We live in a Special Place

What’s the Lure of Hickory Nut Gorge?

By LLCA Instructor, Naturalist & Photographer Clint Calhoun

Hickory Nut Gorge, as it has been called since the first settlers came to this region, is a steep low elevation gorge located on the edge of the Blue Ridge Escarpment, the geographical boundary between the North Carolina Piedmont and the Blue Ridge Mountains. The gorge is actually situated over this geographic dividing line.

Hickory Nut Gorge was formed primarily by the Broad River and the swift-moving streams that feed it. As they flowed, the streams cut through geologic faults, slowly wearing away the rock material and creating the gorge as it is today. Hickory Nut Gorge can be divided into four geographical sections and is more or less shaped like a large cross, with the main beam of the cross oriented along the east-west plane, and the arms of the cross oriented along the north-south plane.

As Hickory Nut Gorge formed and deepened, natural erosive forces continued to shape the gorge walls and slopes. A multitude of topographic features were created, resulting in a physically complex area. These variations in topography were enhanced by slope direction, moisture, and elevation and create a complex range of biological habitats that vary from extremely hot and dry to unusually cool and moist. This unusual topography is one of the most important reasons for the high biodiversity found in Hickory Nut Gorge.

Another factor contributing to the biodiversity of the gorge has to do with the geology of the area. The primary rock type found in Hickory Nut Gorge is Henderson augen gneiss (pronounced “nice”) which dominates the gorge walls and forms the many outcroppings and smooth granite domes that are characteristic of the area. This gneiss is an acidic rock in nature and therefore the soils associated with it are lower in pH. In the southeastern section of Hickory Nut Gorge, a more alkaline rock type occurs, overlaying the Henderson gneiss. This rock type, called amphibolite, contains high levels of calcium, magnesium, and iron. The presence of amphibolite, because of its alkaline nature, raises the soil pH in many parts of the gorge. This wider pH range between acidic and alkaline creates better soil conditions for a host of plants and plant communities.

The Hickory Nut Gorge area is considered to be one of the most biodiverse areas in North Carolina, providing habitat for both mountain and Piedmont species. The Gorge is home to over 30 rare plant and animal species, two of which are federally endangered. The range of microclimates, resulting from the unusual topography and aspects, provides habitat for a vast array of plant communities and rare species. Ridges and south-facing slopes are typically dry and have more acidic soils. They support plants such as mountain laurel, various pine, oaks, hickories, and blueberries. North-facing slopes are generally moist and support a mixed community dominated by hemlock, tulip poplar, oaks, and maples. Cove hardwood forests tend to dominate the lower slopes and drainage areas. These forests are where the greatest species diversity is found, supporting a broad range of flowering understory trees, showy wildflower species, and large canopy trees such as oaks, hickories, poplars, and basswood.

Lake Lure, which lies at the bottom end of Hickory Nut Gorge, is an example of how a thriving urban community can integrate itself into a forest community. Since its development in the late 1920s, Lake Lure has maintained a special character and distinction , due in part to how the land has been managed and developed. Early development was done in such a way as to leave much of the forest intact while at the same time providing tasteful viewsheds, allowing property owners to enjoy the beauty of the area but still maintain the integrity and specialness of a forest community.

The other important communities of Bat Cave, Chimney Rock Village, and Gerton have been an important part of Hickory Nut Gorge since white settlers first came to this area in the 1700s. These tight-knit communities managed to find a way to build homes and businesses on the lower slopes and sheltered coves of Hickory Nut Gorge. This allowed for the establishment of a stage coach route and what would become the primary route connecting the larger cities of Asheville and Charlotte. Today, these communities straddle the line of being destinations for solitude and ecotourism.

If you want to know how special Hickory Nut Gorge and Lake Lure are, just ask the people who live here. Most all would agree that there is not a more beautiful area to live. The climate is moderate, the people are friendly, there’s lots to see and do, and it offers a degree of isolation that many people seek, having lived in areas where the rat race never ends and the tallest thing you see is a skyscraper. Hickory Nut Gorge, with its towering cliff faces, cascading waterfalls, staggering views, and plant diversity that attracts wildflower hunters and leaf lookers, is a gem that is certainly worth protecting.