Monday, August 11, 2014

Roaring Plains: Flowers and Berries in the West Virginia Highlands

Friends of ours wanted to go looking for blueberries - the wild kind - this weekend. The West Virginia mountains seemed to be the most likely place we would find them this late. I love, love hiking in West Virginia. It is a long drive and we could only do a day trip, but as usual, it was totally worth it. We discussed going to Dolly Sods, but I kind of wanted to explore a new area. Roaring Plains seemed to fit the bill. It is quite literally, across the road from Dolly Sods, just as high, and just as likely to have sweet, sweet blueberries. I had also read that it is less crowded than Dolly Sods (of course, if you visit Dolly Sods in the winter, crowding isn't really a problem). Roaring Plains, which gets its name from the terrible weather that can blow across the area, was absolutely spectacular.

We got a bit of a late start, but soon enough, we were hiking on the boardwalks of the South Prong Trail. The forecast called for an even chance of showers in the afternoon and we were definitely hiking in the clouds to start. It was actually a little chilly at the trailhead. The South Prong Trail starts out by meandering through a series of interesting bogs and rock formations. In one place, where I should have taken a picture, we came around a corner to find big slabs of rock with red spruce trees on them. The weather is so fierce up there that all of the trees were flagged (deformed in the direction of the prevailing winds). On this section of trail, we were supposed to get some views of Dolly Sods to the north and of the mountains to the south. The cloud we were hiking through blocked anything beyond the ridge we were walking on. As to our main goal, we found a few blueberries in this section, but not a lot.
 A boardwalk on the South Prong Trail.
 An interesting bug on a rock.
This lichen had interesting little cups topped with little red flecks.

After a little less than two miles, we turned off on an obvious footpath, taking what we thought was a somewhat well-known unofficial trail. It did not turn out to be the right path. We saw lots of interesting things and wandered around a bog for about half an hour before deciding to backtrack and see where we had gone wrong. About 25 yards further down the South Prong Trail, we found the correct unofficial footpath. I hesitate to call it a bushwhack, because once on the correct path, it was very straightforward. There was no question about the right way to go.
About halfway down the unofficial trail, we broke out into a large, high meadow.
 And there were the blueberries! Michael and our friends picking some beside the path.
The meadow was carpeted in them.
By this time, the sun had also burned off the clouds, so we finally got a nice view to the south. After following the ridgeline for about a mile, we intersected a gas pipeline cut.
We followed it south to the top of the hill in the middle of the photo, hoping for a good view.
Along the way, we met this Timber Rattler, hanging out in the brush on the edge of the pipeline cut. It didn't coil when it saw us, but it did watch us pretty closely. There's nothing quite like walking along and realizing your foot was a few inches away from one of these just a few seconds ago.

At the top of the hill in the pipeline cut, we found a side path that led out to a nice overlook with a view to the southwest.
A bootshot from the overlook. From there, we returned up the pipeline cut and passed the unofficial trail, continuing on to Forest Road 70. We had a 3.5 mile walk out on the gravel road. Blackberries and a few red raspberries, and the sound of a gurgling stream made the trip pretty pleasant.

The other thing that made this trip so cool was the interesting flowers, several of which were new to me:
Stenanthium leimanthoides (Pinebarrens Death-camas). Seeing this member of the Lily Family is a little bit like seeing a unicorn, at least in the Mid-Atlantic. I struggled for a while to figure out what it actually is. It looks a lot like Amianthum muscaetoxicum (Fly Poison), but the flower stalks on A. muscaetoxicum don't branch like they do on this flower. Finally, a random PDF on the web which lists some of the species in Dolly Sods led me to the right flower. It is rare enough that only one of my books actually lists it. It has sort of a weird distribution: A few counties in the West Virginia, North Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee mountains and then coastal New Jersey and New York.
Platanthera ciliaris (Yellow Fringed Orchid). In looking up the identity of this flower, I learned that no two flowers have the same fringe pattern on their lower petal.
Platanthera clavellata (Small Green Wood Orchid). I nearly missed this one growing beside the path in some grass.
Gentiana linearis (Narrow-leaved Gentian). This flower is only found this far south at the highest elevations in West Virginia. It is much more common further north. The West Virginia population is a classic remnant population.
Anaphalis margaritacea (Pearly Everlasting).
Rhododendron maximum (Great Rhododendron). There were some late-blooming Rhododendrons on the road at the end of our hike.

It was a great hike. We only saw four other people and it never did rain on us. We will definitely be returning to Roaring Plains to explore further.

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