Featured Wilderness: A Hike into Tennessee's Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness

Your Wilderness - October 2012

The Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness stretches across eastern Tennessee into western North Carolina, encompassing 17,394 wooded acres in the Nantahala and Cherokee national forests. This area embodies the rare beauty of old growth, virgin forest—an oasis of ancient trees that escaped the human blade. These woodlands have remained untouched for hundreds of years, with trees now as tall as 150 feet, and represent a unique and extremely diverse type of forest found only in the Appalachian Mountains, including yellow pine, hemlock, sycamore, basswood, dogwood, beech and oak.

The wilderness is named for Alfred Joyce Kilmer, a New York Times reporter from 1913 to 1918 but more notably the author of the poem “Trees” (“I think that I shall never see/ A poem lovely as a tree.”). Kilmer died in action in World War I, and this memorial was created after a group of veterans petitioned the government to honor him. It is fitting that this remnant forest has arguably the single most impressive growth of eastern virgin forest in the United States.

In 2004, recognizing the great importance of this area as a habitat corridor, the U.S. Forest Service recommended an additional 1,836 acres for wilderness designation, just across the Little Tennessee Gorge. With its wide variety of terrain and elevation ranges, the area is popular with hikers and horseback riders who frequent the Benton MacKaye Trail, which runs through it.

Tennessee Wild, a local coalition, is working to get this addition designated as wilderness along with about 18,000 more acres, as part of the Tennessee Wilderness Act. Introduced by both of Tennessee's senators, the measure passed the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last November with bipartisan support.

Recently, Tennessee Wild's Jeff Hunter led a 12-mile loop hike into the existing wilderness beginning at Farr Gap at its northwest corner. This challenging hike is doable in a day, but also makes a great overnight backpacking trip.

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“Hikers should be prepared for a very strenuous hike if they tackle this gorgeous loop. They should carry the map and a compass and know how to use them both,” says Jeff. “This is wild country; however, the reward is definitely commensurate with the energy expenditure.”

If you hike this loop clockwise you will use the Stiffknee Trail, Slickrock Creek Trail, Big Stack Gap Branch Trail and the Fodderstack Trail back to the Farr Gap trailhead.

The Stiffknee Trail portion (3.4 miles) borders the proposed wilderness addition and leads into the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness before a steep descent ending at the headwaters of Little Slickrock Creek. Crossing the creek a number of times, you may see where portions of the trail follow an old railroad bed.

The second leg of the loop trail, Slickrock Creek Trail (3.1 miles), follows the creek with eight water crossings, and hikers can dip into the plunge pools at Wildcat Falls. A half-mile from the falls begins the third portion of the hike, Big Stack Gap Branch Trail (1.8 miles). This trail includes a climb away from the creek until you reach the ridge and connect with the Fodderstack Trail (3.7 miles). The Citico Creek Wilderness will be on your left, and the Joyce Kilmer Wilderness on the right. This final leg of trail is relatively flat, following the ridge line back to the trailhead.

One might encounter salamanders, a variety of birds and even a black bear along this loop trail, as was the case on Hunter's recent hike. Morgan Simmons, a reporter for the Knoxville News Sentinel, was along for the day and wrote, “About a mile from the car, we walked upon a very sizeable black bear that had climbed a tree near the trail. At our approach, the bear simply let go and dropped some 20 feet, hitting the ground with a resounding thud before disappearing through the underbrush.”

“I have hiked in wilderness areas all over the southeastern U.S., and the Slickrock Creek Trail, to my eye, is the prettiest trail in the region," adds Hunter.

Find out more about the work of Tennessee Wild and the Tennessee Wilderness Act.