Gorges State Park has a rugged and contrasting topography within a small area and nearly 125 rare plant and animal species, in addition to 12 endangered or threatened plant and animal species.
This ecologically rich region has been identified as being of national ecological significance by the state’s Natural Heritage Program. Several plant species more typical of the tropics thrive where the constant spray from the park’s numerous waterfalls and plunging whitewater streams showers the sheer rock walls and talus slopes with mist. Scientists are unsure how these species came to grow so far from the tropics.
One theory is that spores blew north from the tropics and settled in the region. Or, perhaps the species remained in the region from tens of thousands of years ago when a warmer climate existed in North America. While few larger plants can establish a hold on the steep, slick rocks surrounding the spray cliffs of the gorges, a rich community of ferns, mosses and liverworts grows in the region’s moist, moderate temperatures.
Rare species include Carolina star-moss, which has dark green rosettes. The moss is also found in the Dominican Republic. Pringle’s aquatic moss is another rare species and attaches itself to rocks under running water. The moss is found in Mexico, but in the United States it is solely found in the southern Appalachian escarpment region. Gorge filmy-fern, Appalachian filmy-fern and dwarf filmy-fern, plants with leaves that are only a single cell thick, are also found in the Gorges. The ferns require constant humidity, which is provided by the continuous spray from the waterfalls.
The gorge filmy-fern grows only in the southern Appalachian gorge region. The gorge bottoms are constantly wet with spray, but the steep slopes leading to the rocky, mountain ridges rapidly drain moisture from the terrain. The land supports oak and pine communities typical of dry mountainous regions, but the high rainfall also supports several rare species.
Abundant species include rhododendron and mountain laurel, along with white pine, hickories and red oak.
Oconee bells — also known as shortia — are rare flowering plants that also occupy some of the same territory. The plant is most abundant in the gorges region of North Carolina, and because so few populations of the plant are known, Oconee bells are considered to be an endangered species. The plant has single-stalked, white flowers, which stand above the evergreen leaves that form low patches along Escarpment streams.
In addition to black bear, wild turkey, fox, coyote, wild boar and deer, as well as a variety of squirrels, North Carolina’s largest known population of green salamander lives in the gorges.
This secretive salamander hides in the damp, shaded crevices of cliff faces. The gorges’ forests also provide abundant habitat for neotropical migratory birds, including the largest North Carolina mountain populations of Swainson’s warbler.
Three fish species — turquoise darter, redeye bass and rosyface chub — have their only North Carolina populations in the park’s rivers that are part of the Savannah River drainage. In addition, the nearby Horsepasture River is both a designated federal Wild and Scenic River and state Natural and Scenic River.