I’m excited to introduce to you my friend and guest blogger, Christopher E. Nelson. Chris owns and operates Carolina Outdoors Guide, a comprehensive directory of federal and state outdoor recreation sites in North Carolina, including parks, forests, lakes, wildlife refuges, rivers and more, with pages for camping and hiking, and the This Land, Your Land blog. I hope you find this feature as fascinating as I did. Enjoy!
I don’t know how I first found out about Bat Cave Preserve, but for at least a year I’ve had it in the back of my mind as a topic for the Along the Way feature in Living in Style magazine, which I write and edit. Along the Way is meant to be a travel feature about out-of-the-way, less-known places or events in North Carolina.
Bat Cave Preserve, 275 acres owned by the North Carolina Nature Conservancy in Hickory Nut Gorge, which is in Rutherford and Henderson counties, easily qualifies on both counts. And, as a bonus – in terms of a good timely story for the June/July issue, anyway – it is only open to the general public through summer hikes led by Nature Conservancy volunteers.
Dana Redfield, a Nature Conservancy volunteer whose night job is manager at the venerable
Orange Peel music hall in Asheville, had agreed to take me up to Bat Cave on a Sunday in May. The morning’s rain had quit and, despite my pretty much ignoring her directions though I didn’t really know where I was headed, we pulled into the turnout off of US 64 within moments of each other. It looked like this was going to work out.
Bat Cave has been known by generations in the southwest North Carolina mountains, and is even at the center of a couple of myths involving Indians and stolen gold. But it was pretty much ignored scientifically until the 1970s, and it wasn’t until the 1980s that researchers realized the Bat Cave system is more than a mile long, making it the largest granite fissure cave in North America and perhaps the second-largest in the world. Fissure caves are formed by movements of the earth – earthquakes and other shifts – as opposed to erosion, which forms most caves, including the limestone caves prevalent in the Southeast. The rock in Bat Cave is angen gneiss, a granite formed about 535 million years ago during the Cambrian period, according to the Nature Conservancy.
As the name implies, several species of bat make their home in Bat Cave, including the endangered Indiana Bat (Myotis sodalis). Little more than a week after we were there, the Nature Conservancy banned all entry to Bat Cave to guard against the spread of white-nose syndrome, a disease that has killed a half million bats in the northeast and has spread as far south as Virginia. Hikes will go to the cave entrances, but the cave itself will be posted. Prior to the new restrictions, because even human body temperature can damage the habitat, visitors were only allowed in the 300-foot entrance hall to Bat Cave and in a smaller chamber called Little Bat Cave. Every three years, Nature Conservancy volunteers and staff enter the cave to inventory the bats, coming up with about 175 on the latest count, according to Dana, who participated in the count. From October to mid-April, the preserve is closed so that the bats’ hibernation is not disturbed; a gate at the bridge over the Rocky Broad River controls access. If the bats are awakened, Dana explained, they will search for food and not find it, but in the process burn energy they need to live through the winter.
Update: On Thursday, we heard from Adrian Bell with the Nature Conservancy, who said the hike this summer goes no farther than the lower and smaller entrance known as Little Bat Cave as part of the effort to safeguard the bats.
The preserve is also home to fine examples of a rich cove forest, usually found at higher elevations but here because of the gorge’s cool, moist conditions, and an acidic cove forest, which is typical of steep gorges. Presence of the two types of forests causes Carolina hemlock (Tsuga caroliniana), chestnut oak (Quercus prinus) and Rhododendron (Rhododendron
maximum) to grow nearly side-by side. As I quoted Dana in the Along the Way piece: “The rich cove and acidic cove forest, the preserve is such a great example of that because it’s so obvious. We do a lot of non-native species removal, so it’s like a North Carolina forest would be if there wasn’t (for example) kudzu and other invasives.”
Because of the work done by volunteers like Dana, the preserve also sustains many spring wildflowers, including bloodroot, toothwort, phacelias and several species of trillium (which, except for some trillium, were not much in bloom the day we were there). There are also many types of ferns, including walking
fern (Asplenium rhizophyllum), Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) and marginal woodfern (Dryopteris marginalis); several varieties of alumroot (Heuchera americana) and several endangered plants, including broadleaf coreopsis (Coreopsis latifolia) and Carey’s saxifrage (Saxifraga careyana). I’m still learning photography (and know zip about botany), but I tried to capture images of the plants Dana told me to shoot.
Our first stop on the hike was a seepage pool where Dana spotted the small “crevice salamander” that is only found in Hickory Nut Gorge. Originally considered a separate species, they are now known as the Bat Cave form of the Yonahlossee salamander (Plethodon yonahlossee).
The hike itself is moderate with some strenuous parts – a couple of steep areas – and takes a couple of hours. The Bat Cave blowholes, cracks in the cave wall where air that cools as it falls through the cave streams out, are a reward just prior to the cave entrances. The Nature Conservancy leads hikes Wednesdays and Saturdays at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., through August 12. Reservations are required, and the fee is $10. Phone 828-350-1431, ext. 4 for more information or to reserve a spot.