I found myself standing there beneath the canopy of eternal autumnal amber, capturing the beautiful moment of the crisp morning on my journey down the ever-changing mountainside. An hour before, I was eating breakfast and reading the sign one last time before I departed from the summit. It read “Spruce Knob, elevation 4,863 feet.” The ornate cathedral of leaves was one reason why I made such a journey to West Virginia, but it would not have been enough for me to give up the display in Ohio. I was beckoned to the mountains yet again, not only to see the best fall color the Allegheny Mountains had in ten years, but also visit a special ecosystem I fell in love with the first time I explored the highest peaks in the Appalachian Mountains.
Amazing bicolored leaves of hobblebush (Viburnum lantanoides)
For the high elevation summits that reach over 4,000 feet yield what some might call “sky islands”. Much like the islands in the Caribbean, each one is similar but unique. These special forests are home to plants that grow much further north and are primarily dominated by dense stands of red spruce (Picea rubens). Conditions are unforgivingly harsh here; the temperature can be cooler by as much as 20 degrees F from lower elevations and the harsh winds cause the trees to grow toward one side, known as flagging. It also tends to stay wet, as the weather can change rapidly and fog frequently blows through the area, but this creates a lush environment that resembles a jungle.
A beautiful carpet of moss! The red moss is a type of bog moss (Sphagnum sp.) Who knew moss could turn red?
View from my hammock of my campsite in the morning.
For some reason, simply hiking here was not enough, I felt compelled to spend the night in such a beautiful place. As I drove to the top of Spruce Knob, I noticed the transition in forest type was strangely abrupt, almost as if some sort of invisible barrier prevented the trees below from encroaching. Once I stepped foot out of the car my breath was immediately taken away by the colorful carpet of mosses and lichens covering the rocky surface, the tiny blueberry bushes (Vaccinium sp.) and pine tree seedlings made for a delicate, otherworldly backdrop. After the sun had set, the night was comfortable when the threat of rain had passed, albeit I had to wake up a few times to add another layer of clothing as the temperature dropped. Hiking my way back to the car early in the morning, I snapped a few more pictures of the pines enshrouded in mystic fog before I began my departure. My next destination was yet another ‘island’ with a confusingly similar name called Red Spruce Knob. The two-hour drive to get there immersed me in a sea of color once more, but I was more than happy to get on my feet again once I arrived. A short hike up the mountain side revealed yet another spectacular hidden gem of forest. I could only describe Red Spruce Knob as a real life, picture-perfect enchanted forest from a childhood fairytale. The moss covered every surface it could with its verdant glow and the mushroom covered logs near delicate small shrubs gave off an almost whimsical sense. I took a slow breath in and noticed the cool, clean air carried a weak scent of pine trees and wintergreen as I walked back to the car for a long ride home. I wished I could have spent more time in the mountains, but I vowed to myself that someday I would return.
The picture-perfect fairytale enchanted forest of Red Spruce Knob. It is the ninth highest elevation in West Virginia at 4,705 ft and was once the home of a fire tower.
Danny Wylie is a Gardener for the Main Display Garden. He began working at Holden Forests & Gardens April 2022. He loves all things plants and is always looking to learn more about them. Outside of work he enjoys hiking, tending to his own collection of exotic plants, and writing.