Appalachian Balds: Uncovering the Mystery of Grassy Balds
As an avid hiker, some of the best hikes with the most expansive views that I have encountered are the ones that lead to balds in the Southern Appalachian mountains. While it’s easy for us modern folk to simply view these grassy openings as part of the package while hiking through the hills, truth be told, the origin of Appalachian balds is a bit of a mystery.
Gasp! A mystery, you ask? Indeed, the existence of these balds is not as clear-cut as they appear. So, let’s take a closer look at this puzzling phenomenon and get to know the world around us a little better, shall we? Let’s uncover the unknown and discuss Appalachian balds.
What is an Appalachian Bald?
Let’s start with the basics – Appalachian balds are areas located on the tops or ridges of high-elevation mountains in the Southern Appalachians. These spots are covered with native grasses or shrubs instead of the typical forest vegetation that one would expect and are found throughout the Southern Appalachian mountains in Tennessee, North Carolina, north Georgia, and southwest Virginia.
There are two types of Appalachian balds out there – grassy balds and heath balds. Grassy balds, as the name suggests, are populated with native grasses, while heath balds are filled with thickets of evergreen shrubs like mountain laurel and rhododendron. Heath balds have the easiest explanation of the two types of balds, as thickets of evergreen shrubs tend to grow where the soil is highly acidic or experiences heavy drainage.
Grassy balds, on the other hand, are a little more murky, and there are several theories out there about how they were formed. Let’s look at those theories and what they have to say!
Siler Bald near Franklin, NC
How Appalachian Balds Were Formed
Here’s where we get to the fun stuff, y’all, because nobody out there is entirely sure how or why Appalachian balds were formed. However, there are several compelling theories worth looking into.
Some balds – particularly those within the boundaries of the current-day Great Smoky Mountains – are thought to have been cleared by European settlers sometime in the late 1800’s. A report called History of the Grassy Balds in Great Smoky Mountains National Park by Mary Lindsay, which is a great read if you’re interested includes interviews with 14 people who were familiar with the balds before the establishment of the park. Many of these interviews include accounts that suggest a few of the balds were cleared as grazing ranges for cattle. Spence Field is said to have been cleared by an old man with the surname Sparks, Siler Bald by Old Man Siler, and Andrews Bald by Old Man Andrews. If this is indeed the case, then these balds in the Smokies are all aptly named, y’all.
Black Balsams, NC
While there seems to be firsthand evidence to suggest that the origin of some balds is man-made, not all of these balds have a clear origin story. Gregory Bald, for example, is another bald in the Smokies that has supposedly been clear for much longer than the other balds mentioned in the report. Mary Lindsay writes that although the interviews don’t provide much information about Gregory Bald specifically this could merely suggest that it was cleared much earlier by white men – possibly when European settlers first came to the area.
While Lindsay’s suggestion could be true, not everyone thinks this is the case. An empirical study by Stanley A. Cain in 1931 found that Gregory Bald may have been cleared well before Europeans came to the Smokies. The soil profiles of the bald showed “from a few inches to a foot or more of homogenous black soil of grassland type, which is too deep and mature to have developed since the advent of the white man…” In layman’s terms, this basically means that the soil here led researchers to believe that the area has been grassy for hundreds of years.
Okay, that’s pretty cool! But the question still remains – if the balds weren’t cleared by humans, then how did that clearing happen naturally? Some researchers have suggested that extreme weather conditions or oak gall wasps cleared parts of the forests, but these theories don’t offer comprehensive answers for all of the Appalachian balds. There is, however, one fascinating hypothesis from Peter Weigl and Travis Knowles that offers a somewhat unexpected answer that dates all the way back to the last Ice Age.
Yes, THAT Ice Age. More specifically, we’re talking about the Pleistocene Era, which occurred between 2.58 million and 11,700 years ago. During the late Pleistocene Era, Weigl and Knowles propose that severe climatic conditions “probably deforested the peaks of the southern mountains.” These deforested areas were then maintained by the grazing of prehistoric megaherbivores, namely mammoths, mastodons, ground sloths, and giant bison. After these animals became extinct, the areas were then maintained by bison and elk until Europeans settled the area. And now, I’m obsessed with the idea that there may be such a thing as Appalachian mammoths and mastodons. This is why I love this area so much, y’all, the more I learn about it, the cooler it gets.
Discover the Balds For Yourself!
If this blog has inspired you to lace up those hiking boots and see the beauty of the balds yourself, I’ve got a few suggestions for you:
These areas are maintained in the present day because they offer beautiful vistas to hikers, are filled with natural and historical significance, and are also home to some rare plant species – including roan rattlesnake root and three-toothed cinquefoil.
For more photos and explorations, be sure to follow The Wandering Appalachian on Instagram and Pinterest! Be sure when you're discovering new places to practice Leave No Trace principles. Take only pictures, and leave only footprints. Happy wandering, y'all
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