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Journey Along the Eastern Continental Divide
You've seen those road signs — the ones marking the Eastern Continental Divide — while driving throughout our region.
Some are on the interstate and some are on country roads. Some are even in the middle of town. But have you ever taken a moment to think about what it is that they actually indicate? The name makes it sound pretty important, but what does it really mean — and why is it given the honor of signs in so many places?
The Eastern Continental Divide is an invisible line that represents where water on either side of it will flow. The line follows our mountains' ridgelines and bisects our valleys.
In our region, water that falls on one side — generally to the east and south — will ultimately end up in the Atlantic Ocean. It will travel about 300 miles to get there, flowing into rivers like the Green, Broad and Pacolet before converging with rivers in South Carolina on its way to the sea.
Water that falls on the other side of the Divide — generally to our west and north — will find its way into the French Broad River, which flows westward into the Tennessee, then Ohio and then Mississippi rivers before finally reaching the Gulf of Mexico nearly 2,000 miles later. That water, which begins its journey high atop the mountains of our region, will touch nine states before it reaches the ocean.
That's why the invisible line of the Eastern Continental Divide makes a big difference. That invisible line can mean the difference of thousands of miles for a single drop of water. The great distances the water travels highlight the importance of protecting the land and water around the Divide. The first step to safeguarding clean water in our rivers is to protect the land on which it originates. Pollution and erosion at the sources of rivers negatively impact all water downstream, so protecting the lands that host springs and headwater streams — which originate on each side of the Divide — is paramount.
But ensuring clean water isn't the only reason the Eastern Continental Divide is worth protecting. The Divide runs atop the crest of the Blue Ridge Escarpment, the dramatic wall formed by the land that rises abruptly from the Piedmont plateau to the high elevations of the southern Appalachians. The sudden change in elevation at the escarpment has significant effects on the terrain and climate, which make it the most biologically diverse location in North America. Many plants and animals that make their home along our Eastern Continental Divide are unique and not found anywhere else in the world.
Protecting the Divide inherently protects our region's water, biodiversity and scenic beauty. The Divide has far-reaching impacts on our quality of life. That is why Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy has protected more than 23,000 acres in Henderson, Transylvania and surrounding counties that the Divide passes through. Join me on a journey along the Eastern Continental Divide as we visit locales conserved by CMLC and the benefits this work has provided to our region and beyond.
East Fork Headwaters
We'll begin in southern Transylvania County and work our way east. The East Fork Headwaters, an 8,000-acre tract containing the headwaters of the French Broad River, hosts more than nine miles of the Divide along the N.C./S.C. state line. To date, CMLC and its partners have protected and made publicly accessible a 786-acre corridor along the Divide — including nine miles of the long-distance Foothills Trail. CMLC is striving to conserve the remaining 7,000 acres over the next several years —and complete the protection of one of the largest remaining tracts of contiguous private land remaining in our region.
"Isn't it just neat to see where the start of an entire river comes out of the ground for the first time?" asked Sandy Schenck, Green River Preserve founder and director. GRP, a summer camp and private wildlife preserve in southwest Henderson County, is home to nearly seven miles of the Divide, including the headwaters of the Green River itself. Schenck eagerly shows visitors the spring on the Preserve's 2,600 acres protected by a CMLC conservation easement — one of the largest private conserved properties in western North Carolina. A cluster of rare yellow lady's slipper orchids makes its home adjacent to the spring, a visual testament to the benefit of protecting land along the Divide.
The southern boundary of DuPont State Recreational Forest shares the Divide with GRP for more than four miles. In the 1990s, a coalition of individuals and organizations including CMLC protected and made publicly accessible more than 10,000 acres that now makeup DuPont. CMLC's efforts to protect DuPont have never stopped, and include buffering its boundaries with nearly 3,000 acres of private conservation easements and adding more than 150 acres to the forest itself — most recently the addition of 65 acres on Stone Mountain, less than a mile from the Divide.
East of DuPont and GRP, the Divide traverses Pinnacle Mountain as it makes its way eastward toward Flat Rock, crossing Interstate 26 just above the Green River Gorge — much of which is now the protected and publicly accessible Green River Game Lands. In Edneyville, Lewis Creek forms at the Divide, and less than a mile from its source, it meanders through a rare southern Appalachian bog conserved by CMLC in 2004. During CMLC ownership of the bog, the state has undertaken extensive stream restoration projects adjacent to the eight-acre wetland to help reestablish original habitat that supports rare species.
Immediately after crossing Highway 64 just east of the Edneyville post office, a half-mile of the Divide winds its way through Runaway Farm, a private conservation easement held by CMLC on 140 acres of forested and organically farmed rural lands.
Rising abruptly from Edneyville, the Divide ascends to the high elevations of Bearwallow Mountain, one of Henderson County's most scenic and iconic peaks. Eighty-one acres atop Bearwallow's picturesque summit were placed into a CMLC conservation easement in 2009. CMLC ultimately hopes to protect more than 400 acres along Bearwallow Mountain's high ridge, including nearly two miles of the Divide.
Beyond Bearwallow, the Divide crosses Highway 74A at Hickory Nut Gap in the northeastern corner of Henderson County and follows the ridgeline to the top of Little Pisgah Mountain. En route, nearly a mile of the Divide passes through CMLC's 600-acre Florence Nature Preserve. The Preserve, donated for conservation purposes by the Florence family in 1996, hosts old-growth forests, scenic rock outcroppings and five miles of publicly accessible hiking trails.
Altogether, CMLC has protected nearly 20 miles — in a buffer of more than 14,000 acres of conserved lands — of this invisible line, a line that harbors the most beautiful locations of our mountains, affects the quality of water for thousands of miles, and hosts more biological diversity than anywhere else on our continent. So the next time you're driving down the highway and you pass a road sign that reads Eastern Continental Divide, give some thought to its significance. And even though you can't see it, remember just how important it is to protect it.
by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator
Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at www.carolinamountain.org/stories.