creek is particularly important as a large wild trout stream and is the water supply for a fish hatchery. The headwaters of these watersheds have been almost untouched for decades. The headwater streams, with several cascades, are themselves notable attractions in the Kelly Ridge Roadless Area.
The Forest Service’s national inventory of roadless area, RARE II, recognized most of this tract of high, rich mountains and old- growth forests as roadless. That recognition has afforded some protection from road building, logging, and other extractive resource use. Whether that protection remains, is made permanent, or is eliminated will be up for debate in a few years s the Forest Service revises the Forest Plan for the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests.