Walking alongside the college campus on North Main Street in Davidson, N.C., following a little ridgeline that marks the border between the Catawba and the Yadkin/Pee Dee river basins, my mother would mark the clearest days by stopping at a high point near the college entrance. Then, pointing west with one hand, she would put the other one above her eyes as if saluting and say: “There it is. Look way out there. You can see it: It’s Grandfather.”
As beautiful as our mountains’ rolling, forested peaks are, they provide few landmarks as dramatic as Grandfather. Even Mount Mitchell is masked by other high peaks in the Black Mountains.
But there are a few other North Carolina mountains or outcroppings that stand out from their surroundings in ways that leave viewers in awe. Stone Mountain (near North Wilkesboro), Pilot Mountain (near Winston-Salem), Crowders Mountain (near Gastonia) and Chimney Rock (near Asheville) rank among my other favorites.
Like the lighthouses that are symbols of the North Carolina coast, these rock outcroppings are my mountain icons. If you haven’t seen them, put them on your “life’s list” of things you really must do soon.
Like our lighthouses, each of these mountain icons has its special story. Exploring the Geology of the Carolinas: A Field Guide to Favorite Places from Chimney Rock to Charleston by UNC-Chapel Hill professor Kevin G. Stewart and Mary-Russell Roberson (UNC Press, 2007), makes a convincing case that the geological story of each landmark’s creation is almost as compelling as its visual impact. Here’s a quick tour of some highlights:
Let’s start with Crowders Mountain. When I practiced law in a big office building in Charlotte, I enjoyed looking out the window at Crowders. Like its neighbor, Kings Mountain, it stands out because it’s so much higher than the surrounding lands. I always wondered how those mountains got there. It turns out that it’s simply because they’re made of very, very hard rock that has resisted the erosion gradually wearing down its surroundings.
Moving west to Chimney Rock, we learn that its beginnings were in silt and lava flow that accumulated at the bottom of an ancient ocean. Later, this ocean bottom was pushed upward as continent-sized landmasses crashed into one another. Subsequently, erosion created the formation’s unique chimney shape.
Heading north, we come to Grandfather Mountain. Near the top of Grandfather, you can find rocks that look just like the worn-down, rounded stones one finds in a river bottom. In fact, 750 million years ago, these rocks were carried by rivers and deposited in a valley. Later, a continental collision unleashed forces that pushed the valley upward and made it into a mountaintop.
Following the Blue Ridge Parkway takes us near the naked granite face of North Carolina’s Stone Mountain, which will remind you of the more famous one near Atlanta. Our Stone Mountain is relatively young—only about 300 million years old. That helps explain why its rocky face remains so solid. Since Stone Mountain’s formation, there have been no continental collisions nearby like the ones that disrupted the rocky structure of most other North Carolina mountains.
Moving east, back toward the Piedmont, we end our tour at Pilot Mountain. It rises so far above its surroundings that some people think it was once a volcano. Actually, like Crowders Mountain, it stands tall because it’s made of more erosion-resistant rock than the adjacent areas that were originally the same height.
The hard rock of Pilot Mountain is quartz. Long, long ago it was simply sand—part of a beach that, over hundreds of millions of years, became covered with silt and other deposits. Eventually it sank beneath the earth’s surface, where it was subjected to such extreme heat and pressure that the sand solidified into hunks of quartz. Later it was pushed upward by another one of those collisions of landmasses that characterized ancient geological history.
Have I told you too much? If I have, don’t let it keep you from making your own tour of these icons, these majestic “lighthouses of the mountains.”
[D.G. Martin is the host of UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch.]