Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy To Improve Wildlife Habitat At Cataloochee Ranch On Border of Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The higher Great Smokies tower just above the ski slopes and trails of Cataloochee Ranch. The park's trails wander just inside the park past Hemphill Bald. The Ranch House is a cozy place to sleep after a day spent volunteering to maintain trails and wildife habitat this weekend—or just enjoying nearby hikes in the park. All photos by Randy Johnson.

Come up to the Maggie Valley side of the Great Smokies this weekend to see and help improve one of the most significant private-land nature preserves that flanks the park.

Cataloochee Ranch, an 800-acre parcel on the park’s southeastern border, is more than a popular resort for horseback riding, hiking, and in winter, downhill skiing—it’s a carefully tended area of forest and lofty meadows that play a critical role for Smokies wildlife.

This Saturday, July 28, 2012, from 9 a.m. – 2 p.m. volunteers will be able to help the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy (SAHC) improve song bird habitat and protect water quality on the scenic and historic ranch. The event is being co-sponsored by Nature Valley and the National Parks Conservation Association.

For this restoration event, “volunteers will enhance habitat for migratory song birds by feathering the forest edge along pasture boundaries and removing invasive plant species. Volunteer groups will also focus on improving a section of a popular horse and hiking trail to help protect water quality adjacent to the park." Angela Shepherd at the SAHC said, "The meadow work will focus on restoring early successional habitat favored by songbirds."

Meadows are everywhere on the property, capped by scenic 5,600-foot Hemphill Bald. The Smokies’ Cataloochee Divide Trail leads hikers and horseback riders right along the edge of the ranch. Smokies trail users often step out into the meadows for awesome views or to eat lunch at a stone picnic table with a vista orientation platform. The site memorializes the ranch’s founders, Tom and Judy Alexander. This weekend’s volunteers will eat lunch at that viewpoint.

Volunteers should have knock-your-socks-off views wherever they work. The hope is that two parties can split up and work on the Pine Tree Gap and Pol’s Gap side of Hemphill Bald. The Ranch’s hiking and horseback path Tom’s Stand Trail will be a focus and so will Hemphill Bald itself. All the work takes place on land protected under conservation easements. Cataloochee Ranch was the site of the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy's very first conservation easements.

For directions to Cataloochee Ranch or to register as a volunteer, please contact Margot Wallston at 828-253-0095 ext. 212 or .

Cataloochee Ranch is quite a story—and a great place to stay for volunteers (or for anyone wanting an offbeat, memorable access point to the park). Cataloochee Ranch is a three-generation, family-run operation that has more than 300 acres of its high elevation land under protection adjoining Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Alexanders founded their ranch in 1933—in Cataloochee Valley, the now famous destination inside the park. When Great Smoky Mountains National Park was formed, the Alexanders established a new Cataloochee Ranch not in the valley, but across the Cataloochee Divide just outside the park boundary at 5,000 feet on Fie Top Mountain.

The ranch sits high above the bustling tourist town of Maggie Valley, near the Blue Ridge Parkway’s Soco Gap Access, and not far from Waynesville, a popular mountain town. There are miles of trails on the property for hiking and riding, an historic main Ranch House with accommodations, as well as cabins and Silverbell Lodge for groups. There’s an outdoor pool, and the ranch stages wildflower walks and wagon rides.

One of the best things about the ranch is that from its location, normally difficult to reach hikes in the park are much easier to access. Among those is Hemphill Bald itself, Ferguson Cabin, the park’s highest historic cabin, and the “Big Poplars” grove of giant trees on the Caldwell Fork Trail. Not far away is the upscale Swag Country Inn which offers some of the same location plusses as the ranch, with a bigger focus on hiking.

The ranch became North Carolina's first ski area in 1961 and has been a regional leader of a now bullish Southern ski industry. The slopes rely on snowmaking and receive significant natural snow, but not as much as the high main ridge of the Smokies that nets more snow than Buffalo, New York.

About the sponsors: The Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy was incorporated as a non-profit land trust in 1974 and has helped protect more 50,000 acres. For more information, visit www.appalachian.org.

Nature Valley “created the granola bar category in 1975.” Its Preserve the Parks program aims to encourage Americans to experience the beauty of our National Parks and raise awareness about the importance of preserving their natural and cultural resources for future generations. It benefits the nonpartisan National Parks Conservation Association and over the course of the three-year relationship, will have helped raise more than $1 million to benefit restoration projects in support of America’s national parks.