Friday, August 26, 2011

Footprints on the Roan Highlands

It was late in the day and we were tired.  The last climb up Little Hump Mountain in the Roan Highlands at the TN/ NC boarder had us all tuckered out (Little? HA! That mountain was high!).  We'd all had a fabulous day of hiking, but we were more than ready to make camp.  But unlike other areas of the AT, campsites were few and far between in the Roan Highlands.  The original plan had been to camp near the Overmountain shelter, but it was so crowded that we decided to press on.  Then, the campsite at summit of Little Hump Mountain was already full of people too.  How how much further would the next place be?  We had no idea.

Backpacking across the Roans, my new favorite mountains in the East

As we descended down the steep backside of the mountain, our eyes scanned the area for any spot that might accommodate our group of seven Southeast Women Backpackers.  We lingered at one semi-flat place in pristine forest, debating the merits of stopping or continuing on into unknown, down slippery rocks when were were so tired.   This site was tempting-- no one had camped here before and there were enough trees for our hammocks.  But we hesitated, knowing our large group would trample this area flat, possibly killing sensitive plants, or worse creating a new campsite if others followed in our footsteps.  We knew we had enough energy to continue on, but we didn't know how far behind us the other members of our group were, or how tired they were.  It was a tough call, but in the end we continued on down the trail.

Fortunately, we came to an empty spacious camping spot not much further down the mountain.  So in the end, it worked out great.  But this got me thinking about the footprints we make while backpacking, especially while passing through such sensitive, beautiful regions like the Roan Highlands.  It made me wonder how our presence here impacts this fragile place, and what we can do to lessen our impact.

Gorgeous grassy meadows of wildflowers

When I began to read about all the unique plant communities in the Roan Mountains, I learned about all the threats this beautiful place.  In addition to usual risks to rare mountaintop plants like inbreeding, loss of habitat due to development or global warming, the grassy bald plant communities are at special risk due to the loss of natural forces that used to keep the balds tree-free (i.e. the extinction of the elk and bison and other large herbivores that once roamed these hills.  It is also possible Native Americans also may have helped create these places).  Now the balds will grow over with trees without help of volunteers, and introduced grazer like goats and steer.  I was also surprised to read that one of the primary threats for the federally endangered Roan Mountain bluet is "trampling."  This landscape of the Roan, with it's open vistas and grassy expanses, seems to invite exploration and romping off trail.  Could we hikers really trample a plant to extinction?  Does walking off trail really cause that much of an impact?

Apparently, scientists in the field of recreation ecology have been studying how recreation impacts protected natural areas (for an excellent review see Pickering et al. 2009).  They measure damage due to soil compaction, spread of weeds and plant pathogens, and changes in plant diversity.  They use a "hiking resistance index" to describe "the number of passes by a hiker required to reduce vegetation cover by 50%" for any given vegetation type.  Scientists do experiments where they go out and hike back and forth in different areas (for a wonderful description of this research with nice photos see this website).  They have found some plant communities are more fragile than others.  This is why it's so important to learn to follow the Leave No Trace principle to camp and travel on the most durable surfaces (i.e. dirt and rocks) and avoid sensitive plant community types.

Our nice already-established campsite
On this trip, I know we did the right thing in finding an already established campsite.  But looking at my own behavior, I realize that I don't always make such good decisions.  It's ironic that I take a lot of pride in making choices to reduce my carbon footprint during my day-to-day life-- taking the bus, driving a hybrid car, getting locally grown veggies from my CSA.  But when I go hiking, I bushwhack to discover new places, and I "stealth" camping when I go solo.  I don't know that I'll always stay on the beaten path, but I'm going to try watch my literal footprints more carefully and read more about ways to lessen my environmental footprint.

Pickering, CM, Hill, W, Newsome, D., and Y-F Leung. 2005 Comparing hiking, mountain biking, and horse riding impacts on vegetation and soils in Australia and the United States. Journal of Environmental Management 91: 551-562.


  1. I just came across your blog on Hammock Forums and had to comment on this post as I had the EXACT same experience in the Roan Highlands! We had a group of 5 hangers and had to push beyond the Overmountain Sheter (the climb from Yellow Mountain Gap is no joke) for similar reasons. We finally came across the same campsite (Bradley Gap I believe) as you and were relieved that there was plenty of room for our five hammocks. It is amazing to look at satellite images of areas like Roan and Grayson Highlands and see how many "trails" exist in these open areas.

    1. WOW- crazy you had a similar experience. Sure was a great campsite we ended up at though.

      I've never looked at satellite images of the Roan but it's unfortunate that there are so many social trails. This summer up in Washington, saw how they construct raised platforms ("turnpikes") through meadows and that seemed to help a lot though look like they take lots of time to build.