Three states may claim parts of the Chattooga River, but the watershed really belongs to the conifers. The view from any overlook reveals a sea of white pine. Look closer and oaks are similarly abundant, but there are also table mountain pines, normally a scarce species, clinging to the high rocky ridges. Lower down, shortleaf pine thrives and pitch pine is scattered throughout.
Conifers are not simply abundant; they really like it in the Chattooga. While the Smokies hog most of the height records for montane species, the Chattooga conifers can go toe-to-toe with the Smokies. The hemlock height and volume records have bounced back and forth between the Smokies and the Chattooga. The pitch pine height record has gone from the Smokies to the Chattooga. Shortleaf pine from the Chattooga to the Smokies. The Virginia pine height record somehow escaped from the Chattooga to a nearby area of South Carolina, but the table mountain pine record remains in the Chattooga.
The watershed is less hospitable to hardwoods. While there are a few stands with significant individuals, the Chattooga is not the place to see north facing coves with towering trees and an abundance of showy herbs. It is mostly white pine that lights up the LiDAR canopy height maps. So when aerial photographs revealed a cluster of high hits in a south facing cove to be hardwoods, it seemed doubly odd. A friend and I investigated, and found a stand of young, vigorous tuliptrees. They were consistently over 140’ tall with a few over 150’ making this one of the tallest hardwood stands in the watershed. However, the tall oaks and hickories that I had hoped would be amongst them were largely absent. My friend wanted to take a different route out, which is when things really got interesting and the Chattooga once again showed its true colors.
Where the typically steep descent down to the West Fork of the Chattooga took a break, we found ourselves in the midst of the finest shortleaf pine stand I have ever seen. Hardwoods dominated the short, steep, north facing slope on one side of the cove, but towering shortleafs covered the gentle south facing slope on the other side. Tuliptrees, white oak, and a few white pine grew amongst them, but the shortleafs had simply outgrown the tuliptrees. However, the most impressive tree in the stand may be a pitch pine that doesn’t branch for over 90’.
The site now contains the four tallest known shortleaf pines in Georgia, and the second, third, and forth tallest NTS has recorded anywhere. The two largest shortleafs should also qualify as state co-champions once spreads are measured. The pitch pine is the tallest on record by four feet.