In the southwestern part of the state, just along the tripoint of the North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia borders, sits over 8000 acres of gorgeous rolling hills with 26 unbelievable waterfalls. When people talk about hiking waterfalls in North Carolina, this is the State Park they want to visit. This is backcountry exploration at its best. This is Gorges State Park and it will not disappoint you.
Rainforest in North Carolina
One of the most fascinating facts about Gorges State Park, in my opinion, is that those 8000 acres of rolling hills are actually temperate rainforest. You heard that right, Rainforest in North Carolina. But again, this is a temperate rainforest, not tropical rainforest, and there is a difference. A tropical rainforest is found closer to the equator. It is warm and wet all the time. Temperate rainforests are found in cooler areas with a range of temperatures, like most of the United States. I like to think of it as the Goldilocks effect for climate purposes…not too hot and not too cold. And the U.S. sits in a temperate zone that is north of the Tropic of Cancer, but south of the Arctic circle. This is where you’ll find temperate rainforests. You can find more information on this below in the references.
This map shows the common names given to different latitude bands around the globe. Credit: Creative Commons.
Returning back to Gorges State Park, we have successfully determined that it’s temperate, not tropical, but how did it get that rainforest label? Paul Alaback and James Wiegand were ecologists who defined the characteristics of temperate rainforests in 1990 and their research still stands today. A temperate rainforest must receive over 55 inches of rain each year with a broad range of temperatures throughout the year, usually between 32℉ and 80℉. Gorges State Park receives over 80 inches of rain each year (!) and temperatures do fall within this range. So, there you have it…temperate rainforest right in our backyard.
These images were provided by Gorges State Park
Temperate rainforests are rare and important ecological habitats. They are, therefore, hotspots for biodiversity, meaning there are lots of different and unique living things. Most, if not all, of the historical range of temperate rainforest in Scotland, Ireland, and Iceland were lost to logging many years ago. Chile, Japan, New Zealand, Southern Australia, small spots in Europe, and the Appalachians in the eastern U.S. still have intact temperate rainforests, but the largest remaining stand of temperate rainforest today exists along the Pacific Northwest coast of the U.S., running for about 1,200 miles from northern California through western Canada and up into Alaska.
If you look at the map above, you’ll see that most temperate rainforests are coastal adjacent, meaning they border marine waters. In this case, they benefit from the rain resulting from weather fronts coming off the ocean bumping into weather fronts hanging over the land. Gorges State Park is not a coastal rainforest, so its rain has a different source. Like much of the Appalachians, rainfall is often the result of the orographic effect (Smith and Carrier, 2020), where air is forced quickly from a region of lower altitude to a region of high altitude as it has to move up and over a mountain. The air within the mass cools quickly causing moisture to rapidly condense, releasing rain or snow on the windward slope (the slope from which the wind is arriving). Consequently, the other side of that mountain (or mountain range) is often dry because the clouds dumped all of their moisture as they move up the windward side. At Gorges State Park, the elevation rises 2000 ft in only about 4 miles. As a result, 80+ inches of rain are dropped in this park each year. But don’t let stop you from enjoying some of the best hiking the Appalachians has to offer. There’s nothing quite like hiking in the rain on a steamy hot summer day.
This image was provided by Gorges State Park.
Waterfalls to Explore
There is one other noteworthy item that I want to mention in regards to Gorges State Park because I think it deserves attention and currently no one is talking about it. Gorges has a tremendous number of spectacular waterfalls within its boundaries. Growing alongside those falls are small niche plant communities that rely on the near constant spray of cool mountain water for survival. The soils in which these plants grow are most often saturated, and the vegetation present is adapted for saturated soil conditions. By definition, these communities are wetlands. Warmer temperatures, unpredictable weather, and drought due to climate change are putting excessive stress on all wetlands communities, and waterfall wetlands communities are no exception. Many people may not realize that saturated wetland sediments comprise less than 4% of the Earth’s land surface, but they hold more than 30% of the carbon sequestered from the atmosphere (Dodds and Whiles, 2020). This means that wetlands of all types and sizes are needed to combat climate change.
I will give a shout-out here to Waterfall Keepers of North Carolina, a primarily volunteer non-profit organization in western North Carolina, who is doing stellar work taking care of a very precious resource. I was honored to have one of their officers in a wetlands class that I taught not too long ago, and I urge them to keep up the good work. We need more groups like yours to stand up for our planet. Check out their website and volunteer to help if you’re able.
After having several conversations this week about concerns over visitors getting too close to dangerous waterfall landscapes, I wanted to take a minute to remind all of our State Parks explorers about waterfall safety.
Stay on developed trails and don’t stray from observation decks and platforms.
Pay attention to the warning signs and rules you see posted near waterfalls.
Never climb on or around waterfalls. Rocks are more slippery than they look.
Never play in the stream or river above a waterfall.
Additional information is located at this link: https://www.ncparks.gov/conservation/park-safety-and-respect
Dodds, W. K., & Whiles, M. R. (2019). Freshwater Ecosystems. In Elsevier eBooks (pp. 723–764). https://doi.org/10.1016/b978-0-12-813255-5.00024-7
Smith, A. C., & Carrier, S. J. (2020). Thirty Great North Carolina science adventures: From Underground Wonderlands to Islands in the Sky and Everything in Between. The University of North Carolina Press
America’s Rain Forests: A Distance Learning Adventure. “Rainforest Background”. https://rainforests.pwnet.org/4teachers/background.php