50 Years of Western North Carolina Wilderness: Joyce Kilmer - Slickrock Wilderness

By Brent Martin, The Wilderness Society

This article originally appeared in The Laurel Magazine and is posted here with permission from the author.

                When American poet, writer, and Sargent Joyce Kilmer departed on the morning of July 30, 1918 to lead a scouting party determining the location of a German machine gun, he would have never imagined that his memory would be forever preserved in a remote part of the western North Carolina Mountains by a Wilderness area bearing his name.  These were the final days of the Second Battle of Marne, and Kilmer, a member of the 69th Infantry Regiment and admired for his nerve in scouting into dangerous territory, was killed that afternoon by a German sniper’s bullet near the French village of Seringes-et-Nesles.   Kilmer was well established and popular as a poet when he entered the war in 1917, having published the poem “Trees” in Poetry magazine in 1913, and the collection, Trees and Other Poems the following year.  He was considered by many as the laureate of the Catholic Church and was well established as a critic and lecturer. 

                So In 1934 when the Veterans of Foreign Wars petitioned the United States government to “examine its millions of forested acres and set aside a fitting area of trees to stand for all time as a living memorial” to Kilmer, the Forest Service decided on an uncut 3,800-acre area along Little Santeetlah Creek in Graham County, which was dedicated as the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest on July 30, 1936.   Given that the Forest Service could have chosen from any number of areas from across the United States, that this magnificent grove of ancient Tulip, Beech, Basswood, and Hemlock trees won out speaks volumes to its rarity and spectacular beauty. 

                Almost forty years later in 1975, Joyce Kilmer – Slickrock Wilderness was established to over 17,000 acres with the passage of the Eastern Wilderness Act.   The Eastern Wilderness Act was passed eleven years after the popular 1964 Wilderness Act (50th anniversary this year), and protected sixteen new Wilderness areas in the eastern United States totaling 207,000 acres.   Perhaps more importantly, the Eastern Wilderness Act overturned an emerging notion in Congress that Wilderness in the eastern United States was not possible due to a “purity standard,” which held that all lands in the east had been cutover or grazed, thereby impossible to designate as true wilderness as areas were deemed in the west. 

                Lying within one of the largest concentration of wild lands in the southeast, Joyce Kilmer – Slickrock Wilderness and Memorial Forest is an incredible destination for those wanting to see a part of western North Carolina that is remote and rugged, yet completely accessible.  Access to the Memorial Forest is an easy two mile loop trail, which takes visitors through the forest of ancient giants, beginning in a paved parking area approximately twelve miles from Robbinsville, North Carolina.   The parking area is fully equipped with bathrooms, picnic tables, and an interpretive kiosk.  Once onto the loop trail, travelers can gain a quick understanding of what this type of southern Appalachian forest looked like four hundred years ago.   Unfortunately, the giant hemlocks which once graced the path have been infested with an exotic insect, the hemlock wooly adelgid, and have been taken down for safety reasons. 

                For those wanting an extended visit, try the many trails within the 16,000 acre Citico Creek Wilderness, which joins Joyce Kilmer Slickrock to the west along its Tennessee border.  The scenic Benton MacKaye Trail, honoring the architect of the Appalachian Trail and founding member of The Wilderness Society, traverses the region between the two.   To the south is the spectacular Cherohala skyway.  The Cherohala Skyway, linking the Joyce Kilmer area to Tellico Plains, Tennessee, rivals the Blue Ridge Parkway in its beauty and views, without the traffic and millions of visitors.   All in all, it is an area rich in history, beauty, and recreational opportunities, and not to be missed in your visits into the western North Carolina mountains.