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The Picnic Guide of Virginia
Blue Ridge Parkway National Park
Nature

 

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Geology

The mountain-building process here is one of both creation and destruction. This creation, perhaps hundreds of millions of years in the geologic past, was both violent and dramatic. 

The destruction goes on before our very eyes today, at a seemingly slow and steady pace. Geologists tell us that sections of huge plates forming the crust of the earth have collided violently on numerous occasions in the past. 

The results are folded-up slabs of crust piled up like a deck of cards or a wrinkled throw rug. This mass of mostly igneous (cooled, molten material) and metamorphic (formed under heat and pressure) rock is the geological foundation of the Appalachians that we see today.

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Detail Maps and Information

 

Perhaps of more interest to visitors today is the other half of the mountain-building story, their gradual destruction. The slow, steady forces of wind, water, and chemical decomposition have reduced the Blue Ridge from Sierra-like proportions to the low profile of the world's oldest mountain range. The almost constant wind that blows across the exposed ridge tops of the Appalachians plays an important role in the weathering and eroding processes. 

Summer thunderstorms bring torrents of rain. In the winter, freezing and thawing water in crevices brings occasional rockslides that bear witness to the erosional processes in these mountains. Occasional catastrophic events like floods, hurricane force winds, blizzards and ice storms can change the face of the mountains overnight.

The geological history of the mountains is a determining factor in all of the flora (plant life) and fauna (animal life) protected in the park. Plant and animal communities can change dramatically depending on the direction a particular ridge is facing, the elevation, soil type, and exposure to the elements. 

The eastern edge of the Blue Ridge is consistently more rugged and steep than the western edge due to the direction of uplift during the creation of the mountains. Because of this, the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge have more rugged river drainage, evidenced by Linville Gorge (Milepost 316) and Rockcastle Gorge (Milepost 169).

General Ecology

Diversity of habitat and diversity of species await the observant visitor to this long, linear national park. Diversity is the key word in an understanding of the ecology of the Appalachian mountains. Multiple and overlapping habitats, exceptional examples of forest communities, and locally wide variations yield a huge diversity of flora (plant life) and fauna (animal life) on the Parkway. 

Park biologists have identified 1,250 kinds of vascular plants; twenty-five of these are rare or endangered. Four rare or endangered animals have also been identified on Parkway lands.

The reasons for this wide diversity are numerous. Elevation is a key factor, with Parkway lands as low as 650 feet above sea level at James River (Milepost 64) and topping out at 6,047 feet at Richland Balsam (Milepost 431). The Parkway is also oriented on a north-south axis with its two ends almost 500 miles apart. 

Combining these two factors, the Parkway contains habitat as diverse as one may find traveling from Georgia to Newfoundland. Another factor is that many ridge tops may bear the full force of wind, sun, and severe weather conditions, while protected coves are dark and moist. These factors contribute to the diversity and interrelationship of species.

Trees

Beginning at the Parkway's lowest elevations and climbing up to the highest, visitors will notice numerous transitions among a variety of forest types. At lower elevations, the oak-chestnut forest dominates Parkway lands with a variety of oak trees composing the forest. In remote, sheltered cove forests, you may find dozens of varieties of species, and some of the remaining virgin timber that was inaccessible to loggers earlier in the century.

Higher up on the mountains, northern hardwood forests remind many people of those in New England. Beech, Birch, or Buckeye may dominate depending on other characteristics of the habitat. At the highest Parkway elevations, it is the Spruce-Fir forest that crowns the ridge tops and mountain peaks. In front of advancing glaciers, remnants of seeds normally germinating in Canadian forests found a habitat in which to grow.

Trees enrich our lives throughout the year. However, it is only during the fall that they wave flamboyant foliage that seems to demand our attention. The intensity of their announcements depends upon weather conditions. Bright sunny days and cool, but not freezing, nighttime temperatures are requirements for a vivid autumn show. If there is an early frost, the leaves are likely to become brown and drop. In autumn, chlorophyll, the green coloring agent in leaves that makes photosynthesis possible, begins to decrease.

As chlorophyll fades, other colors such as red, orange and yellow appear. Carotenes and xanthophylls are pigments that produce the lively yellows, golds and oranges of autumn leaves. These pigments are present in summer but they are hidden by the green of chlorophyll. Only when chlorophyll production stops, do they show their presence. The scarlet, rust and purple leaves are caused by anthocyanin pigments.

Unlike the carotenes and xanthophylls, these pigments are not already present in the leaves but are synthesized in the leaf after chlorophyll production stops. When chlorophyll production stops, so does the flow of water and glucose between the leaves and the tree. A layer of cells called the abscission layer, develops to block the flow. Some glucose will be trapped inside the leaf and it will change to anthocyanin pigments with the help of certain weather conditions.

Birds

The Blue Ridge Parkway has many scenic attractions, not the least of which is its variety of birds. For birding enthusiasts, the Parkway offers a never-ending supply of beautiful birds, from the American Bittern to the Whip-poor-will. The annual autumn hawk migration down the Blue Ridge can be spectacular. Birds seen in all seasons include Cardinal, Carolina Chickadee, Red Tailed Hawk, Tufted Titmouse, Pileated and Red-bellied Woodpecker, and the Carolina Wren.

Wildflowers

The Blue Ridge Parkway is a wildflower lover's paradise, offering a huge variety of native species during spring, summer, and fall.  Depending on your elevation and north/south orientation, some species can be found blooming over a considerably long period of time. The following list is a highlight of some of the most popular wildflowers, their months in bloom, and places along the Parkway where you can find them. Photograph them, sketch them, or simply enjoy the view, but all of the park resources are protected - leave them for others to enjoy.

When are the Wildflowers Blooming?

The Blue Ridge Parkway is a wildflower lover's paradise, offering a huge variety of native species during spring, summer, and fall. Depending on your elevation and north/south orientation, some species can be found blooming over a considerably long period. 

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