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Column: Despite its 'young' age, North Carolina's Nantahala Gorge is impressively deep
Rudi Kiefer

The t-shirt of the person ahead of me in the checkout line had a colorful image on the back saying “Andrews, North Carolina.” Instantly, Nantahala Gorge came to my mind. 

Andrews is a pretty town of 1,800 residents. On its north side, U.S. 74 sweeps past businesses, unites later with I-40 for a stretch, and ends at Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, 500 miles after passing Andrews. But near Topton, less than 10 miles after Andrews city limits, it enters the Land of Noonday Sun, or Nantahala in the Native American language. 

The Gorge has this name because one needs to be visiting near noon time to see the sun. Steep slopes close in on both sides. The road descends into a dark valley, down to an elevation of 1,900 feet above sea level. On both sides, within just half a mile of distance on each side, the peaks rise to 3,500 feet. 

In high school we were told that it was the Nantahala River who cut that impressive 1,600-foot deep trench. Some geologists use a different figure for depth, but it depends on how much of the surrounding mountain landscape is included in the estimate. The main question is, how did the river manage to carve such a deep gap into solid rock? 

The answer is either antecedence (pronounced “anty-See-dence”), or headward erosion, or a combination of both. An antecedent river is older than the mountains through which it flows. Squeezed by huge forces, the mountains are rising and the river keeps cutting into them like a hacksaw. But in the case of the Nantahala, most scientists agree that the stream found a layer of rock that’s softer than others in the area. The relentless onrush of water, breaking and removing pieces of stone, deepened the gorge rapidly. Landslides from the surrounding slopes were working on flattening things out again, but the powerful river was still faster in eating its way into the valley for thousands of years. Even today, one can see the powerful rush of water across boulders, as well as the gravel that it’s dragging along. This, and the number of whitewater rafting businesses along U.S. 74, indicates that the Nantahala is still what geomorphologists (the geologists who study landforms) call a “young” feature. The highway takes us through a landscape that’s still in its adolescent stage of development.

Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor at Brenau University, teaching physical and health sciences on Brenau’s Georgia campuses and in China. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.

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