Georgia’s Mountain Treasure: Grassy Mountain

Old-growth forest in Grassy Mountain Cove

by Jess Riddle : Forest Ecologist

If Providence Canyon is Georgia’s Grand Canyon, then Grassy Mountain is the Grand Tetons. High and steep, Grassy Mountain, along with its sister peak to the south, Fort Mountain, provide a constant backdrop to life in Chatsworth. At 3,688 feet elevation, the mountain rises a full 2,800 feet above its base in the Great Valley, which separates Grassy and the Blue Ridge from the Ridge and Valley to west. Head west from Grassy’s summit, and there is no higher ground until the High Plains.

Seen from the air, the gentler, lower slopes present a remarkably consistent pattern of lighter and darker greens. The forest spreads out like a neighborhood, with hardwood lanes in the coves and pine lawns on the slopes and ridges. Toward the top, hardwoods take over.
With such an elevation range, plants near the top experience a shorter growing season with significantly more rain, fog, and snow than plants growing on the lower slopes. That range of climate layers on top of a patchwork quilt of different soils and topography produces a wide variety of different niches for species to fill. A botanical study found 548 plant species growing on the mountain. Among them, 20 were rare, and nine were trilliums – the greatest number of trillium species recorded for any mountain in the world.

Unexpected species venture in from every direction. Yellow birch, a characteristic northern hardwood species that in Georgia typically clings to only the highest peaks, descends to 2,000 feet elevation on Grassy Mountain. Mill Creek wraps around Grassy to drain most of the mountain, and likely provides the only opportunity in Georgia to see yellow birch growing next to sweetgum, a classic Deep South species. Swamp chestnut oak, a large tree of piedmont and coastal plain floodplains, with leaves immediately familiar to anyone who knows the typical chestnut oak, follows lower Mill Creek. Typically found farther west or cultivated in someone’s yard, oakleaf hydrangea maintains an outpost on the southern slope of Grassy.

Back down at the mountain’s foot, signs do not point motorists towards these botanical highlights or even Grassy Mountain’s better known natural wonders but to Lake Conasauga. The plateau-ish eastern side of Grassy forms a bridge to the Cohutta Wilderness Area, and in the middle of that horizontal ground sits Georgia’s highest lake. Families stay at the campground, and explore the network of easy trails that surround the 19-acre, CCC-built lake. A hike to the old fire tower on the summit makes a nice afternoon excursion.

Lake Conasauga, though, is an enclave of development, tethered to civilization by only a couple of long dirt roads. To the north, south, and west, the fire tower looks down on undeveloped and unroaded slopes. While roadless areas are typically like memories, secure where valued and otherwise withering away, Grassy Mountain has actually grown. The Forest Service converted a dead-end road on the lower west side and a through road on the south side to ATV trails. The latter repurposing allowed the Grassy Mountain roadless area to merge with the smaller Emery Creek roadless area. Unofficially, the unfragmented swath of natural communities totals 14,023 acres, the third largest in north Georgia. Clean water from this area flows through Holly Creek Preserve, one of only two preserves The Nature Conservancy owns in the Georgia Blue Ridge, which was set aside to protect rare aquatic animals.

Grassy Mountain’s real claim to fame is north Georgia’s largest old-growth forest, over 1,700 acres (two-and-a-half square miles) that provide a window into the past and a mirror for modern management. Never-logged forests of several different types wrap around the steep upper slopes and span over 1,500 feet vertically. The coves harbor northern red oaks up to four-and-a-half feet in width and hollow tulip poplars that could swallow a bear with room to spare. Drier slopes support a subtler kind of old-growth stands of Virginia pine trees, that even when left alone scarcely live longer than a human lifetime, and oak stands with weather-beaten, 250-year-old survivors that are not much wider than a dinner plate.

Grassy Mountain is important not only for its past, but also its future. Fragmentation and climate change will pressure our native species and cause local extinctions. Large areas of intact habitat are more likely to provide refuges, like a sheltered grotto or stubbornly wet spot, when a tornado, drought or other disturbance would wipe out a smaller population. If a disturbance does wipe out part of a large population, the remaining part can recolonize. Grassy Mountain excels here as both a large area in its own right, and part of the broader Cohuttas landscape, which is one of the two largest areas in north Georgia without a paved road. Similarly, Grassy Mountain’s great elevation range will help protect species by providing them one of the best opportunities to migrate upslope in response to climate change. Starting with a core of pristine habitat only enhances that value.

Getting there: from Chatsworth, take Highway 411 north 7.2 miles and turn right onto Grassy Street. After 0.4 miles, turn right onto Crandall Ellijay Rd. Go 500 feet and turn left onto Mill Creek Rd (Forest Service Rd 630). Follow it 8.6 miles and take a sharp right onto West Cowpen Rd (FSR 17). After 3.2 miles, turn right onto Conasauga Lake Rd (FSR 68), and follow it 1.8 miles to the Windy Gap Cycle Trail. The trail passes through old growth, but the coves with the big trees are off the trail. Alternatively, at the end of West Cowpen Road, turn left onto Conasauga Lake Rd and follow it 0.5 miles to the Tearbritches trailhead. The Emery Creek Trail starts on the far side of the field and provides easy access to an old-growth stand of stunted white oaks.

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 areas.