Access to hiking trails in the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock and Citico Creek Wildernesses. Click on the box in the upper right-hand corner to see the original map where you can enlarge and move around freely.
By Tim Homan
THE CONTIGUOUS WILDERNESS, Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock, and Citico Creek, encompasses 33,620 acres. This substantial acreage ranks it as the second largest national forest wilderness, or combined wilderness, in the South. (Another combined wilderness, the Cohutta-Big Frog in Georgia and Tennessee, is larger.)
Even though this area is far from the size of a western wilderness, it offers the flexibility of numerous options and room enough to roam. A network of thirty-one trails totaling 122 miles, all but 6 or 7 miles of which are within the wilderness, are being linked to this overview (see list below). The long-distance Benton MacKaye Trail, not counted among the thirty-one, shares treadways with all or parts of four trails as it winds through the combined wilderness. You can day hike a short trail in and right back out, or you can backpack a long circuitous route, with loops off of loops, and walk for a week or more without retracing your steps.
The wild green yonder of the eastern wilderness expands and contracts with you and your decisions. If you walk the widest trail to the most popular waterfall on a warm weekend, the wilderness-any wilderness-shrinks and becomes overcrowded. If you drop into a hollow that hasn’t felt human footprints in years and become the first person to lay eyes on a bear-clawed tree, the wilderness looms larger, regains that special majesty of all wild and lonely places. The more solitude you want, the more solitude the wilderness has for you. The more wildness you want-the wilder and more adventurous you are–the wilder the wilderness will become.
Citico Creek History
Even the sketchiest accounts of this rugged region must surely start with the land, which was so recently rich with incredible forests and abundant wildlife including buffalo, elk, mountain lion, and wolf. And of course the people, the Cherokee, who lived amidst this Appalachian splendor. The date of the Cherokee’s arrival in the southern mountains can only be approximated by anthropologists, but history clearly details the days when all but a few of their people were forcibly evicted. The year was IS3S. What Washington euphemized as “The Removal,” the Cherokee called the Trail of Tears.
As soon as the Cherokee were booted out, white settlers began to farm the river bottoms, primarily along the Tellico and Little Tennessee. Prior to the Civil War, the land now within the wilderness was owned by wealthy plantation holders and used as a hunting ground. After the war a series of northern proprietors, including a U.S. senator, held title to the Citico.
Babcock Land and Timber Company bought the tract and began logging in the early 1920s. In the summer of 1925, a major fire burned over half the area now included in the preserve. The Babcock fire destroyed buildings, bridges, even railroad ties partially buried in the ground. The small amount of unburned timber that remained at the higher elevations did not warrant rebuilding the rail system, so Babcock discontinued its operation south of Pine Ridge. Cutting continued north of Pine Ridge until 1929.
Because the fire stopped the logging, scattered pockets of virgin forest still survive. A 200-acre parcel between Glenn Gap and the headwaters of Indian Valley Branch and a 180-acre stand surrounding the waterfall on Falls Branch are the largest sites. Much of the high country in the southeastern corner of the wilderness, while not strictly virgin because a few valuable species were taken, still has a large percentage of old-growth trees.
Settlement unrelated to the logging industry was light and sporadic, occurring primarily between 1880 and 1930. Few families attempted to homestead the steep terrain away from the western edge of today’s wilderness. Most who tried their luck farmed what flatland they could find beside streams and used the main Unicoi ridge, where the Fodderstack Trail now runs, as summer pasture.
The U.S. Forest Service acquired the land from Babcock in 1935. Since that time, management policy has allowed nature to heal the portion of the forest that was both cut and burned. Approximately 11 percent of the acreage now within the wilderness was timbered from 1935 to 1975.
The Eastern Wilderness Act of 1975, the same legislation that established Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock, designated Citico Creek as a wilderness study area. After years of debate and controversy, the 1984 Tennessee Wilderness Act finally authorized the now 16,226-acre Citico Creek Wilderness. This steep-sloped area, where elevations range from 1,400 feet to 5,160 feet on Bob Stratton Bald’s western shoulder, is located in the northwestern corner of the Unicoi Mountains, one of many interconnecting chains that make up the wide, southern half of the Blue Ridge physiographic province. Citico Creek is situated entirely within the Cherokee National Forest in eastern Monroe County, Tennessee.
With the exception of one or two rivulets along Sassafras Ridge, the area’s entire dendritic watershed system drains into Citico Creek, a Little Tennessee tributary. Citico is the anglicized word for the Cherokee’s Sitiku – their name for the stream and the former town at the mouth of the creek. The word for the watercourse and town can no longer be translated. Perhaps it meant rugged land ribbed with ridges and veined with rushing streams.
The main Unicoi crest serves as Citico Creek’s eastern boundary, the one it shares with Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock. Long spurs finger westward away from the dividing ridge. Secondary spurs and spurs splitting away from them further fold and wrinkle the country into roughs. Between all these spurs run sharp-sided streams, still slicing bluffs and drilling swirlholes.
And winding through all this mountainous terrain is a network of fourteen trails totaling 59.7 miles. (Stiffknee and Big Stack Gap Branch Trails are both located in the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness.) Most of these trails, including the two designated as horse routes, follow ridges, upper slopes, or streams. Many are lightly used; several of the remote interior footpaths are scarcely used. Between trails, there are many square miles of unfrequented woods where you can find as much solitude as you want – or can stand.
Slickrock Creek History
The early history of Slickrock Creek is essentially the same as that of its neighboring basin to the west, Citico Creek, except that man-made flood, not fire, stopped the logging. The remote country surrounding this quintessential mountain stream remained primeval forest-a long north-facing cove full of big trees, scarcely touched into the twentieth century. In the entire watershed, there was only one small farmstead, located beside Nichols Cove Branch.
Babcock Land and Timber Company bought the Slickrock basin and began timbering in 1915. After seven years of heavy logging, Babcock’s rail system along the Little Tennessee River was flooded by the construction of Calderwood Lake, forcing the company to abandon its operation. By that time, however, approximately 70 percent of the drainage area had been cut clean or close to it.
Sources often state that the southern, upper-elevation end of the Slickrock valley, the 30 percent that wasn’t cut clear, is a solid block of virgin timber. Given the definition of virgin, the evidence of rail spurs and skid roads, and the current composition and size of tree species in the area, this simply doesn’t seem plausible. Babcock’s knowledge of the damn’s completion schedule allowed ample time to search the upper slopes for the best boles of the most valuable trees, especially the black cherry.
While no doubt there are small, scattered pockets of virgin forest, the greater part of this high country would most accurately be categorized as old-growth forest. In fact, many sites have so many large old-growth trees – Carolina silverbell, yellow buckeye, beech, hemlock, red and sugar maple – that the appearance is one of virgin wood. The presence of high-quality sugar maple in certain stands suggests that Babcock didn’t have quite enough time to lumber all that it would have liked. A band of old-growth hemlock, unwanted trees, tracks east-west across the upper watershed. A particularly impressive stand of these conifers occurs from Glenn Gap down to and along Glenn Gap Branch.
The Slickrock Creek valley is a lumpy, lopsided rectangle, short sides at north and south. Its line-of-sight dimensions are slightly over 3 miles wide at its northern margin, slightly over 2 miles wide at its southern rim, and approximately 6 miles long from south to north. Except at its mouth, where the creek cascades into the Little Tennessee River (Calderwood Lake), the drainage is completely enclosed by ridges, most high and well-defined. The main Unicoi Mountain crest serves as Slickrock’s western boundary, the one it shares with Citico Creek. Its southern wall-the Slickrock-Little Santeetlah divide, the highest crest in the combined wilderness stretches from Bob Stratton Bald to the Haoe. The eastern edge is a long, major spur named Hangover Lead. Across the north side of the frame runs a low, irregular ridgeline.
The Slickrock basin has the highest and lowest elevations within the entire Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock/Citico Creek Wilderness. Here the land rises from 1,086 feet at Calderwood Lake to at least 5,360 feet atop Bob Stratton Bald’s crowning outcrops. An elevation gain of this magnitude, almost 4,300 feet over 6 miles, is rare in eastern North America outside of the Southern Appalachians.
In 1936 the U.S. Forest Service purchased the Slickrock basin from Babcock. In that same year, the Forest Service submitted a proposal that would have included Slickrock in a large backcountry tract – the Citico-Cheoah Primitive Area. Nothing ever came of the plan, at least not at that time or with that name. Management policy has allowed the land to heal and the forest to regenerate. There has been no cutting in the watershed since Babcock withdrew in 1922.
The Eastern Wilderness Act of 1975 established Slickrock as the larger portion of a 14,033-acre, two-basin wilderness – Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock. The Slickrock Creek valley encompasses 10,193 acres; of those, 3,881 acres ascend into Tennessee’s Cherokee National Forest. The remainder of Slickrock and all of the Little Santeetlah drainage (Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest) lie within North Carolina’s Nantahala National Forest in Graham County.
The 1984 North Carolina Wilderness Act added approximately 2,980 acres to the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness. This extension, also within the Nantahala National Forest, plus a recalculation of the area raised the acreage to its current total of 17,394.
Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock has a system of seventeen trails totaling 62.4 miles, not including the Naked Ground Alternate or the short sidepath to the Hangover. (Stiffknee and Big Stack Gap Branch Trails, though described from Citico Creek trailheads, are both located in the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness.) Most of that mileage follows streams or the perimeter ridges of the Slickrock-Little Santeetlah drainages. Every trail has one end or the other near a ridge or stream. Horse travel is not permitted within the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness.
Little Santeetlah Creek History
Babcock Land and Timber Company owned the Little Santeetlah basin at one time, but never logged it. Other timber companies also held deed to the basin, but they did not log it either. In fact, no one has ever logged it, and hopefully, no one ever will. Today this remnant of primary forest has been a 3,840-acre memorial forest since 1936. In 1975 the Little Santeetlah Creek watershed – the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest – was incorporated within the congressionally designated Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness.
The memorial forest has one of those small-world, fairy-tale histories. The plot combines two sets of totally disconnected circumstances, occurring on different continents and in different regions of our country. This convoluted story ties many dissimilar elements – a poet, a New Jersey oak, a popular poem, an insistent bravery, a German bullet shot on French soil, a New York VFW post, the U.S. government, the U.S. Forest Service, timber companies, lake constructions, and a bankruptcy – to the preservation of a small Southern Appalachian basin.
Alfred Joyce Kilmer was born on December 6, 1886, in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Coming from a well-educated family, he attended Rutgers College (1904-1906) and Columbia University (A.B., 1908). It was during his student years at Rutgers that Kilmer composed his most famous poem, “Trees,” in homage to a venerable white oak that graced the campus grounds. After marriage and various jobs in education and journalism, the young poet accepted employment with the New York Times as an editor and reviewer. He continued to write and publish his poetry while producing literary essays and reviews for the Times. His greatest success as a poet came in 1914, the year World War I began, when “Trees” was published in his second book of poetry.
Although now chiefly remembered for one widely popular poem, Joyce Kilmer was an accomplished and respected journalist. His reviews and essays won critical acclaim; his poetry did not. In fact, Kilmer’s verses were viewed at the time as overly simplistic and sentimental. But the simplicity and universality of his themes, while not appreciated by the critics, found a niche in public opinion. His poem, “Trees,” became a schoolhouse favorite – a teacher’s standard introduction of poetry to young minds.
When the United States entered World War I in the spring of 1917, Kilmer volunteered to fight and enlisted in the New York National Guard. He was placed in an officers training camp, a cushy assignment, because of his educational background and journalist status. But Kilmer would countenance no coddling. Anxious to see action before the war ended, he enlisted as a private and was later transferred to the 165th regiment of the Rainbow Division, where he quickly rose to the rank of sergeant.
The 165th regiment was sent to France in October 1917. Initially, the journalist-turned-soldier was given the job of senior statistician, a post designed to keep him close to regimental headquarters. Again dissatisfied with his soft assignment, he insisted on being sent to the front and obtained a transfer to an intelligence unit near the fighting.
On July 30, 1918, Joyce Kilmer volunteered – probably demanded – to take part in a reconnaissance mission to locate enemy machine gun emplacements. That was his last request. On that day a bullet to the head killed him at age 31. His fellow troops buried him near the Ourcq River in France, and the French government posthumously awarded him the Croix de Guerre for bravery in action.
Kilmer’s beloved poem and the memory of his short, brave life lived on. In 1934, the Bozeman Bulger Post, a New York chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, petitioned the federal government to establish a fitting memorial to the fallen soldier-poet. The federal government granted the request and instructed the U.S. Forest Service to begin a search for a tract of undisturbed trees within the once vast deciduous forests of the eastern United States.
Locating an impressive and accessible publicly owned stand of old-growth during the mid-1930s was a difficult task. The Forest Service was established primarily to clean up the mess left by the cut-and-run timber barons who left millions of scarred, burned, and eroded acres scattered across the eastern half of our country. The main purpose of the Forest Service was to restore watersheds and return the land to productivity. Because of their mission, nearly every large tract acquired by the Forest Service in the eastern United States has the same history. Timber companies bought the land cheaply, logged the living daylights out of it, then gladly sold their sproutlands to the Forest Service rather than pay taxes on them.
Remote and rugged Southern Appalachia – a land renowned for its huge trees – was the last large profitable region to be industrially logged in the eastern United States. By the time the Nantahala National Forest was created in 1920, most of the forest in western North Carolina had been or was about to be cut. By the beginning of 1935, the Forest Service knew of only one remaining excellent site for the memorial within their Southern Appalachian purchase boundaries. That site was the Little Santeetlah basin, nestled in North Carolina’s portion of the Unicoi Mountains near the Tennessee line.
Little Santeetlah’s forest had survived purely by fortuitous happenstance – luck, the kind Joyce Kilmer would have wanted. One timber company after another held title to this relatively small basin as part of much larger tracts. And one by one, over a period of more than forty years, all of the watersheds surrounding the Little Santeetlah were logged. But each time the timbermen turned toward the huge yellow poplars and chestnuts in Poplar Cove, something deterred them. Twice the construction of lakes, Calderwood then Santeetlah, flooded the rail system. In the early 1930s another logging company was in the process of building splash dams to float the trees out, when it went bankrupt, probably from something unrelated to the Little Santeetlah operation. One of the outfits did manage to cut the lowermost half-mile, up to where the picnic area is now.
Spurred by the request of the Bozeman Bulger veterans, the Forest Service purchased the Little Santeetlah watershed from Gennett Lumber Company in 1935. The subsequent dedication of the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest was held on the eighteenth anniversary of his death, July 30, 1936. Numerous officials traveled the newly finished dirt road to attend the ceremony. Among those present were regional Forest Service supervisors, representatives from the New York Times, search committee members, and Bozeman Bulger Post veterans. E.A. Sherman, assistant chief of the U.S. Forest Service, delivered the dedication address and read a letter from President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s eloquent words expressed the purpose and sentiments of the memorial:
It is particularly fitting that a poet who will always be remembered for the tribute he embodied in “Trees” should find this living monument. Thus his beloved memory is forever honored and one of nature’s masterpieces set aside to be preserved for the enjoyment of generations yet unborn.
When you walk past the centuries-old hemlocks and immense yellow poplars, whisper a thanks to the man, Alfred Joyce Kilmer, whose poem and bravery inspired their preservation. And while you’re whispering beneath this canopy of big trees, thank the Bozeman Bulger veterans for their idea and the Forest Service for riding to the rescue.
There are three large mammals – white-tailed deer, black bear, and wild boar – roaming the wilderness. Of those three, the wild boar is certainly the most common and conspicuous. Its signs – tracks, scat, wallows, and rooting – are impossible to miss. Although wild boar have adapted amazingly well, they are not native to the United States. They came to the Southern Appalachians from the Ural Mountains of Russia in the early 1900s. The history of how they arrived is an interesting story.
The narrative begins in 1908, the year Whiting Manufacturing Company, a British firm, bought an extensive tract of land in western North Carolina near the Tennessee border. In lieu of his commission percentage, George Gordon Moore, the financial agent for the purchase, was allowed to establish a European-style shooting preserve on 1,600 acres surrounding Hooper Bald in southern Graham County. In 1912 the animals – fourteen wild boar and small numbers of buffalo, elk, mule deer, American black bear, and Russian brown bear – were hauled by oxen teams to the bald.
The operation had major problems from the beginning. The bald was too remote for most would-be clients, and the animals kept escaping. By 1920 Moore, who had lost interest and money in the business, had moved away. And he had left the entire shooting gallery in the care of Garland “Cotton” McGuire, a local man wh had been his foreman. Without capital or clients, McGuire did what he could to protect the animals and property.
By the early 1920s the boar, which had been breaking out in small numbers all along, were said to total between sixty and one hundred within their fence. Written accounts and local stories differ as to exactly how the remainder of the boars bolted from their 600-acre, chestnut-rail enclosure. But one way or another, they wound up on the outside of the hunting preserve. When Champion Paper and Fiber Company bought the land in 1926, the European wild boar (Sus scrofa) was already breeding very successfully in the wild. As for the other animals, none of them established lasting populations.
Before these exotics were accidentally introduced, there were already free-ranging domestic hogs (also Sus scrofa), known as “ridgerunners,” throughout much of the settled regions of the southern mountains. At first, the local people tried to eradicate the “rooshians,” as they called them, because the wild swine mated with their semiferal hogs, creating an undesirable crossbreed that wouldn’t fatten and wouldn’t come home.
Running domestic hogs on the free range became unprofitable after the chestnut blight in the 1930s. Over the decades wild boar, in varying degrees of hybridism, have multiplied and steadily increased their range. Today, they are highly prized big game to hunters but are vacuum-cleaning, rota-rooting pests to biologists in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Although they now have a mixed lineage, the wild boar within the wilderness have retained most of their original characteristics. They have a heavy, bristly coat which varies in color from dark reddish brown to black. Compared to domestic swine, wild boar are longer legged, higher and more heavily muscled at the shoulder, and narrower in the hindquarters. A mane of bristles running along the back of the neck gives the animal a humped appearance. The mane stands up when the boar is excited.
The larger, solitary males reach weights from 300 pounds to slightly over 400 pounds. In areas where they are heavily hunted, such as the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness, they rarely live long enough to attain their maximum size. The females are smaller. Both sexes have intimidating tusks.
Despite their fierce appearance and fighting ability, wild boar are not a threat to your safety, provided you do not harass or antagonize them. The female considers your presence near her boarlets as harassment. In the very unlikely event that you should happen upon some of the yellow-striped young, don’t raise your camera and move closer for a shot; move quickly away from them. These big-tusked hogs are most emphatically a threat to any dog that chases them or their young.
I would like to change an old woodsman’s adage. The saying went something like this: When a pine needle falls in the forest, the hawk sees it, the bear smells it, and the deer hears it hit the ground. The updated version of this adage should be: When a pine needle falls in the forest, the hawk sees it, the bear smells it, the deer hears it hit the ground, and the boar eats it.
The Cherohala Skyway, a long time in the making, was officially dedicated in October of 1996. The name of the Skyway comes from a combination of the two national forests – Cherokee and Nantahala. This road, which resembles the Blue Ridge Parkway, has been federally designated as a National Scenic Byway.
This skyway is undoubtedly one of the highest (if not the highest) paved through roads in the eastern United States. Its highest signed elevation is 5,390 feet. (In the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, US 441 climbs to an elevation of 5,046 feet at Newfound Gap. Maine’s highest peak, the mythic Mount Katahdin, rises to 5,267 feet, and New York’s highest mountain, Mount Marcy in the famed Adirondacks, is 5,344 feet.) This serpentine road remains above 4,000 feet for nearly 14 miles and above 5,000 feet for close to 4 miles. Clouds frequently drag their bellies across the byway, obscuring all views and enveloping the mountaintops with blowing gray.
The completion of the skyway has greatly increased the ease and speed of travel between Robbinsville, North Carolina, and Tellico Plains, Tennessee. Because it bypasses dirt-gravel FS 81, the skyway has made it easier, faster, and safer for hikers to travel from the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness to the Citico Creek Wilderness. All this speed and ease, however, came with a high monetary cost and a long-standing controversy.
The skyway sliced through one of the largest solid blocks of national forest ownership east of the Mississippi. Much of the forest has only been cut once. Scattered pockets were high-graded (selectively cut for valuable timber), and some never cut at all. For years, for decades really, the road was “that damn road” to many of the area’s hikers. It seemed as if every peak’s southward vista included that road, scarring and gouging its route through the highest lonesome around. But our viewpoint was only one among many.
Perhaps it cost too much, and perhaps it should never have been built. But the road has now been an accomplished fact for over a decade, and promises to bring more change and more tourist money to the local communities. The movers and shakers, planners and builders, did a good job; the rock walls and overlooks are solid and built for beauty and endurance. Travelers can enjoy picnic areas, plenty of trails, nearby balds, and magnificent views of the over-a-mile-high Unicoi Mountains. And the Southern Appalachian forest still stands rich and strong, often covering everything but the sky.
The skyway was built with visions of easily accessible natural beauty, backcountry recreation, the mountaineer’s hemmed-in yearning for easy travel, and tourist dollars. Build it and they will come. The road received much publicity upon its opening. And people are coming, spending money, and enjoying the skyway as planned. Change is coming too. The die is cast. The completion of the skyway crowned tourism and recreation king and queen.
The skyway now offers an opportunity for its former opponents and proponents to share the same vision, at least for this time and this place. This National Scenic Byway cost taxpayers over 100 million dollars. This expenditure has earned them the right to see unscarred vistas and natural forests from the overlooks they paid for. Most people who drive all the way from Atlanta, Charlotte, or Nashville don’t want to see clear-cuts from the overlooks along a National Scenic Byway; they can see those closer to home.
All of the public land along the skyway, as far as the eye can easily see, should be kept as pristine as possible. Thousands of acres to either side of the road should receive some sort of official designation, set in stone as strong as the highway itself. This designation – scenic Area, Backcountry Area, or National Recreation Area – should allow the continuation of all of the legal recreational pursuits, from bird-watching to boar hunting, that are now permitted. It should also protect the forests and the viewsheds from future logging and road building. But most of all, these mountains should become part of Wallace Stegner’s “geography of hope.” Their wildness and grandeur should be left unimpaired for the future generations who will sorely need them.
The Hemlock Woolly Adelgid
Millions of eastern hemlocks are dead or dying up and down the Appalachians. To either side of the Cherohala Skyway, groves of old-growth hemlock stand stark and skeletal above the neighboring hardwoods. A few miles to the north, the spare, gray-brown lattice of recently dead and disrobed hemlocks trace the destruction of these magnificent old conifers high in the upper Slickrock Creek basin. The culprit causing all this killing is the hemlock woolly adelgid (HWA), a tiny (less than 1/16 inch long), aphidlike insect accidentally introduced from Asia.
In the eastern United States, the HWA was first discovered near Richmond, Virginia, in 1951. This lethal exotic pest spread slowly at first, but in the past fifteen years it has swelled into a rapidly advancing tsunami. Current rates of HWA dispersal have been estimated at 25 to 35 km per year. Since 2000, the adelgid has been quickly spreading southward and westward (it entered the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2002) into the oldest and largest stands of eastern hemlock in the Southern Appalachians.
By 2007, this tiny killer had become established in portions of sixteen states from Maine to Georgia, infesting approximately one half of the eastern hemlock’s extensive range. At current levels of expansion, the HWA will infest most hemlock stands in the eastern United States within several decades.
The eastern hemlock has exhibited little or no resistance to HWA attack. Scientists have predicted a mortality rate of over 90 percent in areas where there are no chemical or biological controls. Eighty percent of the hemlocks in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park were dead by the year 2004.
All HWA are female and can reproduce asexually twice a year. In the eastern U.S., this insect can survive only on Carolina and eastern hemlocks. Immature adelgids attach themselves to the bases of hemlock needles, make incisions, then begin to drain the tree of its sap. They soon secrete white fluffy “wool” (ovisacs) that completely cover their minute bodies. Heavily infested trees are easily identified by the white wool on the undersides of their small twigs.
Symptoms caused by HWA feeding include needle yellowing, needle drop-off, branch tip dieback, lower limb dieback, and, finally, death. You can even feel a heavy infestation when a relatively light wind sends showers of needles to the forest floor. Hemlock decline and death typically occur within four to ten years of infestation in the adelgid’s northern range but can occur in as little as three to six years in its southern range.
The eastern hemlock is the most shade-tolerant and long-lived tree species in the Appalachian forests of eastern North America. Its unsurpassed ability to withstand low light levels enables the hemlock to form dense evergreen canopies, shading and cooling the forest floor. Mature hemlock forests create a unique environment that is a critical habitat for many animal and plant species, including songbirds such as the wood thrush and black-throated green warbler, and aquatic species such as trout and salamanders that require cold water. These tall, graceful evergreens are also the most massive and most abundant conifers in the Southern Appalachians.
While the eastern hemlock will probably suffer high mortality rates throughout much of its contiguous range, there is realistic hope that this ecologically and aesthetically important species will not be all but wiped out like the American chestnut. At present, the incredibly prolific adelgid is being fought by a one-two combination of counterpunches, one chemical and the other biological. The National Parks and National Forests have created a core population program in the Southern Highlands. Hundreds of small core population sites are currently being treated with expensive soil injections every two to three years. These core population areas will protect the eastern hemlock from being totally annihilated over large swaths of its range; they will conserve genetic diversity, and they will aid in future dispersal if needed.
Biological control is the only hope for a widespread and self-sustaining solution to the HWA problem. To that end, several predator insects known to feed exclusively on adelgids have been imported from China, Japan, and western North America. Three species of these predatory beetles are currently being mass produced and released into HWA-infested hemlock forests. So far, the news is encouraging. These expensive beetles are slowly becoming established throughout the infested region, and tests in Connecticut and Virginia proved that predatory beetle releases can reduce HWA populations by 47 to 87 percent in five months.
In the near future, four or more species of adelgid-munching beetles may be on the job. Experts believe it will likely require an efficient complex of enemies to reduce HWA populations below hemlock-damaging levels.
Neither the soil injections nor the hungry beetles can eradicate or prevent the spread of this pest. The hope is that a balance will be achieved, a balance favoring life for the eastern hemlock. No one knows when or if this balance will be achieved. But they do know this: the larger the number of beetles released, the more likely the balance will be accomplished in time for the remaining old-growth hemlocks in the southern mountains, many of them from 10 to 14 feet in circumference and 250 to 500 years old.
The hemlock woolly adelgid first infested the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness in 2002; by the next year, these deadly pests were draining sap out of hemlocks in the neighboring Citico Creek Wilderness. The Forest Service released beetles in the memorial forest and in the Slickrock Creek basin in 2005 and 2006, and plans to release more in 2007. In addition to the winged bio-control, a number of hemlocks were chemically treated along the double-loop trail in the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. On the Citico Creek side of the combined wilderness, the Forest Service has chemically treated hemlocks in recreation areas near the perimeter of the wilderness and placed beetles on infested hemlocks along the road to Farr Gap in 2006. Some of these beetles have undoubtedly worked their way into the Citico Creek Wilderness. The Forest Service plans to employ one or both types of treatment within the wilderness in 2007.
The goal of the Forest Service is to maintain the eastern hemlock as a genetically viable species on their public lands. It will be a long uphill battle. Both the chemical treatments and the beetles are expensive, and neither can be utilized until the adelgids have already attacked their targets. The chemical treatments, which by necessity cover small areas, have been largely reserved for the core population plots plus campgrounds, recreation areas, and other high-interest sites. The beetles, which do not disperse rapidly, can be set loose over larger areas, and they also have the long-term potential for significant reproduction and range expansion.
Biological control takes time. Forest Service researchers predict they will need to collect data for at least ten years before they discover the optimum number of beetle species – and the optimum combinations of those species – to successfully combat the hemlock woolly adelgid.
I included this piece for two reasons: to spread the word about the latest threat to Southern Appalachian forests, and as a CYA disclaimer. We have already lost the American chestnut – the largest and most ecologically important hardwood in the Southern Appalachians – as a mature tree. We are now in danger of losing the largest and most ecologically important conifer as a widespread species. Five years from now, adelgids may have cut short the usually long lives of many or all of the large hemlocks I have mentioned in this guide.
There are two ways you can join the fight to save the eastern hemlock: donate money to the beetle labs so those facilities can speed up their production, and write letters to politicians urging them to support management of forest pests, especially exotic pests. The experts I spoke with generally ranked exotic pests as the second deadliest threat to Appalachian forests, trailing only pollution or development. One forestry professor quickly rattled off four more exotic pests, each growing in size and strength like a hurricane, each threatening to decimate another tree species over all or most of its range.
If you wish to become a beetle sponsor, click on Saving Hemlocks.
The Benton MacKaye Trail
Benton MacKaye-forester, philosopher, visionary planner was the first to envision and propose a continuous footpath along the crest of the entire Appalachian range. His dream, the Appalachian Trail, was completed in 1937. The father of the AT also foresaw the need to construct major loops that would join the master trail. His vision has become a tradition of hard-working volunteerism. In 1980 a trail association was established to make the concept of a long, AT-linking loop in the South – appropriately named the Benton MacKaye Trail-a reality.
Completed in the spring of 2005, the BMT is an all-Appalachian, 290-mile footpath that can be walked in conjunction with, or instead of, the heavily trod Appalachian Trail. The BMT crosses or joins the AT at three widely separated locations, forming a giant figure-eight trail system in the mountains of Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina. The Benton MacKaye blazed with white diamonds except within wilderness and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, shares the AT’s famous southern terminus atop Springer Mountain in Georgia. From Springer, the BMT heads northwest to the Cohutta-Big Frog Wilderness, then leads generally northeast through the combined Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock/Citico Creek Wilderness before its meeting and crossing of the AT in the southwestern corner of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The final leg, which remains within the park and roughly parallels the AT, traverses the remote southern, North Carolina section of the GSMNP. The end of the northeastern loop and Benton MacKaye’s northern terminus is Davenport Gap, where the AT exits the eastern edge of the park.
Walked south to north through the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock and Citico Creek Wildernesses, the BMT winds from southwest to northeast, from Beech Gap off the Cherohala Skyway to the Slickrock Creek Trailhead beside the US 129 bridge over Calderwood Lake. The Benton MacKaye shares treadways with all or parts of four trails through the combined wilderness. Starting at Beech Gap, the BMT follows Fodderstack Trail for 13.1 miles to Farr Gap (all of Fodderstack except its southernmost 55 yards). From Farr Gap, the BMT follows all of the 3.4-mile Stiffknee Trail to its junction with the Slickrock Creek Trail. From this connection, the Benton MacKaye tags along with the Slickrock Creek Trail downstream for 0.6 mile to its junction with the Ike Branch Trail. Here the BMT piggybacks on all of the 2.2-mile Ike Branch Trail to its second connection with the Slickrock Creek Trail. A right turn and a walk of 0.7 mile finishes the trek out to US 129.
The Benton MacKaye’s route through the two-state wilderness, from skyway to highway, stretches 20.0 miles, and all but 4.1 miles of that distance remains within designated wilderness.
The Benton MacKaye Trail Association, a well-run volunteer organization, is always maintaining and occasionally relocating their hard-won route. The association is also always looking for more volunteers to help them fulfill their challenging mission. For more information, check their the Benton MacKaye Trail Association website.
Note: The BMT follows all of Ike Branch and Stiffknee Trails and all but 55 yards of Fodderstack Trail as it winds through the wilderness. To increase hiker awareness of the two-trails-sharing-one-treadway status of these three routes, I have added Benton MacKaye as a second name in the information headers of these three trails, and in the headers of the trails they join. I have used the double name designation sporadically elsewhere in the trail descriptions, but to avoid extra words and needless repetition, I did not change the trail names every time they appeared throughout the trail guides.
Things to Know Before You Go
HIKING IN THE WILDERNESS BRINGS MANY REWARDs – the pleasures of venturing into a virgin forest along a clean, clear stream, the thrill of a magnificent view into wild and undisturbed lands, the feeling of solitude and peace on a windswept bald – but this kind of hiking also presents challenges. Trails within wilderness have a different standard of maintenance from non-wilderness trails. Wilderness trails are unblazed and maintained less rigorously than nonwilderness trails. Hikers who are used to well-maintained, smooth treadways with frequent blazing need to be aware of what to expect on wilderness trails.
Signs and Blazes
The Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock side of the wilderness has trailhead signs – bulletin boards or carsonite signs-at some of the trailheads. Other trailheads are left unsigned by design. The wilderness does have signs at all interior junctions, at least most of the time. It has no blazes whatsoever, at least none painted by the Forest Service. Vandalism of signs, including bear damage, is a recurring problem. If the sign is gone, use the post as your sign. If the post is gone, use the hole as your sign. But most of all use your head. Don’t expect right-angle, red-line intersections as on the wilderness map, and don’t expect all of the signs to be up all of the time.
The Citico Creek side of the wilderness has signs at all trailheads except those along the Cherohala Skyway. Some of the trailhead signs have both the trail’s name and number; others just have a carsonite sign with only the trail’s number. Interior trails are usually signed. Citico Creek still has some of the old cut-bark blazes that were employed more frequently near junctions, potentially confusing turns, and stream crossings. There are fewer of these old blazes every year and no new blazes of any kind to replace them.
The area covered by these hiking guides is wilderness, and with very few exceptions, there are no guy wires or bridges to help you cross streams. This is as it should be. Stream crossings are simply part of wilderness hiking, a good, challenging part.
I will use two terms – cross and ford – to describe all unbridged stream crossings. When a trail crosses a branch or creek, I mean that, under more or less normal water levels, a person of reasonable coordination and wit (using a hiking stick) can cross dry-shod. When a trail fords a creek, it means wading and balancing on the stream bottom or submerged rocks. And perhaps getting wetter than you wanted.
Dividing the crossings into wet and dry, ford and cross, should help you know what to expect, what to plan for. However, more or less normal water levels fluctuate widely. There are no guarantees. Many winter and spring fords typically become summer and fall crossings. In most years after heavy rains, especially in winter and early spring, the longer side streams such as Nichols Cove Branch, Little Slickrock Creek, and Eagle Branch will rise above their step-across rocks. And after one or more heavy rains, especially in winter and early spring before leaf-out, the lower, downstream fords on Slickrock and South Fork Citico Creeks can become very tricky or too treacherous to attempt. Again, this is as it should be. Without the potential of challenge or danger, there is no wilderness.
The saying “it’s always something” definitely applies to trail maintenance. During the decade from 1990 to 2000, the combined wilderness was blasted by a blizzard, a hurricane, and an ice storm. More recently, the two-state wilderness has been slammed by a pine beetle outbreak of unprecedented deadliness, several forest fires, flooding from a hurricane, and the first of the thousands of yet-to-come hemlock deadfalls.
Wilderness trails are by regulation maintained to a more primitive standard than nonwilderness trails. This standard includes an acceptable number of deadfalls per mile. Under normal circumstances, the trails can be kept passable. After blizzards and hurricanes and pine beetle infestations, however, when the number of deadfalls becomes unacceptable when trails most need maintenance, the prohibition against chainsaws in wilderness makes clearing the way slow and strenuous.
The Forest Service is caught in the crosshairs of a budget crunch. They currently lack the money and manpower to maintain wilderness trails up to their earlier standards. The Benton MacKaye Trail Association (BMTA) helps by maintaining four wilderness trails: Fodderstack, Stiffknee, Ike Branch, and Big Stack Gap Branch. But that is not enough. The Forest Service greatly needs more volunteers to help clear deadfalls and brush out trails. The work is hard, but it offers you an opportunity to put your muscle and pride where your mouth and heart are: a reward in itself.
There are National Forest campgrounds to either side of the combined wilderness. On the North Carolina side, the Nantahala National Forest has three campgrounds – Cheoah Point, Rattler Ford, and Horse Cove – near the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness. Rattler Ford, a group campground that requires a reservation, opens from early to mid-April and closes at the end of October. Horse Cove and Cheoah Point open in mid-April and close at the end of October. Cheoah Point’s two cabins and electric hook-up sites require reservations. These dates are subject to change and can vary from year to year, depending on the possibility of freezing weather and potential water pipe damage. Horse Cove’s lower loop remains open, without water, during the colder months.
In addition to the three campgrounds, the Forest Service offers fifty dispersed campsites, primarily on Snowbird Creek, Santeetlah Creek (FS 81), and Santeetlah Lake along Joyce Kilmer Road. Some of these dispersed sites have picnic tables and tent pads. All are free and have no facilities – no water, no bathrooms – at the individual sites.
On the Tennessee side, the Cherokee National Forest has many campgrounds relatively close to the Citico Creek Wilderness. The closest one is Indian Boundary, which opens in early May and closes at the end of October. (Again, these general times can vary from year to year.) Indian Boundary’s overflow area remains open until the end of December, then closes for 2 1/2 months before opening during the middle of March. Water is often problematic in the overflow area; bring your own to be safe. In addition to Indian Boundary, there are at least three more campgrounds, some of which stay open all year, up the Tellico River past the Tellico Ranger Station. The prominently signed, paved road (it also leads to Bald River Falls and Green Cove) that leads to these campgrounds begins to the right of TN 165 East, approximately 5.0 miles from the town of Tellico Plains.
Warden Fields and Doublecamp Creek camping areas, both located along the dirt-gravel Forest Service roads where they form the western perimeter of the Citico Creek Wilderness, are no fee pay. They have toilets but no water. Warden Fields has no facilities whatsoever during the coldest months of the year.
Camping is not allowed in the Cherokee and Nantahala National Forests within 300 feet of the Cherohala Skyway (NC 143 and TN 165). Camping is not allowed in the Citico Creek corridor except at designated sites.
Information pertaining to the various campgrounds – dates, facilities, fees, etc.-can be found online.
Hunting is a legal and popular pastime within the wilderness, even within Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. Various overlapping seasons occur throughout much of autumn and early winter. There is also a spring season for turkey. To further complicate matters for hikers and hunters, the two states – Tennessee and North Carolina – have different hunting seasons and laws.
As a hiker, you should be particularly aware of the North Carolina bear/boar season. This split season-October 16 to November 18 and December 11 to January 1 in a recent year (subject to change from year to year) brings many hunters and their hunting dogs to the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock side of the combined wilderness. If you decide to hike during this time of year, please don’t take your dog or dogs. A pack of hog dogs, especially the pit bulls, can and will rip your pooch apart. You’ll be helpless and horrified; the pit bulls will show no remorse whatsoever, and your dog will be dead.
The entire Citico Creek Wilderness is part of the Tellico Bear Reserve. Within this reserve, bear cannot legally be hunted at any time of the year, and boar cannot be legally hunted with dogs. The only hunting dogs allowed in the Citico Creek Wilderness are those that chase coons or point upland game birds. Please realize that a pack in hot pursuit might ignore signs and boundary lines.
I started hiking the trails in early March and, from time to time, met and talked with groups of backpackers. Invariably, the second or third thing people from the North said was, “We didn’t realize it got so cold down here.” I would usually try to hide my grin. Once, in the middle of a sleet storm up high near Bob Stratton Bald, I came upon a young man from Michigan sitting on a rock, shivering under his poncho. After we talked awhile, he confessed his poor planning. He had not bothered to pack any pants; he was wearing shorts in the driving sleet and wind at 5,200 feet.
Just as Southerners mistakenly think northern heat is a laugh, Northerners think southern cold is a joke. And generally speaking, southern cold is a joke by northern standards except in the Southern Appalachians, where the higher mountains can be every bit as cold as Ohio or Pennsylvania.
When hiking in the southern mountains, keep the following factors in mind:
• Elevation. To a measurable extent, the higher the mountains, the more they create their own weather. As you climb a mountain, average wind speed and annual precipitation increase as temperature decreases – 2 to 3 degrees for every 1,000-foot rise in elevation.
• Shade. High mountains create their own cloud cover and shade their own north slopes. When winter camping, it is important to remember that sunlight doesn’t shine on many lower north slopes until after 10 a.m.
• Precipitation. Tellico Plains averages 50 inches of precipitation per year; Robbinsville, 56 inches. The higher elevations of the wilderness, above 4,000 feet, average approximately 70 inches of precipitation per year. March is the wettest month – October is the driest. Assume that it might rain no matter what the weather forecast is for the nearby large cities of Knoxville, Chattanooga, and Asheville.
• Frost. The last killing frost of spring is normally in early May, and the first killing frost of fall is usually in late September. In June, July and August, prepare for overnight lows in the 50s. During most of May and September prepare for overnight lows in the 40s. During the rest of the year prepare for overnight lows down to freezing and below freezing.
• Unpredictability. October and November, March and April, are the transition months. During these months the weather may be mild and sunny for two or three days, then it may suddenly snow in the high country.
• Temperature. During the average winter, ordinarily in January and February, but occasionally in late December or early March, the temperature drops below zero several times at the higher altitudes of the wilderness. A real cold snap, the kind that blows through every three to five years, can send the mercury down to 15 to 20 degrees below zero on top of Bob Stratton Bald. That is without considering the wind chill factor.
• Wind. Winter winds, sweeping across exposed ridges and funneling through gaps, are fierce. Steady 10 to 20 mile per hour winds are common. Branch-cracking gusts of 30 to 40 miles per hour are not unusual on the higher ridges.
How To Use These Trail Guides
THESE GUIDES COVERS THIRTY-ONE TRAILS in or near the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock and Citico Creek Wildernesses.
A concise, at-a-glance summary of essential trail information is provided at the beginning of each trail description. Also provided are the starting and ending points of the trail, a list of junctions with other trails, topographic quadrangles, and a brief listing of some of the trail’s outstanding features.
Following this information listing you will find a complete description of the trail, usually in the direction most frequently hiked, with special attention given to the type of terrain, stream crossings, trail intersections, and what you will see along the trail. At the conclusion of the trail description, there is a section featuring some of the flora and fauna you may encounter while hiking.
Finally, the directions or references are given that will lead you to the exact trailhead or – if there is more than one path at a trailhead – to the specific trail.
When using this guidebook, keep in mind that conditions on wilderness trails are constantly changing and trails are occasionally rerouted. To be sure of current conditions, contact the appropriate Forest Service office before planning a hike.
Difficulty ratings are inherently subjective. The most useful systems, however, are those that achieve consistency by limiting this subjectivity to a single source. To this end, I have walked and rated all of the trails described. Even if you do not agree with my ratings, I hope that you will find them consistent and, after a trip or two, useful.
The trail ratings employed in this book were based on the usual criteria: the amount of elevation change, the way the elevation change is accomplished, a trail’s difficulty compared to others within the wilderness, the length of the trail, and the strain on my legs and lungs during the hike. In general, to reflect the cumulative effect of the grade, the longer trails were rated as slightly more difficult than shorter trails with the same number of feet gained or lost per mile. Uneven footing, stream crossings, and fords were not taken into account; they are simply part of wilderness travel.
This rating system is also based on two assumptions. The first is that this scheme, or any other for that matter, does not apply to hikers at either end of the fitness spectrum – those in excellent condition and those in poor condition. People who are able to run long distances with little trouble already know that ratings are meaningless for them. Conversely, people who become out of breath after a flight or two of stairs would find difficulty classifications equally inaccurate, although much harder to ignore.
The other assumption is that a very high percentage of the people who walk or want to walk in this wilderness exercise, at least occasionally. After all, if you don’t partake in at least one of the many types of cardiovascular exercise, why would you want to, or attempt to, hike a wilderness trail ranked more difficult than easy? Thus, this approach is designed to accommodate those people who exercise, at least sporadically; and who fall somewhere in that broad, general category between slightly below fair shape and slightly better than good shape.
Three categories of difficulty are used in this guide: Easy, Moderate, and Strenuous. As you will notice, many trails have been assigned two designations. These split designations are used to help span fitness levels when trail difficulty falls between obvious gradations. For instance, a trail may be rated “Dayhiking In: Moderate to Strenuous.” A person in good condition would find this trail to be about moderate. A hiker in fair shape would probably rate the trail moderate to strenuous, and a person in poor fettle would probably consider it strenuous.
The decision to walk a certain trail is a common sense personal judgment. When planning a trip, you should be aware of the trail’s difficulty, not intimidated by it; you should think of it as advice, not a warning. If you keep the mileage low, walk at a leisurely pace, and take frequent rest stops, you will often be surprised at what you can accomplish. If you want to walk a trail, and think you can, give it a try.
A Network of 31 Trails in the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock and Citico Creek Wildernesses
- Slickrock Creek Trail
- Ike Branch-Benton MacKaye Trail
- Yelowhammer Gap Trail
- Hangover Lead Trail North Trail
- Hangover Lead Trail South Trail
- Big Fat Trail
- Windy Gap Trail
- Nichols Cove Trail
- Deep Creek Trail
- Haoe Lead Trail
- Jenkins Meadow Trail
- Joyce Kilmer National Recreation Trail
- Naked Ground Trail
- Stratton Bald Trail
- Wolf Laurel Trail
- Foddersanck – Benton MacKaye Trail
- Stratton Bald Alternate
- Gold Springs Gap Trail
- Falls Branch Trail
- Jeffrey Hell Trail
- Grassy Branch Trail
- Flats Mountain Trail
- South Fork Citico Trail
- North Fork Citico Trail
- Brush Mountain Trail
- Pine Ridge Trail
- Rocky Flats Trail
- Mill Branch Trail
- Crowder Branch Trail
- Big Stack Gap Branch Trail
- Stiffknee-Benton MacKaye Trail
This “Overview of Hiking in the Combined Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock and Citico Creek Wildernesses” is adapted from Hiking Trails of the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock & Citico Creek Wildernesses by Tim Homan and is published in cooperation with the publisher, Peachtree Publishers. With his meticulous attention to detail and keen observations of the natural environment, Homan has long been recognized by serious hikers as the authority on southeastern hiking trails. His other books include Hiking the Shining Rock & Middle Prong Wildernesses; Hiking Trails of the Southern Nantahala Wilderness, Ellicott Rock Wilderness, Chattooga Wild and Scenic River; and others. For a complete inventory of his books see his Amazon Author Page. For an inventory of Peachtree Publishers books including its Nature books for children, go to the Peachtree Publishers website.