Western NC's Whiteside Mountain attracts sightseers
April 26, 2013
Towering 2,100 feet above the valley floor, the vertical cliffs at Whiteside Mountain capture the evening light in this oil painting by Elizabeth Ellison.
Written by George Ellison Nature Journal
Almost all of the 19th-century travel writers visited Whiteside Mountain. It was — and is — dramatic. Back then, it was accessible via roadways from Highlands, Cashiers and northwestern South Carolina. Many Northerners, especially New Englanders, traveled by rail to Walhalla and then rented a wagon or a horse to finish the journey.
Whiteside rises 2,100 feet from the valley floor to its summit at 4,930 feet along the Eastern continental divide. The headwaters on the western side of this massive granite outcrop flow from the Cullasaja into the Little Tennessee, Tennessee, Ohio and Mississippi river systems to the Gulf of Mexico. Waters on the eastern side flow from the Chattooga into the Savannah to the Atlantic.
In places along U.S. 64 between Highlands and Cashiers, the springheads for both systems are literally only a stone’s throw apart.
Former Western Carolina University biologist Jim Horton, in his chapter on the natural aspects of the region in “The History of Jackson County” (1987), describes the mountain as “a ‘pluton’; that is, it originated as a molten intrusion probably far below what was then the surface. Its rock is Devonian in age, about 390 million years old.”
Biologist Robert Zahner, a longtime Highlands resident, now deceased, wrote the definitive study of the mountain. In “The Mountain at the End of the Trail: A History of Whiteside Mountain” (1994), he notes that the Whiteside pluton is technically not a single mountain about one mile in length but a “massif” extending about four miles; that is, it “includes the Devil’s Courthouse on the northwest and Wildcat Ridge on the southwest (while) the width of the massif averages only about one-half mile.”
Such a prominent feature of the landscape attracted the attention of the early Cherokees, who called it “Unaka” — their word for “white.” They associated various legends with its cliffs, caves and pinnacles.
The panoramic view over the Chattooga River valley into Georgia and South Carolina is — to use an overused description that is nevertheless apt — “breathtaking.”
Ravens are common. They resemble crows, of course, but are larger. If it “caws” it’s a crow; if it “croaks” it’s a raven. Their aerial displays are spectacular.
Peregrine falcons have been reintroduced in recent years. If it’s a hawklike bird in overdrive with a curved bill and long black sideburns, it’s a peregrine falcon. Their aerial displays are also spectacular.
An alternative view from the valley floor back up at the vertical cliffs can be obtained by taking U.S. 107 south from Cashiers and turning right onto S.R. 1604 (opposite High Hampton Inn) into the highly picturesque Whiteside Cove area of Jackson County.
From this vantage point the cliffs appear grayish-white, since they have been exposed to the weathering and drying effects of the wind and sunlight. Lichens and mosses have not been able to gain a foothold in this environment and the light-colored feldspars of the “Whiteside granite” are apparent.
The Chattooga here is at first a meandering stream that becomes as it approaches the state line a bawling, rock-strewn watercourse passing through rugged gorges.
At the end of S.R. 1604, a right turn will take you five miles through Horse Cove up to Highlands; a left down the Bull Pen Road leads eight miles to U.S. 107.
For specific directions to the trailhead, fees and photographs, consult the emapstore website at http://bit.ly/11UdgEc.
George Ellison is a naturalist and writer. His wife, Elizabeth Ellison, is a watercolor artist and paper-maker. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org .
KING ON THE MOUNTAIN
In the 19th century, Edward King was bankrolled by Scribner’s Monthly to the tune of $30,000 to travel throughout the South via train, riverboat, coastal steamer, wagon, horseback, stagecoach and on foot. His magazine articles were subsequently collected and published in 1875 as “The Great South: A Record of Journeys in Louisiana, Texas, the Indian Territory, Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland.” Here is part of his description of Whiteside Mountain: “The mountain itself lies rooted in the western slope of the Blue Ridge. The veteran (Silas) McDowell has compared it to the carcass of some great monster, upon whose head you climb, and along whose mammoth spine you wander, giddy with terror each time you gaze over the skeleton sides. “The main rock stands on a hill 1,600 feet high, and its upper crest is 2,400 feet above the branch of the Chattooga river, which runs near the hill’s base. From top to tail of the mammoth skeleton the distance is 800 feet. Viewed at a proper distance, in the valley below, from its south-east front, it is one of the sublimest natural monuments in the United States. “The sunshine plays upon walls which are at times of dazzling whiteness, and the sheer fall seems to continue to the very level of the valley, although it is here and there broken by landings. “But the outlook! It was the culmination — the finishing stroke of all our rich and varied mountain surprises! When we were seated on the white crag, over which a fresh breeze perpetually blew, the ‘wrinkled’ world beneath us literally ‘crawled.’ Everything seemed dwarfed and insignificant below. It was like looking down on the world from a balloon.”