Whiteside Mountain Setting and Its Evolution
Whiteside Mountain has been cited by some as possibly the oldest mountain on the face of the earth. It is part of the 2,000 mile Appalachian mountain chain which begins in Canada and extends south to Georgia. Whiteside is in the Southern Blue Ridge Province of the chain, a mountainous region commencing just south of the James River in Virginia.
The formation of the Appalachians began some 500 million years ago with a collision of tectonic plates, involving the proto plates of Africa and North America, as well as smaller plates known as the Piedmont-Blue Ridge plate and the Carolina Slate Belt plate. The upward thrust of this collision created the wrinkles and folds on the earth's surface that are now our Highlands mountains. This initial collision is thought to have been followed by two additional collisions, the second one 350-400 million years ago and the third 250-300 million years ago.
During the early crunching of the earth's crust, great fissures opened many miles below the surface. Into them flowed molten masses that eventually cooled to form huge globs of granite rock, still miles below ground. In the last buckling collision of the plates, the granite that became Whiteside was pushed about fifty miles westward and then upward to its present location, yet still buried beneath the surface.
At that time, the Appalachians were probably as tall and rugged as the much younger Himalayan and Rocky Mountain chains are today. Indeed, Whiteside Mountain, which now stands with a peak elevation of 4,930 feet and a vertical cliff drop of 1,800 feet, was probably then three to four times its present size. However, rains eroded the Appalachians at a rapid rate because in those early times there was little if any forest cover to retard the process. In fact, most of the sand beaches on the southeast coast of the United States are constituted of particles that were originally part of the Appalachian Mountains. Once the more crumbly forms of rock that covered it were rain-washed away, the granite of Whiteside Mountain, with all its strength, was exposed.
It is located at the crest of the area's highest plateau, jutting out from the great Blue Ridge divide, where streams with headwaters to the east ultimately flow into the Atlantic Ocean while those on the west lead to the Gulf of Mexico. In fact, waters from “the dividing spring,” located at an old Indian campground high on the Ridge Road on what is now the De Ville property, trickled partly down the eastern slope to the Chattooga and partly down the western slope to the Cullasaja until the
parking area was built at the crest, diverting the western branch so that both now flow to the Atlantic via the Chattooga and Savannah Rivers.
Whiteside's cliffs are formed from igneous rock and contain a high content of feldspar, quartz, and mica, as well as minerals of pyrite and rare monazite. Their blue-grey hue is the natural weathered granite color, while the white streaks that decorate the precipitous south side are veins of feldspar and quartz. The cliffs themselves have been perpendicularly sheered by the nightly freezing and daily sunshine-thawing of water in the cracks of the rocks on the southern side of the mountain during the wintertime.
There are two distinct plant communities present on Whiteside. On the cliff side one can find small quantities of extremely rare plant species that grow in the cracks and are able to withstand the weathering and drying effects of wind and sunlight, while on the shadier backside, where water in the cracks of the rocks remains frozen almost all winter, is a luxuriant second-growth forest of oaks, Fraser magnolias, black and yellow birches, striped maples, and witch hazels.
Our Highlands mountains have been forested for at least two million years. These forests are truly unique in their diversity as a result of a combination of several critical factors that cannot be found elsewhere. First, although our area lies below the southernmost reach of ice during the glacial age, the glaciers did in fact “push” a wide variety of northern plant species into the region, where they found refuge. Second, these northern plant species are able to thrive at a relatively southern latitude because of the cool temperatures at our high elevations. And, third, Highlands’ forests are sustained by a high average annual rainfall which approaches 90 inches, making the area, in effect, a temperate rain forest, the wettest in the United States except for the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state.
As a result, in our mountains there are about 140 native varieties of trees. If you were to stand on the cliffs of Whiteside and look south you would have within your field of vision a larger number of tree species than exists on the entire continent of Europe! At the highest altitudes of our mountains are found spruce and fir trees. Below them, where northern hardwood forests predominate, species such as yellow birch, buckeye, and basswood thrive together with an abundance of wildflowers. In the cove forests at the lower elevations, hemlocks, oaks, tulip poplars, ashs, silverbells, and both sugar and striped maples are prevalent.
Of course, the most dominant plants in this area are the heaths, specifically the rosebay rhododendrons, mountain laurel, and flame azaleas which combine to
put on a two-month spectacle of blossoms every spring that is truly awe-inspiring. Those who saw Wildcat before it was developed remember “Laurel Hill,” as it was called, where the laurel grew and bloomed in such profusion that a grown man could walk across its matted top without falling through the branches.