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Cool down in the Emerald Forest

By Johnny Molloy • Jul 29, 2018 at 4:45 AM

Have you ever been to the Emerald Forest? Have you ever heard of the Emerald Forest? It is located atop Unaka Mountain in Unicoi County, literally above Erwin, on the Appalachian Trail. The Emerald Forest is one of those special places where a combination of elevation and location has left 5,180-foot Unaka Mountain crowned with evergreen woodland reminiscent of Canada and New England. At the exact arc of the hairpin curve pick up a narrow unmarked trail that leads just a few feet to meet the white-blazed Appalachian Trail. Turn left, northbound and uphill on the AT. You are already over 4,500 feet high, so the weather will be a cooler than the lowlands. The walk will mostly be straddling the North Carolina-Tennessee state line. After a short climb level off in northern hardwoods of yellow birch, beech, and cherry. Extensive grasses reveal this part of Unaka Mountain as a once grazed upon bald. The rising trees are now stunted by the harsh climate shrouding these lofty heights. A few spruce trees are already popping up amid the hardwoods. After walking one mile you are over 5,000 feet and spruce trees have taken over, forming the Emerald Forest. Overhead, their boughs create a dark roof, blocking out most sunlight. Below, their scaly, dark brown trunks rise from a near uniform floor of bronze fallen needles. These acidic needles and lack of sunlight keep ground vegetation from growing, save for a little moss around the base of trees and a persistent fern or two. This gives it a fairyland forest feel. Just ahead, reach the nearly level crown of Unaka Mountain. Here, the Emerald Forest makes a panoramic mantle. Sit back, lean up against a spruce, and soak in that distinct aroma of this dominant evergreen. Look for the USGS survey marker atop up here. It is truly amazing, this short trip to another world. These red spruce are near the southerly limit of their range. This evergreen, with its stiff and sharp needles, grows from Maine and Ontario in eastern Canada then stretches down the high spine of the Appalachians down to the loftier mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina. While driving along Interstate 26 the dark green, almost blackish crown of Unaka Mountain is easily visible once you spot it for the first time. The spruce copse stands out most clearly on crisp winter days when the leaves have fallen from the lower elevation deciduous trees, leaving brown slopes topped with the evergreen of the Emerald Forest. To get there from exit 36 on I-24, Main Street/Erwin, south of Johnson City, cross over the interstate toward TN 107. After .4 mile, reach a stop light and TN 107 in Erwin. Turn right and follow TN 107 west for 1.0 mile to TN 395 east, Rock Creek Road. Turn left on TN 395 and follow it 6.1 miles to the TN/NC state line and turn left on gravel Forest Road 230. Set your odometer and follow FR 230 for 4.3 miles to a hairpin left turn on an uphill. Park here. You can park inside the curve or along the road. Note: There is no trail sign at this turn. For more information, please consult my hiking guide Top Trails: Tri-Cities Tennessee & Virginia.

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