Interview: Steph Jeffries and Tom Wentworth on Hiking Appalachian Forests

Stephanie B. Jeffries and Thomas R. Wentworth, authors of Exploring Southern Appalachian Forests: An Ecological Guide to 30 Great Hikes in the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee, and Virginia, talk with Carson Rogers about how to get the most out of your hiking experience.

Carson Rogers: You take a holistic approach to the forest, showing readers how to look at the bigger picture of the environment rather than just the hiking path. What made you choose this approach, and why is it important?

Steph Jeffries and Tom Wentworth (photo by David Blevins)Steph Jeffries: When we teach our two-week field course, we jump right in and during that first week, we are relentless—traveling to many stops each day and constantly asking the students what they see and what they think about what they see. Quite honestly, we nearly break them. But in the second week, a funny thing happens. The students gradually assume the lead—making observations, asking questions, probing current hypotheses, speculating. In short, they are thinking like ecologists and it is dawning on them that science is really not about what we already know, but instead about discovery. The transformation in such a short time is incredible. We think that anyone can learn to do this, to see the forest and the trees, so to speak. In doing so, your connection with nature broadens immeasurably, because you have a holistic understanding of why the forest you’re standing in looks the way it does. So many connections are formed that you’ll never look at a forest in the same way, ever again.

CR: What do hikers and outdoorspeople miss when they do not use this approach?

Tom Wentworth: Imagine strolling into one of the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe with no understanding of the building’s rich history, no idea about what went into its construction, no concept of its purpose, and no sense of how this cathedral differs from others. You would doubtless be awed by the sensation of standing in that magnificent space, but think how much richer your experience would be if you appreciated its history, construction, purpose, and uniqueness. It’s much the same with forests and other natural communities. You may have a very pleasant experience walking through a forest, but you will have a much deeper connection with and appreciation of the place if you understand how it came to be, what its components are and how they interact, and how it functions. Our approach to natural ecosystems provides that gateway.

SJ: I recently started re-reading Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, a hilarious account of hiking the Appalachian Trail. Bryson begins nearly every chapter with his observation that he’s walking among endless trees along an endless trail that all looks the same. I love his story, his perspective in rediscovering America, and his colorful characters, but it’s hard not to think of how much richer his experience would have been if he could see the forest for the endless trees. Our four hikes on the Appalachian Trail are, in fact, very different from one another.

In addition, I think most of us are “destination-oriented”—focused on the trail’s end, the scenic vista, the waterfall. Many of our hikes have points of interest such as these, because we love them too. By using our book, you can become a “journey” person as well, someone who sees something new and exciting around each bend in the trail. We want you to start seeing the forest intimately, instead of a background of green noise.

CR: What makes your “ecological guide” different from other hiking books?

TW: Many other hiking books are focused on the details of a trail as a way to get from point A to point B. This is not a bad thing—we all need to know trail conditions, elevation gain and loss, points of interest, directions that keep us on track (and not lost), and so forth. Indeed, we love and use such trail guides ourselves. However, we offer our readers something entirely different. While some guides will comment briefly on historical events, forest types, or points of particular interest, none offer the holistic, ecological view that we provide. We teach hikers how to read the landscape and to appreciate the ecological components and processes that make these forests what they are today. We feel that this is a unique contribution to the hiking literature.

SJ: To add to what Tom said, what excites me about ecology is its accessibility. Ecological concepts are often intuitive and fun to share. What makes the science challenging is that it requires you to pull together everything you know to solve a puzzle. When you walk into a forest and want to understand what you see, you’d better bring along everything you know about biology, geology, chemistry, physics, geography, and history. The complexity of nature is what makes it so hard to decipher, and at the same time, so fascinating. You really feel like a Renaissance scientist!

Exploring Southern Appalachian Forests:  An Ecological Guide to 30 Great Hikes in the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee, and Virginia, by Stephanie B. Jeffries and Thomas R. WentworthCR: How do you envision readers using this guide out on the trail?

TW: First, I believe that readers should consult our book before hitting the trail! The hiker who has previously read the hike’s narrative, its sidebar, and some related sidebars and relevant community descriptions is then prepared for a most rewarding experience. Once on the trail, I would envision the reader pausing occasionally to pull our book from its home in the backpack and then consulting it as a reference. In this way the hiker would be prepared for and could quickly find answers to questions like: What did Steph and Tom say about this waterfall? Why did they say all the trees are small and of similar sizes? Which way did they say to turn at this trail junction? Which natural community is this? Which maple am I seeing? I also imagine and hope that readers might reach the destination summit or overlook, find a comfortable place to sit, and read again the hike’s narrative and sidebar, letting their immediate experience and the book’s content mingle in their minds. Perhaps this last step might even happen later that evening, in front of a campfire or in a cozy chair back home.

CR: How many walks are featured from each included state?

SJ: Well, the bulk of the land area in the southern Appalachians is in North Carolina, so unsurprisingly, we have many hikes there. But there are five hikes each in Georgia and South Carolina, with many hikes nearby in adjacent states. Tennessee hikers also have five hikes to choose from, but several others are just across the state line in North Carolina. While Virginia has only three hikes, they are all near its southern border, and several northern North Carolina hikes are nearby. We feel that the hikes we chose offer the best in the region, while providing good geographic coverage.

CR: How did you manage to narrow down the many possible hikes to just the 30 trails included in your guide? Do you each have a favorite?

SJ: Goodness me, I am still discovering new trails that would have been perfect for the book. It wasn’t easy. On one summer day, I hiked nearly every trail on the western rim of Linville Gorge—including Linville Falls, Pine Gap, Babel Tower, and Wiseman’s View—to choose the best one for the book. (I ate the biggest slice of pie in western North Carolina that night, while icing my knees.) We wanted to represent a broad cross-section of the region and natural communities, of course, as well as varied distance options. Accessibility was also important to us—we wanted to reach the broadest possible audience. There are five trails that are at least partially accessible to those with physical disabilities. Most importantly, each trail we chose has a great story—some are historical, some are mysteries or dramas, and a few even have surprise endings.

If I could transport myself anywhere today, it would be to walk among the ancient giants at Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. Tomorrow would be different, of course. I think my favorite chapter that I drafted is the Babel Tower Trail because it helped me articulate my thoughts on wilderness.

TW: I’ll add that many, many people offered suggestions of hikes they thought should be included in this book. Certain hikes were mentioned so often that there was never any question that we would include them. In other cases, little-known gems suggested by just one or two friends and colleagues proved to be ideal. As Steph says, in the end we had to make some hard choices among many great candidates.

Where would I go today? It’s the summer solstice and peak blooming time for Catawba rhododendron, so I’d set my sights on the Roan Massif, where I’d hike above the clouds in its magnificent open meadows and flowering shrub balds where nothing obstructs the spectacular view!

CR: You mention climate change and the introduction of foreign pests or species as potential threats to the forests. Can you elaborate on why this is an ecological danger?

TW: The natural communities we visit in the beginning of the 21st century are substantially different from those we might have visited in the early 20th century. In some cases the changes are positive, having resulted from conservation and restoration of natural communities. In many cases, however, the changes are deleterious, having resulted from wanton destruction of natural resources and the inadvertent introduction of harmful pests, like the chestnut blight or the balsam woolly adelgid. When we consider the exotic diseases and invasive exotic species that are currently plaguing our southern Appalachian forests, we must realize these forces will destabilize and eventually degrade these natural communities. We can say with little doubt that the forests our grandchildren visit in the early 22nd century will be substantially different from those we describe in this book. In this context, climate change is certainly the wild card, with the potential to disrupt existing natural communities in ways not seen since the last Ice Age. However, in this case humans, not other forces of nature, are the causal factor.

CR: Because trails and forests are susceptible to natural events, like fires or tornados, what provisions did you take while writing in case of any sudden major changes to the included hikes?

SJ: [Laughs] The full manuscript went to the Press on November 8th. On November 12th, I sent Tom an email. “Hike 22 is on fire!” Linville Gorge was burning, from an unattended campfire in the Table Rock Picnic area, and eventually spread to about 2000 acres. Fortunately, we had covered the possibility of a fire in this area when writing the hike’s narrative. Indeed, fire is the major theme of Hike 22, with a sidebar featuring two fire-adapted pines. So this hike is still up-to-date in a very real sense. Throughout the book, we emphasize the idea that change is the only constant, and we teach readers to piece together the story for themselves. On a more practical level, we try to avoid pointing out specific features like large, old trees, because we know they may not be there or be visible forever. Each hike is a snapshot in time, but we teach readers how to look for clues that will help them interpret the inevitable changes that will occur after our book is published. If we have done our job well, we have taught readers to read and interpret the landscape for themselves—not only for these thirty hikes, but all over the southern Appalachians.

CR: You encourage readers to view the forest from a curious, questioning perspective, always asking why things are the way they are. Can you speak to why this is important?

SJ: My relentless curiosity as a kid has only worsened with age, so this comes naturally for me. But honestly, I find that anyone who has their curiosity kindled soon finds that they want to know more—much more. What makes ecology—and all of science—so exciting is discovery. Walking along the edge of what we know allows us to peer into the vast chasm of what we don’t know.

CR: You say “the present can only be fully appreciated in the context of the past.” How so?

TW: Most of the natural communities we see reflect events in the past. Nature has no recipe that dictates exactly what will be found at each place. Instead, environmental conditions provide broad guidelines, which are then influenced by time and space. For example, we note the absence of red spruce and Fraser fir on some summits that should support them, given their elevation and other environmental attributes. As we discuss, understanding such absences requires that we consider climatic fluctuations in the past that may have driven spruce and fir off the summits, as well as processes that may have prevented their return.

In the more distant past, evolutionary processes, climate disruptions, and major geologic changes (such as continental drift and the formation and breakage of land bridges) have also shaped the natural communities we see today. Without the historical perspective, we are severely handicapped in our ability to understand the present.

SJ: Right! Each place you visit, whether you realize it or not, reflects past events, with forces that made the natural community you see there today unique. I’ll add that you have to consider recent history as well—human history and natural disturbances such as fire, fire suppression, storms, and logging—to truly understand the story of the place.

CR: In addition to hiking, what other ways do you recommend enjoying the forest?

SJ: Two of my favorites are to slow down or to speed up. Slowing down and becoming more journey-oriented is a great way to enjoy exploring with kids. First, you have to drop your expectations of how far you’ll go or how much time it will take. Once you’ve done that (it can be surprisingly hard), you can really experience nature through their eyes. Kids have an eye for detail that fascinates me, and they’re more curious than most adults. My older son, Stephen, has a knack for spotting salamanders, while my younger son, Simon, would rather race woolly worms than reach the top of the next ridge. And, as research has repeatedly shown, we need to be doing more to get our kids out into nature.

I’m also a trail runner. Something I love about trail running is the amount of ground I can cover in a beautiful place on my own two feet. I’m not especially fast, and I often take my camera. Also, I find that the singular focus required to stay upright wholly occupies the distracted part of my mind, leaving the rest of my brain free to wander. Like most people whose lives exist in multiple dimensions (for me, that includes mom, professor, runner, business owner, and writer), my life can be pretty noisy. Running trails through the forest is my favorite way to quiet my mind, and, as a result, do my best thinking.

CR: Is it best to explore the southern Appalachian forests during a specific season, or can hiking be appreciated year round?

SJ: Each season brings its beauty. In our southern latitudes, you can enjoy hiking year-round, though some higher elevation areas, such as the Blue Ridge Parkway, are closed in the winter months. A crisp, clear winter day brings the best views, and, without the distraction of greenery, you can really appreciate the contours of the landscape. Spring brings a colorful parade of wildflowers as the days grow longer, while warm summer days invite quick dips in icy mountain streams and berry picking. Fall might yet be the best season, though—brilliant autumn colors and nighttime temperatures cool enough to really appreciate a toasty campfire at the end of your day.

CR: After reading Exploring Southern Appalachian Forests, how might I see my favorite hike in a different way?

TW: You’ve said this is your favorite hike, so there are things about it that you already love. Perhaps this hike is a favorite because it offers the calming influence of nature, “far from the madding crowd.” It may offer particular aesthetic charms, or perhaps a chance for birding, botanizing, berry picking, healthy exercise, or a spectacular view of waterfall or landscape. After reading Exploring Southern Appalachian Forests, we hope that you will have added to these individual elements a broader appreciation of the hike’s natural setting. You will “see the forest” in addition to the many other things that drew you to this hike in the first place. As you take subsequent hikes, you’ll appreciate the diversity of species that occur along your favorite trail, and why they’ve formed the particular natural community you see. You’ll understand how both recent and deep histories have much to teach us about why your hike’s natural community is the way that it is. We also think you’ll be more attuned to the threats to the well-being of your favorite hike, so that you’ll be more inclined (and better prepared) to help protect its future integrity.

CR: All thirty hikes are on public lands. Why is it important to invest in public land? Under tightening budgets, can we really afford to own so much land?

SJ: National parks have been called “America’s Best Idea,” protecting scenic landscapes (and later, cultural and historical landmarks) for the enjoyment of all. This was a radical concept when originally proposed, particularly for a growing young nation that seemed to have unlimited natural resources. However, proponents recognized that the best way to balance competing interests for natural treasures was to purchase and protect them for future generations.

Our hikes utilize trails in national parks and national forests, as well as state parks. Although we discuss threats such as climate change and invasive exotic species, development as a result of a growing population could well be the biggest threat to the southern Appalachians. As more people flock to the mountains, public land becomes still more precious, providing recreational resources and protecting biodiversity, wildlife habitat, and clean water. Undeveloped land is shrinking rapidly, and much of what is left is irreplaceable. Private, nonprofit conservation organizations, such as the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, also play important roles in protecting natural areas, but they can only do so much with their limited resources. Public institutions must continue to play a leadership role in conservation.

The vision of public parks for all citizens is an enduring one, even as visitor populations swell and park resources are stretched thin. Public land is the best gift we can give to ourselves and to future generations!


Stephanie B. Jeffries is Teaching Assistant Professor in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources at North Carolina State University. Thomas R. Wentworth is Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Professor of Plant and Microbial Biology at North Carolina State University. Exploring Southern Appalachian Forests: An Ecological Guide to 30 Great Hikes in the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee, and Virginia is now available.