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Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness

View from Hangover Mountain


The Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness (Slickrock) straddles the North Carolina Tennessee border and is contained within the Little Santeetlah and Slickrock Creek watersheds. Congress designated the Wilderness in 1975 and it now encompasses over 17,410 acres. It’s bounded on its western edge by the Citico Creek Wilderness.

The Little Santeetlah watershed contains the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, which consists of 3,800 acres of what has been described as the most impressive growth of virgin forest in the eastern United States. It was established in 1936 as a memorial to Joyce Kilmer who wrote the poem “Trees.” Kilmer was killed in World War I during the second battle of the Marne in 1917 at the age of 31.

In 1915 the Babcock lumber company began logging the Slickrock watershed. The company built a railroad up Slickrock Creek, extending it further up the Creek and its tributaries as logging progressed. In 1922, with about a third of the watershed remaining to be logged, operations were halted because the soon-to-be-completed Calderwood Dam on the Little Tennessee River would flood the lower portion of the railroad. All of the equipment and infrastructure was removed but you can still see remnants of the railroad bed and rails, cables, and other artifacts if you keep a sharp eye out when you hike along Slickrock Creek.  The area that was not logged contains some magnificent old-growth forest, where oaks, hemlocks, and tulip poplars exceed six feet in diameter. The greatest concentration of old growth forest is found along the 1.2 mile Joyce Kilmer Memorial Trail, which is a beautiful 1.2-mile nature trail through the Memorial Forest.

Slickrock is tucked away just to the southwest of Great Smokey Mountains National Park in an area that until about a decade or so ago was very lightly travelled. Unfortunately, it's not nearly as off-the-beaten path as it used to be because of mandated releases of water from Santeetlah Dam a few weekends a year that bring

 Calderwood Lake Trailhead

thousands of people into the area to raft the Cheoah River.  Also, motorcyclists come to the area in droves to ride the famously tortuous road known as the “Tail-of-the-Dragon”. Long before motorcyclists discovered it, the road was infamous in my family because when we would drive it on our vacations, my exasperated dad almost invariably had to pull over to let one of us car-sick kids out to throw up.

Slickrock is about the wildest most pristine area the WCBI has backpacked in the southern Appalachians.  It consists of a U-shaped ridge of mountains, with the open end pointing north, that feed water down to Slickrock Creek, which flows north for nearly 10 miles through the Wilderness before merging with the Little Tennessee River. The river, which is really a lake in this area because of the Calderwood Dam a few miles downstream, forms part of the northern boundary of the Wilderness.

Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness Location Map

Six trailheads provide access to more than 60 miles of trails. The most desirable destinations include the 8.5 mile hike along Slickrock Creek and the summit of 5,160 foot Hangover Mountain, which offers a spectacular 360 degree vista of endless mountains including the range of peaks that bisect Great Smokey Mountains National Park, many of which exceed 6,000 feet in elevation.  While trail intersections in Slickrock are mostly signed, the trails are not blazed and they’re infrequently maintained so get used to fighting your way through tangles of blowdowns in certain areas.  Also, there’s not one bridge in the entire wilderness and the trail along Slickrock Creek crosses the creek constantly, which makes for an exhausting trip, especially when the water’s up.  Camping is permitted anywhere in the Wilderness, but not at trailheads and overnight parking is permitted at all trailheads except at the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Loop and Picnic Area.

I can’t remember the first time I hiked in Slickrock but I do recall a great trip I took with a buddy of mine through the area for four days in early fall of 1987. We spent our first night on Bob Stratton Bald at about 5,300 feet during a tropical storm that came up from the Gulf. For most of the night we sat in 2 inches of water as we desperately held on to the inside of the tent and poles to keep them from ripping apart in the raging wind and rain.  But the next day dawned clear and cool and after we dried out our gear we had an incredible experience over the next few days wandering all through the area.  The highlight was watching an incredible sunrise on the last day from the summit of Hangover Mountain.

Maps and Information

The map provided in the Trip Log for this hike was developed by a rank amateur cartographer (Doc Livingston) and is only intend

intended to help you get the general lay-of-the-land.  My favorite

Recent Storms and Sporadic Trail Maintenance make for a Backpackers Nightmare of Uprooted and Blown Down Trees

map of the area is titled “Joyce Kilmer Slickrock Wilderness” and was produced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, Southern Region. It’s waterproof and shows the trails with mileages for each segment. Because the date on it is 1980 I assume it’s out of print. However, the Madhatter told me he recently found an updated version somewhere so see if you can find it online.    

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