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Wednesday, 11 November 2009 13:37

Satulah has long been a WNC favorite

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One can still see why flatlanders started pouring into the Cashiers-Highlands region after the Civil War. The scenic ridge, valley and gorge country here remains one of the most interesting areas in Western North Carolina to explore.

Some of the most exciting spots in Panthertown Valley, Blue Valley, Whiteside Cove, and the gorge systems formed by the Horsepasture, Whitewater, and other rivers can be somewhat difficult to access. Others, however, can be reached in a matter of minutes. One such is Satulah Mountain, which is located within several miles of downtown Highlands.

Atop Satulah (elevation 4,543 feet) there are panoramic views of the North Carolina mountains surrounding the Highlands plateau. Back to the northeast there’s a splendid bird’s eye view of the Whiteside Mountain cliffs, while out to the west the ridges of the Nantahala range flow northward toward the Great Smokies. On a clear day, one can discern the shimmering outlines of the lake systems in South Carolina.

Satulah is classified as a heath bald since most of the mountain top is covered with a dense — in places impenetrable — cover of heath shrubs (primarily rhododendron and laurel) as well as stunted white oak, chinquapin, and witchhazel. Foot trails cut through the tangle allow one to explore the inner-workings of the habitat.

The potholes in the rock surface are said to be evidence of a fire tower that once stood on the summit. If so, one can only envy the folks who manned the tower in such an idyllic setting.

Botanically, the rock portion of the bald and adjacent cliffs are quite interesting, providing one of the best examples of this type of summit habitat. Here one can find mats of twisted haircap moss (really a clubmoss relative rather than a moss), one of the few stands of mountain juniper in North Carolina, and sand myrtle.

In an informative book titled High Lands (1964), T.W. Reynolds stated that the mountain was “sometimes affectionately called Stooly by the natives, and spelled Stuly in the old town minutes.” Reynolds made a lengthy, convoluted, and unconvincing argument as to how the name “Satulah” may derive from the Cherokee word for “Six Killer.”

Satulah is one of those places in the North Carolina mountains associated with strange quakes, tremors, and smoke. In the late 1800s, Bureau of American Ethnology worker James Mooney collected data on sites where it was thought “volcanic activity ... left traces in the Carolina mountains.” Mooney cited areas in Madison and Rutherford counties where warm springs issued forth while peaks “rumbled and smoked.” He was told by locals that a mountain in Haywood County near the head of Fines Creek suffered an explosion that “split solid masses of granite as though by a blast of gunpowder.” In Cherokee County, a violent earthquake was thought to have “left a chasm extending for several hundred yards, which is still to be seen.”

As to Satulah (which Mooney spelled “Satoola”), the crevices on the sides of the mountain were said from time to time to issue forth smoke. Mrs. Ed Picklesimer, a resident of the Clear Creek community below Satulah, told Reynolds that, “years ago she saw smoke and light there.” If one looks through the older literature about the WNC backcountry, the occurrence of so-called “smoking mountains” is rather frequent. John P. Arthur, for instance, in his History of North Carolina (1913) located a “smoker” at the head of Bee Creek in Buncombe County.

I will note that on certain days one can view the west-facing cliffs of Satulah from Little Scaly Mountain on N.C. 106 and see “smoke” curling up out of the crevices as if the inner mountain were afire. The “smoke” is in reality, however, the mist rising out of the Clear Creek Valley that is being carried into and over Satulah by eastward winds.

Even if Satulah Mountain isn’t active in a volcanic sense, it’s still a wonderful place to visit and enjoy. For online directions and additional information regarding access see: www.highlandhiker.com/Satulah_Mountain.html and www.colonialpinesinn.com/attractions.htm

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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