by Jess Riddle : Forest Ecologist
Standing in the middle of the Patterson Gap Mountain Treasure, Gulf Knob is one of the hardest places to get to in north Georgia. If you can sweet-talk your way through the private land at the bottom, you’ll have a trail-less climb with 1,200 feet of vertical ascent. Coming from Forest Service land includes traversing Scaly Knob, which adds distance and elevation, but not a trail.
The very names speak to the ruggedness of the area. To many, a “gulf” is a lobe off an ocean. Cumberland Plateau hikers, though, know a “gulf” as an empty space where a stream has eroded a canyon-like drainage into the plateau’s edge. As Gulf Branch drops off Gulf Knob and Scaly Knob, the stream lives up to its name.
To me, that inaccessibility has always been part of the Patterson Gap roadless area’s charm. Driving up Highway 441, the cluster of mountains always seems within reach as it rises up behind the Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School. The Bettys Creek-to-Persimmon scenic drive, which the “Explore Rabun” website promotes, swings around the north side and takes much of its charm from the peaks. Venturing into the area essentially guarantees seeing no one. Private land cuts off access from the north, south, and east though, largely keeping visitors at a distance and leaving the area seen but not experienced.
Indeed, the area is growing even wilder. The Forest Service has abandoned two roads into the area. Forty-foot tall tuliptrees grow in a former wildlife opening. The wave of clear-cutting that pockmarked so much of the national forest 25-50 years ago largely bypassed this area for want of roads, particularly on the east side.
Patterson Gap rewards those who venture in with a concentrated dose of the north Georgia Mountains, a microcosm of all that makes the region enchanting. Lush coves and scruffy ridges, plateaus and cliffs, rock outcrops and waterfalls all crowd together. In the coves, striped maple and mountain bunchflower press up against three state champion trees: a 42-inch-diameter red hickory, a 41-inch cucumbertree magnolia, and a 29-inch Fraser magnolia. Fraser magnolia tends to be rather short lived, and the current champion is a replacement for a national champion that once grew in the area but is now soil. At the opposite extreme, only scattered trees emerge from dense thickets of mountain laurel on some exposed, thin-soiled ridges. Resembling the heath balds that occur at higher elevations in the Great Smoky Mountains, these communities probably result from southern pine beetle killing pitch pine stands rather than from fire.
Mangy upper slopes where gneiss bedrock lies exposed give Scaly Knob its name. While overall they are rare in Georgia, extensive rock outcrops spread across several of the highest peaks in Patterson Gap. Far from being barren rock, sedge lawns and islands of red cedar, woodland sunflower, mountain mint, and even a stray Turk’s cap lily take advantage of the openings created by the outcrops. The rare Diana fritillary pollinates some of the flowers. The rock itself hosts lichens and warms basking eastern fence lizards. Old-growth forests totaling at least 600 acres surround the rock outcrops and support white oaks over 300 years old.
The forests help preserve water quality in the headwaters of the Little Tennessee River, which drains most of both the north and south slopes. Keener Creek and a tributary slide over two falls before merging with Billy Creek, outside the area, to form the Little Tennessee River. Two rare fish depend on water quality in the Little Tennessee headwaters, the olive darter and the fatlips minnow (its momma didn’t name it).
Patterson Gap is a microcosm of all that is in the north Georgia mountains. Neighborhoods on the lower slopes press up against wild forest. Noise pollution, hemlock woolly adelgid, and climate change reach places that people have not set foot. Limited budgets may keep the area inaccessible, or people may invest in exploiting nature. Places with popular trails will have champions to push back against exploitation, tell the story of what makes them special, and fight for them. People have personal connections to those places. The question is, who will champion the places where people can still find solitude? Even as nature changes, there will still be the places where turkey act like turkey, beech trees wait for canopy gaps, and people have an opportunity to find nature and themselves.
Getting there: From Dillard, go west of Bettys Creek Road 3.4 miles, and turn left onto Patterson Gap Road. Follow it 1.5 miles to Forest Service property. There is a pull-off on the left, opposite a driveway.
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 do not have permanent protection from road building, logging, and other extractive resource use. We are surveying them to learn more about their special plants, animals, history, and scenic features. We will use that information to update the report “Georgia’s Mountain Treasures” and lobby for more protection during the next forest plan revision. If you have any personal stories about these areas, we would love to hear them. We hope these articles will inspire people to enjoy and get to know these special areas.