Stecoah Gap - North Carolina
Joe Kegley | E-Mail | Updated 08-29-2010
Stecoah Gap Sunrise - Joe Kegley (taken from the Stecoah Gap parking area)
Known for its abundant variety of warblers during the breeding season (April-May), Stecoah Gap is also endowed with an extensive assortment of wildflower species. The area is popular with nature enthusiasts, hikers (Appalachian Trail), and hunters.
Showy Orchis, Stecoah Gap - Joe Kegley
Highway NC 143 (Sweetwater Rd.) intersects Stecoah Gap about 7 miles northeast of Robbinsville NC. Here you will find a parking area next to a small managed lawn with two picnic tables.
Access to the Nantahala National Forest is available via the Appalachian Trail on either side of NC 143 or via the gated forest road next to the picnic area. There are no bathroom amenities at the picnic area. The closest motels are seven miles down NC 143 in Robbinsville.
The forest road (logging road) is relatively level and offers an easy walk. For those who enjoy hiking, the Appalachian Trail is more strenuous though manageable depending how fit you are and the distance you travel. Similar bird and plant species are observed on both routes. The starting elevation at the parking area is approximately 3200 feet.
Road Project Controversy
From the National Parks Traveler website ... "In 2008 officials with the North Carolina Department of Transportation released a Draft Environmental Impact Statement stating their intent to construct a new four lane highway through Stecoah Gap and across the Appalachian Trail. As proposed, Corridor K is slated to cross the A.T. at Stecoah Gap via a four-lane roadway drilled beneath the mountain in a 2,870-foot long, 570-foot deep tunnel."
The Corridor K project objective is to link Ashville NC with Chattanooga TN via a primary thoroughfare. The justification appears to be economic development. Personally I don't know enough information to form an opinion yet, though if you do an internet search on 'Corridor K' you will find many opinions. Most folks appear against the project.
The Parking Area
If you can tolerate the traffic and the noise, the cut-over area next to the parking lot can be a good birding spot to observe and/or hear Indigo Buntings, Chestnut-sided Warblers, Golden-winged Warblers, Song Sparrows, Eastern Towhees, and infrequently American Redstarts.
Depending on traffic noise you may also hear the song of Ovenbirds coming from the forest below or to the right of the cut-over section. Hooded Warblers were occasionally heard in this area coming from the upper elevations on the other side of the road.
Note there is not much shoulder to walk on when traversing the side of the cut-over area next to the highway. A better comfort zone is next to the parking lot and picnic area.
Golden-winged Warbler, Stecoah Gap - Joe Kegley
Chestnut-sided Warbler, Stecoah Gap - Joe Kegley
The Forest Road
The forest road next to the parking lot is probably the most popular route for birding, photography, and hunters. This wide road with moderate pitch winds around the side of the mountain and makes for an easy casual stroll. The passage also offers a firm and level platform to stand with binoculars raised or for a camera tripod setup.
While birding during the morning hours on the mostly forested sections of the road listen for Blackburnian Warblers, Black-and-white Warblers, Black-throated Blue Warblers, Black-throated Green Warblers, Hooded Warblers, Ovenbirds (normally very vocal and loud), Northern Parulas, Dark-eyed Juncos, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Scarlet Tanagers, and Wood Thrushes.
Blackburnian Warbler, Stecoah Gap - Joe Kegley
While observing the birds in the forested areas along the road, don't forget to look down toward the ground. During the spring you may find various species of trillium (including large-flowered trillium, yellow trillium, vasey's trillium, and sweet white trillium), showy orchis, wild geranium, rue anemone, common violets, mayapples, and jack-in-the-pulpit.
Large-flowered Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum), Stecoah Gap - Joe Kegley (note the white petals just starting to turn pink)
Yellow Trillium (Trillium luteum),
Stecoah Gap - Joe Kegley
Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum (L.)),
Stecoah Gap - Joe Kegley
Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum),
Stecoah Gap - Joe Kegley
The few cut-over areas next to the forest road offer similar habitat and birding found at the cut-over area next to the parking lot. Look for Chestnut-sided Warblers, Golden-winged Warblers, Indigo Buntings, and Song Sparrows.
The Appalachian Trail
A short hike on the Appalachian Trail produced similar wildflower observations as those seen on the forest road. Bird watching also produced identical species with those found on the forest road with the exception of Ceruleans Warblers, which were not observed on the forest road. Expect to encounter backpackers hiking the trail.
Dark-eyed Junco, Stecoah Gap - Joe Kegley
Wilderness Experience Perspective
NC 143 is one of two main thoroughfares entering the town of Robbinsville (county seat of Graham County). You should expect a fair amount of traffic noise in the parking area. The noise pollution becomes much more tolerable after rounding a couple of bends on the forest road.
One can enjoy solitude on the forest road or Appalachian Trail, but expect it to be interrupted periodically by other nature enthusiasts, hikers, or logging vehicles.
Dust can be a problem on wildflowers close to the forest road due to logging traffic. It will depend whether logging activity is taking place when you visit. Also note that wildflowers visible from the forest road are frequently on a steep grade making access for photography difficult.
The parking area is a good place to use your vehicle as a blind (shoot through an open car door window). This can be productive for photographing birds that frequent the cut-over area next to the parking lot. You will need to park at the farthest end away from the logging road.
- Insect Repellent - while insects were not too bad in the spring, it's good to be prepared.
- Lightweight poncho or rain jacket - should you decided to hike a decent distance away from your vehicle.
Location and Points of Interest
Stecoah Gap Map (Google interactive map)
left double click to zoom in
right double click to zoom out
click and drag to move
hover over markers to see descriptions
Stecoah Gap ... a nature, wildlife, and photography perspective.