Forest Trail Explorer

US Forest Service and Southern Research Station

Classifying Communities

Natural Communities

Natural communities generally occur in continuously varying patterns. Most of the environmental factors that determine communities vary over continuous gradients. We can best decipher the tremendous complexity of natural communities by categorizing them according to their ecology.

Natural communities are valuable elements of natural diversity for a variety of reasons. They are generally regarded as “coarse filters” for diversity of organisms. By protecting examples of all the natural community types, the majority of species can be protected without laborious individual attention. Like species, communities have an intrinsic value as natural systems, as well as aesthetic value to human beings. The following thirteen communities represent some of the most common communities as well as those considered of high visual interest across the landscape.

Community Type


Spruce-Fir Generally found above 5,500 feet (though locally lower in suitable sites) and extending to the tops of all but the highest peaks.
Beech Gap High elevations, within the range of spruce-fir forests. Primarily in south-facing gaps, but may occur on exposed ridgetops in areas lacking spruce and fir or in areas adjacent to grassy balds.
Grassy Bald Slopes, ridgetops, and domes of high mountains, usually on gentle slopes.
Heath Bald Extremely exposed high elevation sites: peaks, sharp ridges, and steep slopes.
Northern Hardwood Medium to fairly high elevation coves, flats, and slopes, particularly on north-facing slopes.
High Elevation Red Oak Found on dry to moderately moist slopes and ridgetops at mid to high elevations (around 3,500–5,500 feet).
Pine-Oak/Heath Exposed sharp ridges, knobs, low elevation peaks, and steep south slopes.
Oak-Hickory Dry to moderately moist slopes and partly sheltered ridgetops at moderate to fairly high elevations (about 2,500-5,000 feet).
Hemlock Slightly less moisture than cove forest sites, including open valley flats, slopes above cove forests, sheltered low ridges, narrow ravines, and open north-facing slopes at fairly high elevations.
Acidic Cove Sheltered low and moderate elevation sites, primarily narrow, rocky gorges, steep ravines, and low gentle ridges within coves.
Rich Cove Sheltered, moderately moist, low to moderate elevation sites, primarily broad coves and lower slopes.
Short Leaf Pine-Oak Found at low elevations, generally below 2,300 feet.
Low Montane Alluvial Stream and river floodplains at low elevations, generally below 2,300 feet.

The above content is a part of the Western North Carolina Vitality Index. To view the full report, visit


Schafale, M.P., and A.S. Weakley. 1990. Classification of the natural communities of North Carolina, third approximation. N.C. Natural Heritage Program, Raleigh, NC. 325 pp. Accessed from: